#Storytelling as a legitimization tool

My first participation at the European Communication Summit (#ecs15) has recently concluded. It has been amazing; it brought together more than 600 participants and 80 speakers all working in communication, public relations and public affairs and plenty of examples, ideas, buy reflections and projections all debating the value and impact of “Anticipation and Disruption” (this year’s theme) on communication and communication professionals.

I also had the opportunity to host an hour-long masterclass on #storytelling during which I offered my own answer to the summit’s theme and my interpretation of the current trends and their meaning and impact for practice.

Less trust ==> More skepticism ==> New game!

Considering the decrease in trust in media, businesses, governments and NGOs reported by the Edelman Trust Report and the increase in the number of countries that would now be characterised as being more distrustful, communicators of any kind face increased skepticism. The increasing access to the internet and adoption of social media contribute to this as well, making the authoritative voices of yesterday (including CEOs), know-it-all’s and told-you-so’s lose their power to convince and convert. Instead, the new trusted voices are of those with whose experiences people can identify with, are perceived as authentic and whose stories empower and give hope.

The hero in me and people like us

Truth therefore becomes the most valued currency and storytelling that presents it has the greatest chances to win hearts and minds. Jonah Sachs makes a very powerful case in favour of empowerment marketing showing many examples of how vanity, authority, puffery, gimmickry and insincerity have no place anymore in today’s communication toolkit. Instead, he shows how finding and telling the truth about human nature creates powerful connections.

One might assume that the hero in all of us is equivalent to Andrew Keen’s much praised (and equally criticised) amateur, a talent that is hidden and waits discovered online and offline. Sachs’ idea however is about storytelling that is memorable, about human nature and the journey to discovering the essence of that nature.

For organizations and corporations, this means a radical change in how they communicate and what they communicate about. It puts the focus on the personal experience and the personal journey and moves it away from the brand. This how DERO and its color run in Romania work, and how HSBC NOW with their showcasing of HSBC employees stories and concerns – anything from weight loss to corruption – are doing and are doing so well.

Winning the Story Wars – The Myth Gap from Free Range Studios on Vimeo.

Telling the story right

Moving the focus from the brand to those who benefit from it is not enough. Particularly when thinking of the web, a combination between content, visuals and emotion needs to be carefully thought about. Speaking about emotions, Libert & Tynski’s (2013) Harvard Business Review contribution shows that content that harnesses curiosity, amazement, interest, astonishment and uncertainty gets shared the most and are at the heart of most viral stories. When considering visuals, Getty Image’s Stories and Trends provides insight into the visual aesthetics (super-saturated, super-sensory, point of view), the new heroes (vanguardians, women, hipsters) and the emerging themes (women, sustainability, new business people) and enlarge upon their implications into very insightful webinars. Finally, content structure-wise, communication professionals should pay attention more and learn more from screenwriters, novelists, journalists, bloggers and sometimes even scientists.

Legitimisation through storytelling

For communicators understanding and applying the principles of storytelling is essential. Sadly, there is little written (at least in academic literature) about storytelling as a legitimisation tool.

Schoenberger-Orgad (2007) doctoral thesis discusses extensively the link between PR and organisational legitimacy. Her thesis

demonstrates how military interventions on behalf of powerful interests can be legitimised if the appropriate public relations framework is used and acceptable communication strategies employed. It suggests how citizens of democratic countries can be led to support decision-makers who present themselves as acting altruistically even when their actions may be self-interested”. 

But Schoenberger-Orgad‘s thesis, although inspiring, looks at a very special area and addresses mainly external communications. However, storytelling can be extremely valuable for internal communication as well as for CSR/communicating corporate citizenship. This, for instance, is what the Progress Foundation from Romania has been doing in the past years training organisations to use digital storytelling to harness organisational history-building and invite employees to reflect on their journeys of transformation and development within their organisations. This, beyond reflexion and reflexivity, enables the observation of the legitimising stories and their structure. What they do is in line with what Elmer (2007) alluded to when writing about public relations as storytelling and what Czarniawska (1997 cited in Elmer, 2007) called more attention to when discussing the differences between narrative knowledge in organisations:

  • narrative interpretation of organisational accounts
  • the collection of narratives from within organisations and
  • ‘organising as narration’, by which she means that the narrative form is the ‘natural’ i.e. unreflective, coming easily to mind form that is most likely to be gathered in interviews – see page 91 in Elmer, 2007).

Searching stories and storytellers

Is your organisation using storytelling principles? Are you interested in using storytelling (in particular digital storytelling) as an archival, reflection and legitimisation tool. If so, please get in touch!

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