Why listening trumps talking for PR pros

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Have you noticed that “storytelling” has become the new black in marketing and PR?

Everyone wants to be a storyteller, to capture people’s attention, and to be memorable. Yet we at Tier One have learned what might seem a counterintuitive lesson over the years: Successful storytelling depends as much on how well you listen as on how well you can talk. (More, actually.) If anything, this precept has proven truer in the era of social media and content strategy.

Listening requires patience. Think about how you’d behave at a cocktail party or networking event. Say you’ve got a juicy story all teed up in your mind, and one (or several) people you’d like to impress standing right in front of you. Would you blurt your story out at the first conversational lull, regardless of what the current topic is? Hardly. To engage your listeners and make the most of your tale, you have to listen first, then jump in at the right moment.

Here are three ways we build listening into our public relations strategy—and why listening matters more than most people realize.

Know the conversations you want to enter.

We start every new client engagement with a Listening Workshop; in it we listen to the client to help us better understand their business, their strengths and weaknesses, their brand voice, and the various conversations they’d want to chime in on. Yes, we mean “various”—every company’s story is relevant to multiple broader conversations. Then we turn our ears to the marketplace and listen to the relevant conversations taking place there and see who’s participating.

For instance, we used smart listening with Virgin HealthMiles (now Virgin Pulse) to build expertise about health care reform. Virgin Pulse rewards employees for healthy behaviors such as exercise, losing weight and lowering cholesterol levels, and improving employees’ health, all the while bending the steep cost curve of corporate health insurance. By carefully monitoring the media conversation about the Affordable Care Act, we found opportunities to introduce Virgin Pulse’s role in keeping people healthy and out of the health care system.

Identify key influencers in the conversation(s) you want to join, and start listening in. Then treat your interactions like a cocktail party conversation: Can you offer a helpful tidbit or a useful follow-up to a recent tweet? Do so promptly and with no strings attached, and you’ll earn the right to speak up when the conversation bends in your direction.

Prepare your story, but inflect it based on what you hear .

You know your corporate story by heart, but can you riff on it based on the larger cultural conversation? Tier One client Fluent specializes in marketing to college millennial consumers (CMCs), a group whose opinion is highly coveted in practically every industry category.

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Fluent can survey its 16,000-student network in record time, gauging the real-time pulse on millennial habits in response to media questions and trending topics. It’s the perfect way to bolster Fluent’s role as CMC intelligence gatherers on behalf of major brands.

Choose your moments wisely.

Following the nuances of a conversation can be crucial—particularly when the subject is sensitive. Our client Everbridge powers an emergency notification system used chiefly by municipalities to communicate rapidly when necessary. By definition, Everbridge’s product is used mostly during crises, such as the Boston Marathon bombing last year.

Listening is crucial during unfolding crises: It helps you recognize what questions are truly pressing, understand how you can be useful or reassuring (instead of just adding to the noise), and answer direct reporter queries that advance the public’s understanding of a crisis and its aftermath.

Everbridge kept its head down during the crisis, supporting the companies and municipalities it serves to keep communications streamlined and efficient. Only when a Boston Globe reporter tweeted a specific request for companies who’d been involved in events surrounding the bombing did Everbridge speak up. That’s a form of intelligent communication born of careful listening.

Listening demands patience, but there’s truly no substitute. In an era when anyone can play publisher, listening separates the noisemakers from those who produce the most salient signal. To qualify as the latter, you need only open your ears.

Kathy Wilson is a managing partner with Tier One Partners, a full-service boutique public relations agency. A version of this article first appeared on Tier One PR. 

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