Shaping an activist corporate narrative
Stories change everything. Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851 was credited with helping to change views on slavery. George Bush’s story about weapons of mass destruction started a questionable war. Henry Paulson’s story that Lehman Bros was not too big to fail brought down a global bank and started a recession. Whether it’s an epic tale or a personal experience, the narratives we construct help us shape our place in the world, express our identity and build relationships.
Smart companies recognize that storytelling is vital to creating change. This is not about the mission statement. While the mission articulates why the organization exists beyond product and profit, the corporate story provides proof of why the enterprise matters to the world.
An effective corporate narrative is the thematic superstructure that unifies all organizational communication. The CEO’s speech, the salesperson’s presentation, the email from HR and the content in the annual report all derive their theme, content structure and potency from this narrative. When everyone inside understands their part in playing out the belief system of that story, organizational self-awareness expands, relationships deepens and change happens.
A great story changes everything
The corporate narrative does not sell anything. It inspires, cajoles, protests, entertains, teaches, illuminates, and of course, informs. To do all this requires that the story be wide, universal and dramatic. Great examples are IBM’s “Smarter Planet”, GE’s “Ecomagination” and Marks & Spencer’s “Plan A”. They are not investments in catchy slogans, but rather best practice narrative systems that emanate from a consciously managed organizational identity. The content from each of these systems informs communications in every context – from the CEO’s speech or an HR induction program, to a billboard or a sales presentation. What is common to all three is that they are expressions of how each of these organizations is out to change the world.
IBM’s “Smarter Planet” is a prime example. For the past four years, IBM has told the story of why the systems on our planet need to be infused with greater intelligence to create a more sustainable world. The story begins with a societal charge – why we need a smarter planet, and how we can get there, not why their technologies or people are better or smarter. Then, by taking the competencies that are at the core of IBM’s identity and using them to tailor the story for each industry it interacts with – from healthcare to urban planning to finance – IBM is transforming its relationships.
When told with this breadth and authenticity, the corporate narrative helps employees understand why their efforts matter, motivates sales people to deliver a value added message, and equips the CEO to persuade investors that the corporate story doesn’t end with financial growth.
It’s easy to point to examples such as IBM, GE or M&S because of their scale and accessibility. But this is not about budget-busting corporate communication. It’s about the simple understanding that without a coherent and compelling story, no organization, whatever its size, can transform relationships and create change.
You are not the hero
The desired outcome of every great story is the hero’s transformation. Most companies forget that they are not the heroes and often wind up telling their own stories, rather than those of the heroes they serve. “We’re number one” or “We’re the fastest” doesn’t motivate customers over the long term. Stakeholders respond when transformation includes them. The corporate narrative is the primary delivery mechanism of that story. By describing their meaningful experiences, the organization demonstrates that it plays a significant role in the lives of its customers, employees, partners, and society as a whole.
The effective corporate story builds credibility by linking identity and corporate behavior. When an organization operates in sync with what it stands for, telling that story nurtures trust. And in a world where bad faith on the part of some corporations has eroded the quality of relationships at every level, the corporate story becomes the advance scout to rekindle trust. Stories speak about values and morality. Hence, corporate storytelling is not only an essential form of reputation management, it is also part of an organization’s social responsibility.
Corporate storytelling functions as a synchronizer and helps manage expectations. It ensures employees know what is expected of them by reinforcing values and more importantly, strengthening loyalty. Externally the story also reinforces shared values and helps manage expectations. But perhaps more than anything, the effective corporate narrative will create a lasting emotional bond by forging community.
It’s a new world
As Thomas Friedman described in his book, The World is Flat, the balance of power between the institution and the individual has been forever altered, bringing all parties to eye-level in a landscape that has changed from command-and-control to connect-and-collaborate. The role of storytelling is seminal in shaping these brave new communities. It’s easy to see this principle at work in social media, where joining the conversation enables the enterprise to participate in communities that are critical to achieving its goals. In such a world, the corporate narrative scales the organization down to human level, enabling it to be part of the conversation.
But while joining the conversation is important, leadership only kicks in when the corporate narrative is transformative, i.e., where it functions as a cause that stimulates community and drives change. In today’s hyper-connected, always-on world, that narrative is the mechanism by which the enterprise is not only capable of handling dialogues with its many constituencies, but of changing the world. This is at the core of next generation Corporate Communication.
A good story touches people. It has drama and substance, conflict and resolution, creates vivid images and carries a universal truth. But whether it’s in a bar or boardroom, the best stories are ultimately inspired by dialogue. For the enlightened corporation, that narrative is the beginning of a conversation that can spark transformation.