When storytelling goes bad – a guest blog for PRmoment

(This blog originally appeared on 17 November 2014 as guest blog on PRmoment. Thanks for the platform, Ben!).

On this coming Thursday, PRmoment is hosting an event on storytelling: “The role of public relations as a content provider”. And quite right, too. Storytelling is a craft whose time has come. Again.

Stories rock. Storytelling is the new black. The new rock ‘n’ roll. The new PR. To thrive in the earned and shared media space, corporate communicators need to refashion themselves as storytellers. They need to learn and live by the Cocktail Party Rule:

“If you want to be boring, talk about yourself. If you want to be interesting, talk about the issues of interest to those you seek to affect and move; those whose opinions and behaviours you want to change.”

Such is our brave new world. And, by the same token, ‘twas ever thus.

The problem for (or should that be “with”?) PR is that, somewhere in the transition from analogue to digital and social media, the craft of mediated storytelling became confused. It became overcomplicated and multi-layered. And it became acceptable – fashionable, even – for the same brand or corporation to tell different stories to different audiences in different channels.

In the always-on world of social dialogue, brands are learning the hard way that they cannot afford to tell different tales to different stakeholder groups. Nuclear power generators cannot be the greenest energy source to worried parents and communities and at the same time the cheapest source of energy to select committees. Yes, stories and storytelling can be multi-faceted and three dimensional. But it’s no longer acceptable to try to hold and express contradictory thoughts depending on who you’re talking to. You’ll be found out quickly and dismissed for doublethink and hypocrisy.

In our age where brands participate in conversations about themselves and act as curators at best, corporations and brands need to shape, fashion and stick to a single story. One story inside and outside the business, not two or more versions of different truths for different publics.

We need only think of some classic examples of storytelling gone bad. Like the different stories now defunct financial powerhouses like Lehmann Brothers or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac told subprime mortgage customers, their sales staff, the media, financial regulators, and governments.

Or more recently, the way Virgin Galactic moved from hero to villain in the space of less than a week after the tragic test-flight crash. The story flipped, from Sir Richard Branson flying out to the accident in the Mojave desert, giving a moving, vision-rich speech and answering all the tough questions the morning after the crash … to the company praising the surviving pilot but blaming the dead pilot not a week later as the search for a scapegoat – in this case one that couldn’t answer back – intensified. Not to mention Branson claiming he’d never met the dead pilot, when archive footage tells a very different tale.

And then there are stories told right. Like the comms around the centenary of the start of World War One, handled so well on many fronts in a vintage year for storytelling that keeps memories of sacrifice and struggle alive. Storytelling with a singularity of purpose and message across multiple channels, epitomised by the installation of the 880,000 ceramic poppies just removed from the Tower of London.

Sainsbury’s recreation of the World War One football match has also got it very right. The direct fundraising connection between the ad, the product and the Royal British Legion (approaching 9m views on YouTube), means JS is winning the battle for Christmas over John Lewis and Monty the Penguin, even if Monty tops the viewing and sharing charts at nearly 16m.

And although there have been many twists in the story of the Philae lander and its journey to Comet 67/P, the singularity of vision in purpose and storytelling from the European Space Agency deserves special attention.

Brands and corporations would do well to take note for their own Jackanories.


Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of corporate & brand storytelling consultancy Insight Agents