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.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Nudge Factory.

10 considerations for this decade

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

Last week, I caught-up with Andrew Marshall, vice-chairman of Cognito – a City-based consultancy, which took a chance and gave me my first (paid) PR job over 10 years ago. As I approached their offices I was greeted by one Charlie Morrow, who, in turn, was my first ever hire. Turns out I’m pretty good at spotting talent! It’s great to see them doing so well.

Over coffees, Andrew and I exchanged a couple of stories and ideas. He is entirely to blame for me writing this blog about 10 PR things to consider in 2020 and beyond. I don’t intend for this to be an exhaustive list, rather a download on what’s front of mind. I’m sure other Conservatives in Communications will have their views. So, here goes – in no order:

1. Purposeful communications

What is the point in what you’re saying? We should ask that every time. People receive many communications – too many in fact – so relevance is key to influence.

2. Data-driven

There is an abundance of data out there and PR professionals should tap it to create hyper-focused campaigns that reach specifically targeted audiences. 

3. Digital-savvy

It’s 2020. Get with the programme. If your PR person or agency doesn’t ‘get’ social media, switch them. In addition, social media should be in the mix not an afterthought. 

4. Authentic voice

With the rise of populist politics and digital – think Trump, Boris and Salvini etc. – people expect to hear from others – not firms – about what they’re thinking and in real-time. Try it with your senior executives.

5. Human emotion

With technology playing a bigger role, we must be mindful of retaining that ‘human element’ in all communications.

6. Story telling

Like social media, if your communications people can’t string a sentence together then don’t hire them; they’ll only disappoint you in the long run. 

7. Audio-visual

Where investment should be made is in training communications people to use more audiovisual, including photos or videos, as these are just if not more powerful than the written word.

8. Specialist skills

Those who demonstrate a deep understanding of their clients’ requirements will succeed. For me, it must be boutique firm over big agency every time.

9. Team collaboration

Integrated marketing and communications are essential to deliver results for your stakeholders. It’s bonkers it’s taken this long for some to realise.

10. Top table

PR, like public affairs, is integral to the bottom line. It warrants a seat – and a separate one – at the top table e.g. CMO or Director of Communications.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website.