MIAMI—Companies must become better at listening to consumers if they hope to benefit from the shift towards a sharing economy, heard delegates today at the Global PR Summit 2013.

In a panel discussion led by Edelman global consumer marketing chair Jen Cohan, Fast Co. Exist writer Ben Schiller pointed out that ‘millennial culture’ has changed expectations of the corporate world. An “anti big business aspect” is driving a search for other modes of consumption, reshaping the relationship between companies and their customers.

“People can see the world is falling apart and hyper consumption is wasteful,” said Schiller. “Sharing is quite empowering — it changes the relationship — you’re peers, you’re equals. Millennials enjoy the control and autonomy.”

That shift, however, requires companies to change how they behave. Cohan noted that Edelman’s brandshare study had revealed the importance that people place on being listened to. Schiller said that this represented a “real challenge for companies.”

“People have a real expectation of authenticity,” said Schiller. “These companies are not set up to think in that way. It’s all about managing the message. Social media interaction is freewheeling.”

Journalist and consumer advocate Chris Elliott noted that people now view companies as ‘people’ and expect appropriate responses. He called on companies to “empower” consumers, or social media can end up hurting the brand.

“They don’t look at a company as a brand,” said Elliott. “They are looking almost as if it is a person. They are allowing this ability to redefine a company or a brand. I think that’s really the revolutionary part of this.”

“You have to really think of this from the consumer’s perspective,” added Elliott. “One of the perils is suddenly you are thinking of a company as a person. So you’re expecting a more compassionate response. The bar is raised. You’re not looking for an automated response.”

Regus head of US public relations Grant Greenberg added that companies are looking to incorporate consumer views much more into their product strategy. “From a company perspective you’re also trying to get your audience to engage with you and share their pain points, so you can share the solutions. There’s a big thing to the shared experience.”

Conversations about who ‘owns’ listening, said Elliott, do not help. “In the minds of consumers, these are all the same thing — marketing, PR, customer service. They are talking to the company, and they want a response.”