The Spectrum of Listening

It is generally agreed that listening is a critical component of any successful public diplomacy initiative. Listening has become particularly relevant with the introduction of social media platforms in public diplomacy, which has created new possibilities for governments to listen to and communicate with domestic and international audiences. In particular, data-driven approachesprovide diplomats with new opportunities to conduct large-scale listening. Social media analytics and big data analysis are becoming key methods for monitoring social media conversations. The question of method is itself integral to listening in public diplomacy. This is why Damien Spry and Timothy Dwyer in a CPD blogpost have argued that data-driven approaches can be found beyond big data analysis. They suggest a distinction between big data and small – or ‘deep data’ – which refers to approaches such as interviews or case studies.

3 reasons why active listening is a must have skill_940x485

Along with the questions related to listening as a method, listening is also a communication act. As Nicholas J. Cullargues in his latest book, “listening in public diplomacy has double value. It is of particular value when it leads to a responsive and effective policy and/ or approach to a foreign public. It also helps when it is seen to be done”. In my recent article, I expand on this concept to argue that the “interconnected sphere” created by public internet communication requires that both scholars and practitioners move beyond questions of message, strategy and information gathering, to rethinking the act of listening in a fundamental way. Listening is also a representational force, a public response to those non-governmental actors and citizens who are now increasingly requesting not only to participate, but also to be listened to. Since social media likes, follows, retweets and replies are all forms and indicators of listening – being seen to listen is now itself an act of public engagement.

I reconceptualise listening as a spectrum of practices that reflect a range of both methodological and communicational options available to public diplomacy actors. By connecting public diplomacy with other fields in public communication, I define five types of listening.

Type of listening Engagement Goal Listening approach
Active listening Dialogic and relation-building engagement. Creates spaces for listening. Long-term strategy implementation and adjustment. Promotes trust and understanding. Combination of qualitative and quantitative methods.


Instrumental and reactive engagement. Correct misconceptions and pursue short-term sub-goals. Monitoring to identify issues and actors of concern.
Listening in Unidirectional engagement. Assessment of message reach. Measuring outcomes or metrics based on impact.
Background/casuallistening Casual engagement. Information gathering. Scrolling, unsystematic and/or accidental encounter of content.
Surreptitiouslistening No signs of engagement. Spying/


Unethical/illegal acquisition of private data.


  1. Active listening

Listening is “active” when a public diplomacy actor is “seen” to be listening. Active listening operates in the long-term because it promotes trust and understanding by showing “signs” of listening. As active listening requires moving from mere measurement of message reach to full and “deep” understanding of the types of engagement, it requires a combination of big and small data approaches.

  1. Tactical listening

“Tactical” listening works to implement and readjust public diplomacy messages and correct misconceptions. A tactical listener pursues short-term goals and tactical listening is practically undertaken by identifying issues and actors of concern.

  1. Listening in

“Listening in” focuses on measuring message reach, since it based on social media metrics (such as views, likes, retweets, etc.).

  1. Background or casual listening

“Background” or “casual” listening is an unsystematic but recurring form of listening in which public diplomacy actors scroll social media content in order to find sources of information for diplomatic reporting.

  1. Surreptitious listening

“Surreptitious” listening refers to spying and surveillance online. It is usually unethical or illegal acquisition of private data or, in the context of cyberwar, is used by government intelligence for espionage or for sabotage through digital infrastructures.

The spectrum suggests that the definition of listening is not straightforward and, as a practice and method, can be articulated in very different ways. At the same time, listening also becomes a communication act when publics see that are listened to. This is why active – visible – listening is a concrete yardstick by which to assess successful public diplomacy listening on social media. In this sense, public diplomacy is a communication process that involves the interplay of listening and speaking.

The evaluation of public diplomacy, intended as the interactive dimension of diplomacy, as defined by theby the CPD, cannot be limited to the measurement of the message’s dissemination (voice); instead, it needs to explore how the combination of listening and speaking can support the advancement, the legitimisation and implementation of a state’s foreign policy by “fostering mutual trust and productive relationships”.

The spectrum of listening can facilitate comparative research among different countries’ listening approaches, as well as being used as a model for evaluating a country’s listening activities.


This blog was first published in the Center on Public Diplomacy Blog

Conceptualising public diplomacy listening on social media

Just published in Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. Read the full article (Abstract below).



Public diplomacy consists of the public and interactive dimensions of diplomacy. Although listening is one of its core activities, public diplomacy scholarship has not yet engaged with listening theory. This paper connects public diplomacy scholarship with a new wave of literature that has argued that listening is a critical and previously neglected component of dialogic engagement. By reviewing this literature, this paper develops a framework for the ‘spectrum of listening’ and categorises five types of public diplomacy listening on social media. The review is followed by a descriptive profile of each type of listening. Using this spectrum, this paper endorses active listening and the embedded concept of dialogic engagement as a concrete yardstick by which to assess successful public diplomacy listening on social media. Listening could be narrowly interpreted as a way to implement and readjust a national strategy, or more broadly and ambitiously as an activity that aims to advance international understanding. The paper considers listening to be a representational force: a public and active response to publics who are increasingly demanding not only to participate, but also to be listened to.

The Australian DFAT Digital Media Strategy and Public Diplomacy listening on social media

On the 5th of December 2016 the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade published the Digital Media Strategy 2016-18. This follows the previous Public Diplomacy Strategy 2014–16 published in 2014 and updated in the last few years. This move has been encouraged by the Minister Julie Bishop –  considered the inventor of the emoji diplomacy – who is now leading the Australian diplomacy from the prudence of the 2014-16 strategy to a more consistent digital planning.

The main goals of the new digital strategy are to equip, listen, explain, engage and influence.

The creation of a timeline of milestones allows both citizens and the government to assess the advancements in the implementation of the strategy.

Major milestones implementation timeline

The plan still employs some buzzwords that the literature on Public Diplomacy has recognised as problematic, especially in the case of the word “engagement” that requires more clarifications (for example Matthew Wallin).

Words cloud of the Digital Media Strategy 2016-18

The Australian focus on listening recognises and gives importance to an activity that has been agreed as pivotal in the New Public Diplomacy (p.18) . According to the Strategy, “Parliamentary and Media Branch will manage a range of high-level web and social media reporting and analytics tools that will identify influential groups and conversations, track sentiment towards Australian policy, measure the department’s global social reach and enable centralised reporting on the progress of major campaigns”. These monitoring activities can be categorised as “instrumental listening” (Macnamara, 2015, p.10), since they seem to answer to “self-serving questions that organizations want to ask”.

Finally, the strategy refers to “tools for social media managers” without specifying the characteristic of these tools. There is an ongoing critical discussion on social media analytics and the process of capturing, analysing and visualising data, recognising that “data should be understood as a mode of politics itself” (Johnson, 2015). One of the epistemological concerns regards the supposed neutrality of digital data, since the coldness of numbers gives a perception of objectivity or a sort of “hitherto unobtainable empirical truth” (Rossiter, 2014, p. 225)

The DFAT Digital Strategy is an important step toward an effective use of social media in the Australian Diplomacy. However, the potential of these tools should be accompanied by a critical reflection about the implications in the use of social media data in Digital Diplomacy. As the CPD discussion paper Social Media Analytics for Digital Advocacy Campaigns: Five Common Challenges   has pointed out, we need “to advance a more rigorous, structured approach to social media analytics and their role in strategic planning” (p.1). The underlying characteristics of social media analytics drive the modalities digital listening is understood and articulated, which implies a series of epistemological considerations that digital diplomacy scholars and practitioners need to address.