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Does Your Company Need a Chief Listening Officer?

A woman is holding her hand up to her ear.

​Social media can be a useful marketing and branding tool for companies.

It can also be akin to dynamite.

Executives know that social media plays a powerful role in getting a company's message out and in shaping public perceptions about a company—for good or for bad.

A recent report from The Harris Poll  on behalf of Sprout Social, a marketing and brand management company with offices in Chicago, Seattle and Dublin, shows just how important social media is to C-level executives.

Among the report's findings:

  • 51 percent of business executives predict that social media will be the No. 1 most important source for data and insights to inform companies' business decisions over the next three years.
  • 55 percent of executives expect their company's social media marketing budgets to increase by more than 50 percent over the next three years.
  • 84 percent of executives expect their company's use of social media for external communications to increase over the next three years.
  • 62 percent of consumers agree that companies without strong social media presences will not be able to succeed in the long run.

Time to Listen Up?

How can companies best handle social media? Company branding experts offer some guidance.

In a February 2022 speech to a CNBC Workforce Executive Council Town Hall audience, Sree Sreenivasan, visiting professor of digital innovation at Stony Brook University, said organizations that merely react to social media have already dug themselves into a hole. Sreenivasan also noted that it's crucial to have both an external and internal social media strategy to get the most social media engagement.

To that end, he recommended appointing a chief listening officer (CLO) who can monitor and act on social media activity that impacts a company.

He's not alone in that assessment.

"I'm definitely into the 'buy' mindset on a chief listening officer," said Michael Toebe, founder and specialist at Reputation Quality in Wichita, Kan. "It's the smart, wise, proactive thing to implement, especially from a risk management perspective of learning about concerns before they become problems that can and often do spread in the organization."

Toebe noted additional advantages of having a CLO on board to direct social media policy.

"A chief listening officer can learn early about concerns; reply compassionately; communicate to a board and C-suite officers, managers, and employees what is going on; and develop an ethical and effective response to address the issues," he said. "That way, you can address issues before they become painfully difficult and costly. You also can learn about positives you can and should be publicly praising."

A Chief Listening Officer Strategy

Who should listen in? Who is best fit to serve as a chief listening officer, and should a senior executive be tasked with the post?

"The marketing team is an obvious place to start for a chief listening officer," said Liz Erk, founder of the Jaxson Group for Totara Learning, a marketing and business development firm in Stoneham, Mass. "They will already have experience with social media and know the brand messaging inside out."

Erk said the chief listener doesn't necessarily need to be the chief marketing officer, but it should be someone relatively senior who has significant experience with the organization.

"That person must be proactive, not reactive; be clear on how to respond to common types of feedback such as customer complaints; and know when to escalate responses to senior leaders," she noted. "The chief marketing officer should have ultimate responsibility, but it likely makes sense for the actual listening to be delegated."

How to handle social media information collected by the listening officer. If an executive is appointed to listen in on social media, what should a company do with the information accumulated?

"Social media comments and feedback are gold dust for organizations," Erk said. "This is where people are often at their most honest, so organizations can gather plenty of valuable information from these channels."

While a company will rarely need to change its policies based on a single negative comment, the chief
listening officer should be looking for trends—positive and negative.

"Sharing positive feedback will help boost employee engagement and morale if they know their efforts are being recognized, while identifying trends in negative feedback can help you pinpoint specific, recurring issues, which can then be used to improve employee performance or adapt workplace
processes," Erk added.

Should the chief listening officer either respond to negative social media comments or direct a policy on negative comments? Engagement is always good, even when it comes to negative comments—though a company should be thoughtful about who replies.

"Whoever responds must be trained to be emotionally competent and reflective," said Doug Noll, a professional mediator at Noll Associates in Clovis, Calif. "Additionally, any corporate response must focus on ... validating the emotions of the person making the comments."

"The goal is to turn the negativity into loyalty," Noll added.

Noll advises a five-step strategy to use the valuable information gathered by a chief listening officer:

  • Develop story lines around people, places and things.
  • Create micro stories that have emotional content.
  • Produce the stories with video and visual elements.
  • Distribute these stories across all relevant social media networks.
Monitor comments and engagement.

Executives Need to Buy into a Companywide Listening Strategy.
Brand specialists say that a listening officer can only succeed with the support and the open ears of C-suite leaders.

"That's important, as company leaders really need to take social media seriously," said Beth Castle, managing editor at InHerSight, a career services platform for women based in Durham, N.C. "But the best person to engage and follow those conversations is the person who uses social media the most, and that won't always be a busy executive."

According to Castle, that "social media-obsessed" employee has to understand, perhaps intuitively even, the life cycles of trends, jokes, commentary and other information gleaned online.

"The listening officer must also know how one subject on social media can both derail and flourish at the same time, understand the different ways conversations develop on different platforms, and be prepared to share that knowledge with their team."

"Additionally, they don't have to be the decision-maker at the end of the day, but it's worth treating that person like one," she added.

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).


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