In IABC Victoria's recent communications trend survey, strategic communications was rated as the number one priority for 2014. In response, Federation Centres' Peta Mckellar looks more deeply at the growing role of narrative in communications… particularly where strategy is concerned.
Targeting an audience has its place. But, the power and danger of the channels we contend with today is the inter-relationships they provide amongst our stakeholders – stakeholders that we used to treat as discreet audiences.
With the grit of social we must presume we have an audience that extends beyond any immediate target to a range of stakeholders. This mixed audience can and will communicate with each other, especially via digital channels, forming both natural and unnatural connections, and there is nothing we can do to stop them.
Internal and external communications are more blurred than ever in our current operating environment and what we do inside our four walls is no longer behind closed doors. If our stakeholders are our world, employees are at its core, with their views and feelings about work resonating beyond the watercooler to online, and throughout their professional networks.
The way we respond to our customers, suppliers and interested parties is highly exposed. It’s more than a view from the hill – it’s a close-up, from all angles. We now have the blessing and the curse of being judged not just by what we say, but also by how we respond.
In the past five years we have moved from a state of “controlled messaging” to a state of “open truth.” Working in this age of transparency requires an organisation’s story to be durable and resilient.
A robust narrative could be the difference between sustainable stakeholder engagement and short-term believability. Great stories can hold their truth; they are highly engaging and relatable. Of course, they’re still subject to critics – but they are much harder to deconstruct.
What makes a good story?
The components of your average story are equally relevant for constructing organisational narrative. Setting the scene, creating segues, sequencing and connecting the storylines. Most importantly, ensuring an overarching vision or goal for your characters and their audience to strive towards.
Like any engaging story, sound narrative relies on the strength and compelling actions of its characters. Building the identity of your organisation means making it real for people, making it human – start on the inside.
If your company were a person, who would they be? What are their strengths? What are their faults? Have you made mistakes in the past? It is good to admit these up front. Are you lofty? Down-to-earth? Do they have a philosophy, a set of guiding principles that stakeholders can trust and rely on?
The perceived quality of your organisation’s character can have a big impact on your brand equity and the business’ reputation…but there are a few other things to consider too.
What about other characters in the story? The relationships the protagonist has with other organisations and individuals. Who will they associate with by choice and sometimes, through obligation?
I’m pretty sure that if Frodo set off to look for a ring by himself in The Lord of the Rings, the monologue would eventually get boring. So, he takes some other little guys with him, as well as some taller and more handsome guys with swords (enter Viggo Mortensen), and they head off on the journey of a lifetime. It was their actions and interactions that made the adventure fulfilling, interesting.
They lived and died by the strength of the characters around them, much like an organisation’s reputation can, if we enter relationships and make brand connections publicly, without proper due diligence.
A sound and simple business strategy is fertile ground for the plot of your narrative.
Translating strategy into a roadmap that is easy to follow, and broadcasting a vision of where the company is headed that people can anticipate, will generate focus and excitement. Without this, its characters, their friends and enemies, may become listless. They’ll have nothing to aim for and no consuming undertaking to immerse themselves in.
This ‘plot’ – the answer to the perpetual question “where are we going?” – should be a simple truth that echoes from internal to external and back again.
“Where are we going?” is often and closely followed by the old chestnut; “how will we get there?” Planning the steps it will take to achieve an end outcome, and walking through them, is how team members make their cameo in the organisation’s story. What your company and its leaders expect of team members as they play their roles and find their way, may be articulated in supplements such as an operating plan or the go-to, how-to guide, your Values & Behaviours.
What you do… not just what you say
So, when does a story crumble or fail? Well…when its star characters say one thing, yet do another. When it behaves inconsistently, falling “out of character”, raising questions about integrity, of course the credibility of any established narrative can suffer.
If your story is rooted in truth and anecdotal evidence, if it is well rounded and considers the interests of all stakeholders, and if the behaviours of your organisation and its leaders are consistent with your story, it should withstand the critics and the test of time, plus be engaging enough to drive your brand and support its success.
Make no mistake! “What we do” and “what we say” must be 100% aligned for your narrative to survive and thrive in this time of amplified transparency.
Today, our actions speak louder then words have ever done.
And they echo.
Peta Mckellar has provided communication services and advice to some of Australia's biggest brands; including Amcor Limited, Kraft, Cadbury, Schweppes Australia, BHP Billiton, Coles Supermarkets, Coles Express, Officeworks, Skilled Group, Laura Ashley and Natio. As the Director of boutique consultancy, Words By Peta, her clients have included: Dairy Australia, Reece, Embark, Hepburn Wind, and Deakin University Library. In her current role as GM Corporate Communications for Federation Centres’ Peta leads a team of four practicioners, managing a generalist portfolio ranging from Internal Communications and Events, to Social Media. Peta has 14 years experience, spanning internal and external communications, stakeholder planning and strategy, issues management, change management, public and media relations, marketing and events.