Public relations has come to mean quite a few things to different people. It’s a broad, ill-defined discipline covering an array of skill-sets.

Despite this, the core principles that underpin what we do are consistent. Chief among those is one that distinguishes good work from truly fantastic results, which can put organisations at the heart of conversations that matter to them.

This is, quite simply: understand your audience.

Any good communicator appreciates the importance of listening to what’s being said about their organisations, issues and topics that are important to them.

Using this intelligence to shape organisational behaviour is at the heart of excellent two-way communications.

I’ve tried loads of different approaches over the years. Surveys, interviews, workshops, door-knocking and good old fashioned face-to-face chats are all useful.

Whatever method you choose, the bottom line is that if you’re going to speak to people you should be prepared to listen to them too – even if you don’t like what they’re saying.

Listen to the digital crowd

Digital is no different. The opportunities it presents to communicate directly engage your audiences make it even more important to take the time to understand what’s being said before jumping in.

There is a burgeoning tools market that can help people to do this and the list continues to grow. The excellent #PRStack series created by the CIPR details some of these although things can move quickly and some tools can date.

We work for clients on many different projects, across the country. They are rightly interested about what people say about them online. This has led us to invest in a social listening tool to help them to keep abreast of conversations that matter to them.

In doing so, we’re able to share with them insights that can shape campaign activity, give them an idea of local sentiment towards an issue or identify new influencers connected to a topic that they should engage.

I’ve been fascinated by some of the things we’ve been able to find out by using the tool. Here is one example we’ve been looking at recently.

#UKhousing: This hashtag has been widely using by people with an interest in the housing sector for quite a few years. Over time it’s become used by an increasing number of brands and organisations in quite self-referential ways, but it’s still a useful space for housing-related conversations. So, what did the tool tell us?

From the end of last month, the hashtag was used and shared nearly 900 times and generated nearly 1.4m impressions, mainly across Twitter. This is a significant and very specialist use of a hashtag which is visible to people with an interest in the sector.

The data also suggests that there are a prominent number of people using the hashtag to voice frustration about the services provided by their landlord or housing associations. This could provide important intelligence to customer service or community liaison teams who may be able to address the feedback. Concerns about affordability and homelessness also featured prominently amongst the 900 posts.

A look at some of the influencers in this space, based on how visible their content is, throws up some interesting findings. The Housing IT blogger Tony Smith has more impressions than anyone else who has used the hashtag this month (404,000). This is more than the industry bible Inside Housing, the Chartered Institute of Housing and some well-known charities and politicians. Social media expert and blogger Jon Popham is also amongst the most visible. Does your communications strategy take account of these people who post about the industry every day? If not, maybe it’s time that they should.

This is just a snapshot, of course, but it hopefully illustrates what can be done to understand online conversations about any topic, issue or brand.

If properly understood, these insights can form a vital part in shaping communications activity and providing organisations with an understanding of how their messages are being responded to. This information can also be filtered to exclude trolls or accounts displaying bot-like behaviour so that your insights are accurate and representative.

Any good communications activity needs to be based on insight. This is an important way to get it.

After all, if you’re not listening to what people are saying about you, you’re out of the loop. And that’s not a good place for any organisation to be.

If you’re interested in finding out more about this, drop us a line.