Nothing but the story: how PR can become the life force of your entire organisation5 years, 10 months ago
Storytelling is a core leadership function. Organisations exist only because of the stories behind them. By Stuart Maister
The organisation you work for does not really exist, except in one way: as a story. Everything else is the manifestation of the story, and the person that writes the story is the author of your organisation’s reality.
That is why storytelling is a core leadership function, and if PR professionals can do more to own the strategic narrative then they will become ever more important leaders.
Let’s drill down on this to understand why and how this is the case.
The key insight for this essay has come from a worldwide bestselling book - ‘Sapiens’, by Yuval Noah Harari. I heartily recommend it.
At the core of Professor Harari’s amazing romp through history is a big idea, and it explains why so much of what we think is real, is not. Here’s how he expresses it.
"The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively. This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes."
Belief and disbelief
He is not questioning reality. There really are trees and people and cars and search engines. But almost everything which enables us to operate in groups (and create cars and search engines) is totally made up. In short, it’s a story that we either do or do not believe. The ability to tell, understand, believe and then act on the basis of a story is what has underpinned everything that we have done as a species.
Take, for example, the whole basis of the global economy – credit. This is a story about the future which affects actions in the present.
If I can persuade you with a credible story that I can make a successful investment in the future and so pay back the money I don’t currently have, you may lend it to me. In turn that depends on your belief in the story of the wider future – of the economy, of the ability of future customers to pay for your goods, of the likelihood that there won’t be a war or natural disaster to wipe out my business model. What’s more the money itself which I lend you is 90% fiction – most of it doesn’t exist but is an act of faith in the banking system.
In short, it’s a total story.
Indeed, Professor Harari argues that even countries are fabrications, stories that enable populations in a given area to co-operate and develop a common future. They do not objectively exist except as a narrative.
He illustrates the point again and again – religion (fact or fiction – you decide, but it’s a story nonetheless), empires, even coinage is based on a story about some objective value.
What it means for organisations
And so we turn to your organisation. Sure, you have people, buildings, stationery, products and lots of other stuff. You even have that carefully crafted logo! So it’s real, right?
The answer is no, it is not, except as a story in the minds of you, your employees, your customers and everyone else who is aware of your company. It doesn’t exist except as a concept which enables all of these different people, including those who invest in and lend to the company, to believe the story and so engage in the stuff.
So, my recommendation is that you’d better pay attention to the story. You had better ensure you have actively decided what that story is – not just what others may perceive it to be. You had better put resource into articulating it, and then activating that through every means available.
And here is where PR can and should be the central discipline in the organisation. The key tool of PR should be factual storytelling. However, too much PR and even corporate communications is focussed on tactical storytelling – a stunt, a release, that new announcement, this quarter’s results, that new product.
Senior level shift
All of that is important. But in order to become the central discipline there needs to be a shift at the most senior levels to strategic storytelling, and advocacy of this at board level.
What is strategic storytelling? It is this: the definition and articulation of an overarching narrative. That narrative is brought to life through the reality of the business and the understanding of that reality by company storytelling.
In my view reputation=brand=reality + perception. This is the core life force of the business – brand and reputation, the foundation of everything else the organisation does.
That’s reinforced by the key point there: the narrative is brought to life through the reality of the business and company storytelling. Those that define and articulate the company narrative are actually determining the strategy of the business. In my own experience, by asking the core questions of the organisation in order to articulate its narrative you get to the heart of the big strategic issues, and often help the leadership articulate what they want the company story to be as much as what it is right now. This leads to some big decisions in order to make the story true. We start with perception and work back to reality.
How do we go about articulating the strategic narrative? There will be different approaches to this. My own approach is based on simple journalism – asking the core questions of who do we need to engage; why should they be interested; how do we do what we do; and finally, often the least interesting, what do we do?
From that you can develop the core story and, most importantly, the narrative themes – the few, big ideas that should form the story arc of your organisation.
I call this StoryBuilding because it’s about architecting a narrative and constructing it over time in the minds of your audiences. Others will have other terms. But this is much bigger than brand and reputation. It is more than just purpose. It goes to the heart of the company’s existence. It is its life force. It is a leadership responsibility. In an ideal world this is a consistent narrative that permeates everything that manifests the company.
In other words, that tells its story.
The question for PR professionals is: can we own it?
Stuart Maister is a former national TV and radio reporter who has spent the past 20 years working with large organisations on their broadcast storytelling.mail the author
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