Crafting stories, changing narratives and shaping reality

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public RelationsFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

I’ve always worried about talking to stakeholders about the power of storytelling. I fear it sounds juvenile, childish, even infantile. What springs to mind when you hear the word? Telling stories at bedtime to your son or daughter (or nephew, niece, godson or goddaughter)?

Perhaps that’s why we sometimes call it ‘brand narrative’. It’s way more grown up: grand, perhaps even arcane or opaque. To some, of course, it sounds like nonsensical jargon, management-speak, even gobbledegook. There are downsides to both articulations, but to all intents and purposes, they’re one and the same.

But why do we harp on about ‘storytelling’ and ‘brand narrative’? Why is ‘story’ powerful, and why should businesses, organisations and brands of all sizes pay careful attention to creating and telling their own stories?

The answer is simple – a story is memorable in the way that a fact sheet or report isn’t. A story moves our hearts, lodges in our minds and stirs us to action. A story evokes feelings, provokes a response and connects with us on an almost primordial level.

When you’re faced with a choice between brand ‘A’ and brand ‘B’ – the emotional factor will always play a disproportionate role in your decision-making. This is true for products and services, and it also works with personalities, countries and all other propositions.

As we go through life, we pick up all manner of subconscious perceptions, and they become our ‘truth’. If the messaging and the underpinning substance of a brand is clear, compelling and consistent, we understand, absorb and embrace a shared perception of reality.

Let’s do a little exercise.

When you read ‘Germany’ – what comes to mind? Something about efficiency, engineering, beer, perhaps some historical association with the two World Wars, maybe certain brands – such as Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and BMW. The likelihood is that you have a few key thoughts, expressed through maybe a dozen or so words. Your list of perceptions might be different to mine – but they’ll be in the same ballpark.

German’s brand narrative is unambiguous and strong. To the casual observer, that seems to be just a reflection of the nation’s reality. Would it surprise you to know that this is something they work hard at? They certainly can’t do much about the weft and wove of their history, society and culture – but they can emphasise and communicate the positives, and attempt to negate and minimise the negatives. 

There are all manner of indices that rank nation brands, from the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index to the Good Country Index. Some focus on trade, some on tourism, others on inward investment. African nations seeking to become recognised as democracies might focus on improving their Freedom House score, gaining better standing in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and lowering their Gini coefficient.

Each index is built on extensive desk, qualitative and quantitative research – and provides a part of the overall picture. None are perfect, but all offer an opportunity for a nation to benchmark itself and work on strategic communications to frame itself in the best possible light, thus advancing its soft power standing in the world.

Let’s bring it down to a personal level. Individual brands are built in just the same way. They rise and fall depending on behaviours and positive or negative exposure to audiences through media and social media. This is as true for politicians as it is for pop stars. Great PR can’t change the nature of a person’s appeal – but it can mitigate the downsides and maximise their best character and competency features.

Take Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A cursory scan of his career to date has seen him take a roller coaster journey. Whilst he’ll always be seen in an unfavourable light by certain people, he’s enjoyed peaks of huge popularity, and troughs where his reputation has been low and his future seemed on a downward arc. Right now, it’s hard to pin exactly where he is, but there’s clearly room for improvement and his visionary leadership style is needed now more than ever.

Crafting a brand narrative takes time. It requires evidence, insight and powerful, persuasive messaging. It leverages the best of a proposition and builds on it – carefully connecting individual elements of its message to specific audiences and stakeholders. Done well, this builds awareness, shapes perception, and ultimately makes people think, feel and act differently toward the brand. And that’s why I still talk about storytelling: it’s neither childish nor trivial. Executed and implemented well, it changes reality.

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This piece was written for Nudge Factory.

The craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

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This piece was written for our website.