A listening and insightful future: Changing PR practice to deliver audience led communications


The world of design is leading the way in putting audiences at the centre of interactions and experiences. From 3D visual experiences of product environments to designing buildings around user need, the focus has been on designing services tailored to a 360 degree customer journey and the needs, interests and preferences of audiences, both emotional and physical. 

You’ll learn:
•    About the necessity for and benefits of audience insight
•    The six areas critical to building audience led communications
•    Insights from the Organisational Listening Project

Just as the design world has used an audience led approach to develop more effective products, services and environments, so to must the PR industry think about how it adopts a culture of listening and audience immersion to develop the most impactful communications. 

If the PR world is to become more audience centric, listening and responding to how audiences see themselves and their desires and concerns, will be absolutely crucial.

This is about us as communicators. Knowing our audience makes us unique when we sit at the Board table. This means that improving how we listen and applying audience understanding sits at the very heart of everything we are and do.

But the challenges are substantial and require change in practices and thinking. 

We need to move beyond projecting onto audiences our pre-conceived views of how we feel they should be and the life roles they should play. Instead we need to be more effective in designing communications around the way audiences see themselves and the issues that matter to them. Herein lies the holy grail of true audience led communications. 

Mutual understanding is critical

We also need to challenge modern day PR when it relies solely upon the rhetorical ‘logos, pathos, ethos’ origins of PR, driven by message resonation with audience. 

Instead we need to make a greater case for Grunig’s two way symmetrical communication model and dialogic models of communication. These both facilitate mutual understanding and 360 degree feedback allowing us to truly understand our audiences. Upon this deep understanding (‘insight’) fruitful communication ideas can be grown.

However, research shows that most organisations today adopt a primarily one-way approach to communication, focussed on information dissemination and persuasion of audiences to their way of thinking and their objectives. 

A recent two year, three country study of how well corporate, government and non-government organisations listen found that on average, 80 per cent of organisational resources, time and activity ostensibly focussed on communication is actually dissemination of information and messages – and in fact, speaking. 

In some cases, up to 95 per cent of organisational activities related to communication are speaking. 

The Organisational Listening Project found that: “most organisations listen sporadically at best, often poorly, and sometimes not at all”.

We need to ask different questions and listen harder

The study also found that when organisations do listen, it is often selective, limited, and instrumental. For example, research is mainly conducted to gain answers to the questions that organisations want to ask; public consultation is also often narrowly focussed on options determined by government or corporations and dominated by ‘loud voices’ of major lobby groups; and social media is extensively used by organisations as another channel for distributing their messages rather than listening to conversations and public comment and views.

The study called for true two-way communication including listening by organisations through open-ended qualitative research (not just narrowly constructed polls), open public consultation including outreach to marginalised and silenced voices, and taking a dialogic approach in social media. A fundamental of being audience focussed is listening.

So when you are listening, how can you best consider and develop the deep understanding you receive from audiences to shape your communications? 

At the Department of Health Communications we are learning everyday as we foster our insight culture, and we have plenty more learning to do. But we have found these six areas to be absolutely critical in building audience led communications:

1.    Start with the audience view on the problem you are trying to solve

A good place to start your insight work is by looking at the audiences’ view on the issue or problem you are trying to solve – does this issue actually register with the audience or are there other problems they care more about on which effort should be focused? What opportunity does this present for innovative ideas and being responsive to audiences?

2.    Consider perceived benefits and pitfalls

It is essential to explore with audiences their perceived benefits and/or pitfalls of tackling the problem you are concerned about as well as issues of concern for them. This will inform your communications direction and ensure any solutions directly address audience need. 

3.    Segmentation

Understanding how our audiences perceive and identify themselves will enable us to improve segmentation and to develop ideas which more effectively tap into their realities. This is particularly important with current debates about identity at many different levels. 

4.    Action

The act of listening is defunct if we don’t take action on the insight it gives. This means ensuring that clear tangible actions are escalated upwards and discussed by the Board. Actions should be fed back to audiences so trust and mutual understanding can grow.

5.    Closeness

Closeness is about being able to walk in the shoes of another person – this means being able to be close enough to your audience to spot and understand what they have not said as well as what they have. This helps you build a fuller and more accurate picture of your audience and more honed ideas. 

Innovation in technology is providing many new opportunities to listen and establish closeness in an easy and instant manner. This has led to the inspiring development of digital insight, garnering knowledge of how audiences are thinking and feeling through understanding online debates and conversations. 

6.    Integration

Integrating the insight from all your data sources provides the richest evidence base upon which to develop impactful communications. Whilst you will need to be mindful of the benefits and limitations of each source, marrying up the themes that come from all sources will provide a compelling piece to guide strategy.

So what are the practical killer questions to consider within each of these areas? 

Killer questions

The problem:

How does your target audience view the problem you are trying to solve? 

Does your listening show you they care about this issue? Or is there another problem or opportunity? 

What possibilities, solutions, concepts are your audiences excited about? Why? 

What will this mean for your strategy?

The benefits and pitfalls:

What benefits and/or pitfalls does your audience perceive in tackling this problem? 

How does that compare with other issues they have raised?

How does this feedback drive your communications?

The segmentation:

How do your audiences identify themselves? 

How are your segmented audiences unique from each other? 

What are the values, lifestyles, attitudes or behaviours that each segment shares? 

Can you do bespoke audience profiles for your issue/area?

The action:

What is the integrated story all sources of insight are telling about this audience? 

What is critical to be spoken of and acted upon? Why? What are the risks of inaction?

Who needs to act upon it? How will you ensure they understand the insight and the gravity of it?

The closeness:

How can you get close to your segmented audience to understand them better? Listening to online 

conversations? Consultation? Gaming technology? Web streamed focus groups? In depth interviews? 

Polling? Ethnography? Video diaries? Online panels? Stakeholder intelligence? Correspondence analysis? 

Media evaluation? Analysis of behaviour and action?

How might you overcome barriers to closeness?

The integration:

Based on your research question, what are the themes that stem from all your data sources?

What are the benefits and limitations of each of the sources within your integrated pack?

Are the main compelling points of insight informed by the majority of your sources?

What are the research gaps?


The PR industry clearly has a long way to go in embracing listening, but this is an exciting moment for building an audience led approach. 

The Organisational Listening Project provides the insight on how the industry needs to improve; the six areas give us the insight foundation upon which to develop and innovation in technology is enhancing our chances for closeness. 

This is a challenge which sits at the heart of everything we are and do; if we are to be effective at the Board table, we must get insight - our unique offering - absolutely right.


[1] Macnamara, J. (2016). Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential of Public Communication. New York, NY: Peter Lang, p. 236.

Sarah Clark is Head of Insight at the Department of Health. She has 17 years of PR experience across the private and public sector, working on high profile issues such as the housing market, MRSA, Europe, crime and NHS delivery. For the last 10 years she has specialised in strategic communications, creative problem solving and insight development and application.

Twitter: @SarahCl12929666
Online: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/sarah-clark-dip-cipr-a231b359


Professor Jim Macnamara PhD, FAMI, CPM, FAMEC, FPRIA is Professor of Public Communication, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney and Visiting Professor, London School of Economics and Political Science, Media & Communications Department.

Twitter: @jimmacnamara
Online: http://www.uts.edu.au/staff/jim.macnamara