Storytelling over big budgets

June 10, 2009

Title_storytellerA tale heard many times in varying incarnations in Brussels:

  • Big company X spends hundreds of thousands to get an independent report published by a reputable institution.
  • Takes months, the report is finally published and the company is happy: the facts support its side of the story (e.g. product Y is not nearly as dangerous as some say) and the report is truly independent, so case closed – or so they think.
  • What’s the story? Company X publishes “independent report” which proves so and so? No, that’s not interesting enough. The story becomes company X publishes supposedly independent report but pressure group Z says it can’t be trusted as it’s industry sponsored. The report flops in PR terms.

This is another tale that’s been around the block a few times:

  • Pressure group Z doesn’t have any budget but understands PR far better than industry behemoth X.
  • It makes a mountain out a molehill by taking a nothing story and relating it to a day-to-day human experience e.g. the equivalent of say “paracetamol will kill you” without mentioning that you would have to take 100 tablets or whatever to do so (to be fair, plenty of NGOs and the like publish material that is much less controversial, but you get the gist.)
  • Pressure group Z gets loads more press than Company X got for its crumby report.
  • Company X responds to the story with a press release a week later rather than responding to it immediately using online crisis communications tactics that have more impact.

What are the lessons for corporate players in all of this? Each of these points could be a blog post in itself (if not something much longer), but in short:

  • Re. the last point, clearly, your crisis communications requires an online element.
  • Most of all though, don’t get caught up in trying to win hearts and minds through science and fact alone. Nobody cares about science, however spuriously, if their family’s health may be at risk.
  • Don’t let business people, academics, engineers or scientists decide on your story. You need communicators on board.
  • Don’t just make it about defensive communication and proving that you’re not as bad as they say. So your substance isn’t that harmful (or whatever) but is your organisation really doing good deeds in the long run? If not, it should.
  • Treat pressure groups with respect, engage in dialogue, show them that you do good things, and they might even be nice to you. Or at least be less outrageous.
  • And I have to say this considering my line of work… Go online and develop a super web presence to engage directly with the public and explain your story to them without intermediaries. Media relations is important, of course, but the press is likely to side with pressure groups more often than not, no matter what you say or do (and if you’re truly nasty, deservedly so!) Why? Because they’re the nice guys and readers like them more than you.
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3 Responses to “Storytelling over big budgets”

  1. Ralf Grahn Says:

    One ‘industry behemot’ which needs to read this post and start to engage is the European Union.

    The Commission produces loads of material and it runs a number of forums (‘listening exercises’), but it is unclear if anyone is ever heard.

    Take for instance the myths about the EU. They have to be encountered where they are spread. Not one time, not twice, but a thousand times, until they die down.

    As far as I see, the only once who, sporadically, take on these EU myths are a handful of individual bloggers.

    The great thing is, of course, that it costs the Commission nothing, but for every sensible post there are about twenty who spread the aggressive and distorted views.

  2. Steffen Says:

    Great point – yes I hadn’t admittedly thought of it in the EU context. Certainly, the Commission hasn’t grasped web communications yet. Their initiatives are well-intentioned but usually involve old-fashioned “big idea” projects with enormous scope. They should instead start small and help to connect a grassroots network online that already exists but is, for now, very scattered.


  3. […] 15, 2009 An after-thought to a previous post – Storytelling over big budgets – which I’ve just re-read. I implied that companies need to tell a good story rather […]


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