Leading Through Listening: Understanding Your Audience is Key to Media Success

April 17, 2024
By Doug Levy

Doug Levy is a senior strategist at iQ 360 and a Peabody Award-winning former journalist with decades of communications experience. Learn more about his background here.

Getting your message across requires understanding your audience.

As simple as this may sound, it’s a step that people often miss. Nearly every person I’ve coached over the past two decades started out with their heads so firmly planted within their own work that they weren’t thinking about the people they want to reach or why they were communicating. However, plenty of examples prove that this can be easily done and leads to better results.

Lack of anticipating audience reaction was on full display on Dec. 5, 2023, when three university presidents testified at a congressional hearing on antisemitism. Instead of providing clear, direct answers, each gave lawyerly, nuanced responses — even to predictable “yes” or “no” questions. They appeared evasive, and their attempt to distinguish between free speech and hate speech fell on deaf ears. The university leaders seemed woefully unprepared for skepticism or hostility from the congressional panel, even though several members were frequent critics of their universities long before that hearing.

Sometimes people think their expertise or career success automatically equates to public communication skills. More frequently, it’s simply that people who want to engage with the public or their team members haven’t done enough homework. Even a cursory review of audience demographics, preferences and knowledge provides insights that help you craft and deliver more effective messages.

Skipping this step limits engagement or positive results and may cause misunderstanding or confusion. If you’re telling people to evacuate, make sure you include essential details, like where to go. Don’t presume your audience already knows.

 

"When businesses face reputation-threatening crises, executives frequently start their public statements from their own perspective instead of meeting the audience where they are. That’s not how to demonstrate empathy, establish or maintain credibility or accept responsibility."

 

The classic example was in 2010, soon after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster off the Louisiana coast killed 11 workers and disrupted tens of thousands of lives. Tony Hayward, BP Oil CEO, told a TV audience, "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I'd like my life back."

Nobody paid attention to what he said after that. Headlines such as “What Not to Say When Your Company Is Ruining the World” and “Can BP’s Image Survive the Spill?” were splashed across newspapers and screens worldwide, and Hayward was ousted a few weeks later.

Those of us who work with leaders during crises instantly recognized that Hayward did not take into account how the public felt about his company, the disaster itself or the company’s response. Knowing that many people were angry and concerned about their livelihoods and safety should have led to a statement that acknowledged these emotions, like, “We know that thousands of people have been impacted by our oil spill, and we are doing everything we can to make things right.”

Scientists and experts using specialized jargon may inadvertently confuse their audience when they use words or phrases with specific meanings inside their work but other meanings elsewhere. In law enforcement, knowing what the public thinks when they hear words like "investigation," "backup," "casualty," "deployed" and "recovered" is crucial, because people may hear something completely different from what was intended. Messages meant to calm a community quickly become alarming if misinterpreted.

Getting the messaging right goes a long way towards keeping customers, employees, investors or other stakeholders on board. This is possible even when conveying bad news. When Stripe CEO Patrick Collison announced major layoffs in December 2022, he delivered the news first to employees with a direct message that reflected in its first paragraph an understanding of the people who would see it:

"Today we’re announcing the hardest change we have had to make at Stripe to date. We’re reducing the size of our team by around 14% and saying goodbye to many talented Stripes in the process. If you are among those impacted, you will receive a notification email within the next 15 minutes. For those of you leaving: we’re very sorry to be taking this step and (co-founder John Collison) and I are fully responsible for the decisions leading up to it."

This message stood out from other tech firms that let people go with less sensitivity and even resulted in public praise, even from Stripe workers affected by the news.

Public communication is an integral part of every business, yet preparing for this task often gets short shrift. Those who embrace it discover that the steps that contribute to successful media or public interactions also contribute to stronger relationships with customers, investors, employees and constituents.

Here are a few steps that apply to any organization, big or small:

  1. Provide training and coaching on a routine basis, before a crisis occurs. Give people plenty of opportunities to practice and get professional feedback.
  2. Listen to your audience. Solicit feedback, measure whether they hear what your leaders say and pay attention to social media and other comments.
  3. Get professional help before high-stakes interactions. Even a half-hour with a media trainer can make a difference before an executive goes in front of an important audience.

Knowing your audience avoids missteps and creates meaningful opportunities to connect and gain new supporters. Training leaders to tailor their communications based on both your organization’s goals and the audience’s perspective is an investment that leads to success.