The Protective Power of Your Corporate Narrative

The corporate narrative is becoming a mainstay of most organisations, seen – rightly in my view – as an effective way to build consumer and employee engagement.

However, narratives aren’t only useful in promoting your corporate brand. They can also provide a protective power that aids organisations in a crisis.

In fact, rather than being viewed only as a marketing tool, narratives should really be regarded as an essential ingredient in your corporate reputation strategy.

Before we all rush to start writing stories, we first need to agree exactly what is a narrative. The term is regularly used to mean almost any message or story that an organisation may put out: so we’ll hear the media reporting on the government’s ‘narrative’, when what they mean is simply what the government is trying to communicate.

Done right, a narrative is more than a short prosaic message. It should have some specific features that provide a structure around your company’s communications.

First it locates the business in a story or journey, with a clear sense of mission, challenges to overcome and problems to solve. The narrative provides a background and a sense of direction and is a powerful way of explaining why organisations act like they do. Moreover, the best narratives also locate the business or brand in the mission of their audience, explaining how what they do is helping their customers or employees to fulfil their own goals.

The appeal of a narrative comes from a simple insight – that people increasingly want more than a rational list of reasons why to buy a product or engage with a company. There’s a strong desire to understand the backstory of the organisation, what they’re trying to achieve and where they’re heading.

In effect, we are personifying organisations, seeing companies as characters that have values and beliefs, attitudes and ambitions, friends and enemies. Imagining big corporations as people makes it easier for us to understand their behaviours and actions and, naturally, the simplest way to explain these characters is in a story.

So how does any of this help with crisis management?

I think there are five ways that narratives can help to insulate organisations from criticism or to help overcome attacks.

CONTEXT. The first is about context. At its simplest, narratives provide a reference point through which we judge the behaviours of organisations. If we understand the motives of an organisation, we can more easily understand their actions, even when they seem unpalatable. If we know, for example, that the ambition of a company is to provide new, modern and comfortable working spaces for all its staff, we might be more forgiving of the disruption and chaos caused by its office renovations.

The same is true when something happens that’s out of character. A clear narrative provides a reference point for us to evaluate the misstep, and hopefully to see it as an anomaly rather than a flaw in the company’s personality.

Since 2004, Dove has won friends and lots of customers through a meticulously crafted narrative about ‘real beauty’, and the role Dove can play in taking on stereotypes, valuing diversity and empowering people to be themselves. Cue horror, then, when in 2017 a Dove ad was felt to imply their soap could turn a black woman’s skin white. Accusations of racism were levied and the ad was quickly withdrawn, but for most people this crisis didn’t hit home. People felt they knew the Dove story and this context helped them to see the ad as aberrant and uncharacteristic.

EMOTIONAL TIE. Second, a narrative does more than make people familiar with a company or brand. An effective narrative also builds a personal connection with the audience, helping them to find their own goals and values in the story of the organisation. This emotional connection can be crucial in situations where a company’s reputation is under attack.

We’re all familiar with the idea of confirmation bias, the notion that we tend to find evidence for things that confirm our already-held views. This is highly relevant when it comes to a company crisis. If there’s a group of people who understand and are engaged with the mission of an organisation, they are going to be far less likely to believe any criticism.

We proved this point in a recent Message House survey looking at the impact of hypothetical crises on major companies. For those people who understood exactly what a company stood for, they were on average 15% less likely to believe a negative story about the company.

Of course, the reverse is also true. If people are predisposed to reject what a company stands for, or see it as a bad character, they are much more likely to believe negative news.

Either way, having a clear narrative that engages your audiences emotionally is an important way to insulate your organisation from criticism.

CONTROL. The third benefit from a narrative is about control. Many reputation crises are caused when organisations lose control of their story.

For example, in 2013, the RSPCA faced a crisis, sparked by its foxhunting prosecutions, opposition to the badger cull and concern over the welfare of horses at the Grand National.

There were lots of accusations made about the RSPCA but in my view the crisis really boiled down to a disagreement over the organisation’s narrative. Traditionalists argued the charity was moving away from its core mission. As Charles Moore wrote in The Daily Telegraph, “a movement originally designed to advance the interests of animals hangs in the balance”. While the RSPCA claimed it was acting within its purpose, it failed to provide a compelling narrative that made sense of its tougher stance.

It’s a useful reminder that your company narrative is rarely owned by you alone. Many stakeholders will have their own version of your story and unless you provide a clear explanation for where you’re heading and why, you risk losing control of your own narrative.

FOCUS. A narrative is immensely useful for helping crisis-hit organisations hold true to who they are. When bad news lands, it’s common for teams to panic and to rush off in different directions to try and find solutions. While there’s always something to be learned in a crisis, most organisations gain little from knee-jerk reactions and critic-led responses.

This is where the narrative comes into its own. Having a clear sense of purpose, knowing where you are heading and why, are qualities that can help keep organisations focused and on track, and prevent them from getting distracted by only the loudest voices.

For me, McDonald’s provides a great example of a narrative providing focus. Since the BSE crisis, McDonald’s has faced an endless series of issues over its products, business, people and impact. Its response could easily have been scatter-gun but instead, McDonald’s created a simple story about food quality. For more than a decade, they’ve told the same story of quality ingredients in their food: 100% British beef, organic milk, free range eggs, zero additives, and so on.

Recent campaigns have even taken on the myths about their products, all helping to support the notion that McDonald’s sells good quality food. The clarity and focus of their response has helped McDonald’s recover some of its lost reputation, despite remaining the leader in an issue-rich sector.

LEADERSHIP. The final point is about leadership. Many company narratives become very personal to the leader, a de facto expression of their own mission and journey. Having a CEO who knows what they stand for and where they are heading not only helps build trust and confidence in all stakeholders, it also provides something for the leader to fall back on when an issue emerges.

As CEOs are often the face of the company in a crisis, the extent to which people see them as responsible directly impacts the credibility of your crisis response. In a Message House reputation survey, we tested the credibility of crisis rebuttals. For those people who thought the company ‘had leaders I respect’, the company response was up to 30% more likely to be believed.

Of course, if the focus of the narrative becomes the source of the crisis, it can also be the undoing of the leader. Yet this shouldn’t be used an excuse for not saying anything. I would argue the vulnerability of the leader is magnified tenfold if people don’t understand what they’re trying to achieve in the first place.

As we’ve seen, a company narrative can protect as well as promote, ensuring your story is widely understood and hopefully embraced, aligning stakeholders behind a single view of your goals and providing a focus to your response.

If the benefits are obvious, the crafting of narratives is often less straight-forward. They have to be credible and something that can be recognised regularly in how the organisation works and acts. Narratives that are too lofty or elevated won’t ring true. The best narratives are also ones that are shared, telling the story of a mission or journey that the audience is also pursuing and in which the company is simply playing a supporting role.

Done in the right way, the company narrative should be much more than a set of words in the annual report. It should be something that’s core to the reputation of the organisation and the first line of defence in a crisis.