Understanding and influencing your organisation’s narrative
Insights from Trevor Young and Warren Weeks
We all know that the simplicity of the traditional sender-message-receiver model is long gone, so how do we control the message in an environment where long-standing rules have been broken?
In April, IABC Victoria hosted a hands-on workshop with Trevor Young, PR Warrior, Mark Sheehan, Deakin University, and Warren Weeks from Cubit Research to understand how you can plan and influence your organisation’s narrative, and effectively measure and monitor your success.
The professional communications industry over the years has become dedicated to the idea of ‘controlling the message’. And as a result, our efforts typically revolve around key messaging – often to the exclusion of all else.
That’s not to say there’s anything inherently ‘wrong’ with the art of crafting and delivering key messages through various means to intended audience groups. Indeed, it makes perfect sense to ensure messages are aligned and consistent. Otherwise an organisation risks broadcasting an array of muddled messages that are likely to create nothing but confusion among its customers and other stakeholders. But to cut through in today’s noisy, information-overloaded, multi-channel world, we need to think and act smarter. We need to expand our thinking beyond the message.
Our traditional ‘battering ram’ approaches to influencing audiences were developed years ago, when media outlets were relatively few, and operated in one-way broadcast mode to the masses. And in that environment, they represented one of the few ways to ‘cut through’ with your organisational story.
But today, people rarely engage in indiscriminate listening. They ‘opt in’ to access sources of news, information and opinion they find credible, and simply filter out the rest. Even when they are listening, today’s audiences are far more cynical and disbelieving than ever. Add in the ability for your audience members to effectively talk back to you, and it’s clear that this new environment presents some significant new challenges for communicators.
One of the most profound changes to come from our new media environment is its effect on the whole notion of ‘the message’.
Instead of our messages being fleeting, campaign-oriented statements with a finite shelf life, they now form part of a cumulative, dynamic, and enduring narrative. Such narratives inform both audiences’ perceptions of and behaviour toward us, and increasingly, they are things our traditional communication methods have little influence over.
The rise of the narrative as a major influencer on today’s audiences stems from two developments: (1) the internet and its long memory (nothing ever really goes away and it’s all searchable), (2) all those social media channels that facilitate the exchange of stories, advice, and opinions, between potentially vast and influential communities of interest.
These two things have conspired to ensure that now, every message an organisation delivers, each story it tells through whichever means, and every action it takes, will likely become a part of its broader organisational narrative.
Significance of an organisation’s narrative
Put another way, the totality of an organisation’s reputation and success is increasingly determined by whatever narratives have evolved among its various audiences and that are attached to it. And these narratives are things over which it has no veto and no power to change.
That leaves organisations with only one option: mutually beneficial collaboration with its customers and other stakeholders.
In order to improve its narrative – to polish its reputation, and prosper – an organisation must first identify its prevailing narrative from the audience’s perspective. Through this process, it will come to understand how well its audiences believe it is delivering against their expectations, and precisely why customers and stakeholders might be expressing their dissatisfaction in this way.
However, since the most influential narratives evolve outside an organisation and beyond its direct control, changing them is a matter of alignment, engagement and improvement rather than command and control, spin and mitigation.
Here are the key aspects to be aware of when developing and communicating your organisation’s narrative today:
Know your landscape
It’s critical we are aware of what our audience thinks of us, what their opinions of our industry are, and their collective view on the issues that surround our organisation and/or industry. These views, opinions and stories – the people’s own narrative – need to be taken into consideration when planning to improve our narrative. Indeed, they need to somehow be woven into the organisational narrative, otherwise it’s not going to cut through or resonate effectively. These views can be garnered via an extensive media landscape analysis at the ‘top end’, or by interacting and listening via social media channels.
Ensure objectives are appropriate and real
What are our top three communications objectives, and how can we tie them back to our client or employer’s organisational goals? Do our objectives align with the narrative that’s already out there influencing people? Have you got a sense of how to measure these objectives?
What is the core focus of our communications? Brand, product or issue? You can’t do all at once.
Understand one core audience group at a time; ensure you develop a campaign designed just for them, no other secondary audiences (these can be tackled in a separate ‘campaign’ – remember, you can run multiple campaigns in parallel or a series as long as they all relate to a consistent narrative, but don’t try and tackle all at once with the one campaign).
At which point in the engagement cycle will your campaign or program seek to connect with your audience? Are you seeking to INTEREST them in what you’re saying? To EDUCATE them, to MOTIVATE, to FACILITATE an attitude or behavioural shift, or to CONSOLIDATE your relationship with the audience?
Where are we going to focus our efforts? Don’t blindly start and stop just at traditional media outlets, they might not be the most effective way to communicate your narrative in the first instance of a specific campaign. Investigate other channels – sometimes owned media channels such as a series of blog articles or online videos or audio clips involving key influencers might be a more effective way to reach the ‘right’ audience, but in turn might generate more heat around a topic that piques the interest of journalists. In other words, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.
What kind of competitive environment are we working in and how might that inform the kinds of stories or actions that will bring about a positive shift in our narrative? Is our market space crowded with largely commoditised offerings, or more sparsely populated by organisations with highly differentiated products or services?
Which aspects of our narrative are we seeking to influence, and what kind of story will contribute to an improvement there? Are we focused on demonstrating our QUALITY, our VALUES, LEADERSHIP in thought or action? Or perhaps our endeavours in SUSTAINABILITY? You can’t do everything at once.
Here’s a useful framework to help guide you through the steps of influencing your organisation’s narrative:
Trevor Young, aka The PR Warrior, is a communications strategist and adviser specialising in content-driven social PR. He is also an experienced professional speaker available for keynote presentations and facilitates social media and content marketing workshops.
Warren Weeks is an analyst, consultant, researcher & author. After a successful career as a technologist and marketer, he founded Cubit Media Research to help organisations drive better results through communication. He regularly lectures in the areas of governance, strategy, reputation and communication.