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Organizational Listening

The Missing Essential in Public Communication

Jim Macnamara

Organizations, which are central in contemporary industrialized and post-industrial societies, including government departments and agencies, corporations, and non-government organizations, claim to want and practice two-way communication, dialogue, and engagement with citizens, customers, employees, and other stakeholders and publics. But do they in reality? Voice – speaking up – is recognized as fundamental for democracy, representation, and social equity. But what if governments, corporations, institutions, and NGOs are not listening? This book reports the findings of a two-year, three-continent study that show that public and private sector organizations devote substantial and sometimes massive resources to construct an ‘architecture of speaking’ through advertising, PR, and other public communication practices, but listen poorly, sporadically, and sometimes not at all. Beyond identifying a ‘crisis of listening’ in modern societies, this landmark study proposes and describes how organizations need to create an architecture of listening to regain trust and re-engage people whose voices are unheard or ignored. It presents a compelling case to show that urgent attention to organizational listening is essential for maintaining healthy democracy, organization legitimacy, business sustainability, and social equity. This research is essential reading for all scholars, students, and practitioners involved in politics; government, corporate, marketing, and organizational communication; public relations; and all those interested in democratic participation, media, and society.


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1. The fundamental role of communication and voice


· 1 · the fundamental role of communication and voice To be means to communicate dialogically. When dialogue ends, everything ends. —(Mikhail Bakhtin, 1963/1984, p. 252, writing about human society) Communication theorists and sociologists identify communication as “the organizing element of human life” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008, p. 4) and the basis of human society (Carey, 1989/2009; Dewey, 1916). John Dewey said “soci- ety exists … in communication” (1916, p. 5) and famously added that “of all things, communication is the most wonderful” (1939, p. 385)—albeit Dewey’s statements are often misinterpreted, as noted by James Carey (1989/2009). Dewey was not suggesting that communication is easy or that it is always a satisfying experience. Raymond Williams also wrote effusively about the importance of communication in creating and sustaining communities and societies, echoing Dewey in saying “society is a form of communication” (1976, p. 10). Other scholars note that humans “cannot not communicate” (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967, p. 48). Even silence communicates— an important principle informing this analysis. 8 organizational listening Public Communication in Society Communication between two individuals (dyads) and within small groups, referred to as interpersonal communication, is a long-standing field of study in which there is a substantial body of literature. Some interpersonal com- munication is private, while in other cases it deals with matters of public concern. Communication is also essential inside organizations such as govern- ment departments, corporations, and institutions such as schools, universities, and hospitals. This is commonly referred to as organizational communication, although it would be more accurately...

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