Polarization, cancel culture, the media outrage cycle and the spread of misinformation all serve as evidence of the highly fragmented society that we are living in today. At the root of these issues is the flow of information, which begs the question, what is the role of communications in a world that struggles to see eye to eye in almost every aspect of life?
When considering how to reach polarized consumers, corporate communicators should consider the power of listening. The modern consumer is an engaged customer, defined by going beyond the purchase of products and services by way of writing online reviews, contacting and reaching out to companies to express an opinion, or boycotting a brand. However, more so than expecting companies to express a hard opinion on societal issues, consumers want to feel that their voices are being heard. According to a survey recently run by Ruder Finn on creating positive connections with consumers in a fragmented market, 93% of consumers believe that brands should react to public opinion. However, brands don’t have to agree with consumers to make them feel listened to. In fact, the most important thing for brands is demonstrating that they are listening to all points of view on a societal issue or polarizing topic, rather than definitively taking a stance.
Simply the act of sharing an opinion, or being able to engage with a brand, be it positively or negatively, has a positive impact on consumer opinion. Of the engaged consumers interviewed in Ruder Finn’s survey, 55% of consumers had a better opinion of a brand after engaging with them, and only 8% of consumers had a lower opinion of a brand after engaging with them. Engagement breeds positivity, and brands can engage with consumers by actively displaying that they are listening. This has an especially impactful effect when done empathetically and in a timely manner. A recent apology issued by Andrew Benin, CEO of Olive Oil start-up Graza comes to mind after some bumps in delivery quality during the holiday season. Issued from the heart, and welcoming customer feedback, the apology hit the perfect chord of anticipatory listening by taking the first step in terms of accountability and apologizing to all customers, rather than just the subset that was affected.
Deep listening can be amplified through the use of several tools including AI and machine learning. Leaders and companies can use listening as an important tool to learn from and analyze their consumer preferences to inform future business decisions. The advancement of the technology of conversation AI and chatbots has exponentially expanded customer service capabilities. AI-powered social listening can monitor trending topics and help predict the spread of misinformation, which can help companies determine where to focus listening efforts. Cultural intelligence, another imperative tool in communicating in a globally connected world, is key to authentic listening. When inviting and listening to discourse on social issues, it’s important for companies and leaders to understand the cultural context fueling various points of view, and to be sensitive to any pressure points when responding.
So what impact does this have on the leadership style of communicators? Leaders should adopt more listening and an empathetic leadership style both internally and externally. When managing a crisis, leaders should consider engaging with critics and opposing points of view to ensure everyone feels heard, and should avoid over-reacting to groups who are polarizing the conversation. When determining how to speak on public issues, leaders will benefit from encouraging dialogue rather than taking a side. Overall, it’s important to make sure all sides feel that they have the space to express their opinions, and that they are being heard and listened to on a deeper level. In a fragmented world, deep listening and empathetic leadership will bring us together.
Dr. Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO, Ruder Finn Inc.
Dr. Kathy Bloomgarden is CEO of Ruder Finn Inc., one of the world's largest independent public relations and creative agencies, founded by PR industry pioneer and legend David Finn, with offices throughout the United States, across the EU, and the Asia Pacific region. Ruder Finn has been awarded America’s Best PR Agency 2021 by Forbes, Bulldog Reporter’s Most Innovative Agency Award, and Large Agency of the Year by PR News. PR News named Kathy both 2021 CEO of the Year and a Top Women in PR Changemaker.
Kathy is known for helping CEOs garner recognition for authentic, visionary leadership, and for her work with companies from major multinationals to promising startups, to help them articulate and gain recognition for their brands. She is also known for early on having the foresight to build one of the most dynamic in-house tech labs, that engages with new and emerging technology tools for mapping, deep insight mining, and predictive analytics which are then piloted and integrated as core in all agency activities. Analytics is a driving force for agency crisis management, reputation building, storytelling, and audience targeting. Kathy was at the helm when Ruder Finn became one of the first Western PR agencies to expand its global footprint into China, helping its Asia operations prosper with her fluency in Chinese, Ruder Finn now has ten offices across the region. The agency continues to have a strong foothold in global programming, as well as local community execution.
Kathy is a Board member of the China Institute, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Partnership for New York City, and sits on the advisory board of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is also a member of the World Economic Forum and PR Seminar. She is the author of Trust: The Secret Weapon of Effective Business Leaders. Kathy holds a B.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University in Political Science, as well as a certificate from the East Asian Institute.