Fake news. Alternative facts. What is true? Why does it matter?
I’m a journalist by training, so I’m always on the lookout for a good story. So are organisations, politicians and businesses. Right now, storytelling is cool and ubiquitous. And so are corporate storytellers.
Why? Because in our era of many to many communications, organisations want to use the story’s persuasive, narrative form to cut through the noise and make special connections with their audiences.
No-one can doubt that stories have special, emotional appeal. Myths, epics and parables have circulated across many cultures for centuries in spoken and written form, delivering stirring accounts of good, evil, triumphs and failures.
These stories appeal because they seem to make sense of the chaos inherent in the human condition. We hope that their simple structure will yield simple, and persuasive, truths.
But we all know that our real life stories are usually far from simple. In order to shape and construct the story of an event or experience, the storyteller (just like the journalist) has to edit, compress and filter all sorts of complex detail. And in paring away this detail in the search for a simple meaning, they can erase the story’s more complex but even more rewarding truths.
Such complexity is often reflected in myths and legends, where heroes have failings, the ‘gods’ intervene to create mayhem and virtue doesn’t always triumph. It’s also worth remembering that some of Shakespeare’s plays are called ‘problem plays’, because the outcomes are enigmatic and perplexing - far from clear-cut.
In fact, today, the assumption that stories are the best way to make sense of events is by no means universally accepted. For example, post-modernist historians question whether any objective truths can be derived from a narrative. They say that writers of history inevitably intrude their own interests on their narratives, and, in any case, the only valid meaning is the meaning that we, as individual readers, impose on the story. Stories have a life of their own. All narratives are, in effect, fictions.
When corporate storytellers broadcast their narratives, they presumably hope their stories will have the opposite reception from the one the post-modernists predict. Far from allowing audiences to interpret the message however they choose, these storytellers are seeking to lead their audiences to a conclusion by telling supposedly authentic truths about brand experiences and brand values.
The other driver for the current vogue of corporate storytelling is the desire to exploit the opportunities offered by digital media. Now everyone can tell a story to anyone who will listen. No wonder Snapchat uses the idea of ‘Story’ as a channel for users to share their images and experiences.
In the corporate world, brands can now attach themselves to consumers’ own stories, and so promote themselves apparently disinterestedly. In doing so they can claim a special authenticity for the views expressed - especially when the stories are positive. This represents the latest stage in the increasingly sophisticated search for the most advantageous ways of connecting brands with consumers. And the journey has really only just begun.
Of course, telling the corporate story is nothing new. Over the years, many organisations have commissioned business historians and journalists to write their company history – partly as an ‘official’ record of how the business started and developed, and partly as a means of connecting the originating ethos of the business to its present day activities.
These are essentially instances of traditional reportage. Another example is Nike’s program of corporate storytellers begun in the 1970s, involving senior managers tasked with ensuring the original Nike values continue to impact the current business - essentially top-down message sharing.
One of the landmark moments in the development of online storytelling was the long-form narrative ‘Snow Fall’ published by The New York Times in 2012. This was a multi-media story about an avalanche in Washington State, which won a Pulitzer Prize for author John Branch. Microsoft picked up the concept in their ’88 Acres’ corporate story, the account of the greening of their campus in Seattle. Despite the media used, both these instances are still essentially one-way narratives.
Coca-Cola, in their Content 2020 Initiative, devised a 360° approach. They responded to the opportunities that new platforms offer by developing the idea of brand stories that contain ‘contagious ideas’. These ideas in turn provoke conversations between themselves and the consumer, and between consumer and consumer. Such stories are, in Coca-Cola’s phrase, both ‘liquid and linked’ – they flow freely but are interlinked and link the consumer to the brand.
Of course, when stories are let loose, they can have a life of their own. The dangers of corporate storytelling were potently revealed during the financial crisis of 2008 and beyond. The stories banks told about themselves, their culture and their relationship with their customers came to be entirely dislocated from their actions, and how those actions were perceived. And it goes on. There could scarcely be a more evocative corporate name in the United States than Wells Fargo. Not long ago Wells was the world’s biggest bank. Now it isn’t, and it’s setting aside millions of dollars to meet fines for improper and aggressive sales practices.
Lucy Kellaway and Andrew Hill of the Financial Times have highlighted the pitfalls of corporate storytelling. Apart from the fiction that everyone can tell a story, and the marketing-speak that dominates so many such tales, there’s the risk that the corporate story can become a trap. Businesses rarely move forward on a predictable vector. When a business’s CEO sets out the narrative of its ambitions and how they’ll be achieved, they can never be sure they can deliver a happy ending, however emphatic and positive their language. Frequently they don’t.
Of course, if the post-modernists are right, corporate storytellers will never successfully manage the messages they propagate. The judgements, preferences and needs of the audiences will always win out against the objectives of the authors. However sophisticated the research behind the narrative, and however expensive the production values, there can be no guarantee the audience will take home the message as intended.
As the prevalence of fake news demonstrates, just because we’re being told a story, doesn’t mean it’s true or believable, or even that it’s a coherent narrative. It’s the duty of corporate storytellers to treat their story content with honesty and rigour. It’s the duty of audiences to be equally clear-sighted in judging the merit and truth of the stories they’re being told.
Let’s all listen very hard.