July 5, 2016 Andy Green

Lessons for listening for Public Relations from BREXIT


Following the UK people’s vote to leave the UK has there ever been such an important time for the ears of PR people to lead the way in creating a better future?

Listening is not only a tool for the most effective communicators but also one of the key management functions of public relations – PR people need to both good listeners and also be the champion for their organization’s listening.

It is not about communicators asking other people to lend them their ears, but also be mindful of how good is their own listening: are they really listening? If we as PR practitioners cannot listen effectively then how can we ask our targets to do likewise?

Are there lessons for our political establishments – both at a UK and European-wide level – as they reflect on the lessons they could learn from the BREXIT win?

The fallout from the Referendum vote have been profound. There emerged, it seemed, two tribes within Britain, partly defined by age, social class, educational attainment, and geography.

Many Remain voters are embittered and angry about how their future has been decided by a group they label as ‘racist, ignorant, and selfish’. Equally, many Brexiteers are astonished that their concerns about immigration, housing etc. were not heard by the ‘academic middle class’.

Sure, pinning such labels on another group to yours seems to tally with your worldview, your experience, the world that you see every day. Or does it?

Is this a case of confirmation bias, a self-reinforcing spiral where you listen to and only take on board new information that accords with your own beliefs, prejudices and bias?

The EU itself has responded with views that depict a vote that saddens them but was also a product of a misled UK electorate, a referendum solely coming about through internal Conservative party politics.

Yet, is this all there is to respond to the BREXIT decision?

Are there lessons the EU need to take on board? Are they receiving a message that is not just specific to the UK but is evident albeit under the radar, under the surface across the EU?

Humility is, in my opinion, the greatest gift a creative mind can have, and the greatest asset for a communicator. It recognises that you don’t know everything, don’t know all the answers, and there is value in drawing in potentially positive contributions from the world around you.

Possessing humility gets you to ask questions, to challenge the status quo because you have an underlying belief that there is always something greater, better or useful out there.

Possessing humility allows you to read different newspapers and journals, keep listening when a view with which you disagree comes over the airwaves and accepting that the friend who holds different beliefs to you has as much validity as you do.

By asking better quality questions, and listening with a belief that there is something always to learn, will get you on a journey of empowerment. But just asking better questions is not enough, you need to truly listen to what is being said; put your attention onto the listener, not your internal dialogue that is by now ‘dissing’ or working out what to say in response.

Listening is not the same a hearing.


Hearing refers to the sounds that you hear, whereas listening requires more than that: it requires focus; listening means paying attention not only to the story, but how it is told, the use of language and voice, and how the other person uses his or her body, even in what I call ‘Level 5 Listening’ their underlying narrative.

In other words, it means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages.
Listening wins as it gets the respect of others around you.

Listening enables you to learn from others.

Listening creates a bigger picture.

The powerful person, the more capable and resourceful person is the one that sees a bigger picture, operating in a bigger landscape to provide more options, alternatives and room for manoeuvre.

And you see a bigger picture by better listening. It’s a deliberately mixed metaphor.

The binary nature of the Referendum vote necessitated two segmented groups within the electorate. But does that tell the whole story, the true story?

Did the Referendum decision mask a myriad of motivations, points of view and motivations, that for polling purposes neatly wrapped into a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

Is your ability to respond to this new world helped by identifying just two groups? Would you be more insightful if you identified other groups within these apparent two camps to build dialogue, engagement and a new way forward?

Would you be more powerful by listening to their concerns, views and opinions and ask ‘What do I need to learn from this?’

As a result, is there anything you need to be doing different? (The answer, by the way, is Yes. Remember that ‘If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got’ – and what you may have got from the referendum stands a 48/52 chance of being not what you wanted.)

Both sides of the Referendum divide need to listen to each other.

Darwin identified that the species that succeed are the ones not necessarily bigger, stronger, tougher. It’s the ones that collaborate.

Maybe on humankind’s evolutionary journey our most powerful asset is our ears.

If we fail to listen in this post-Referendum era then we all in the UK stand to lose. A future of a bitter, divided community. A UK society that creates a lesser future for itself.

PR people need to stand tall in these uncertain post-Referendum times – and lead not with their messaging or soundbites, but with their ears.

Will they listen? Time will tell.


[Thanks to additional input of Geoff Roberts of Developing Minds]



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