“Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.”
– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605)
Storytelling is as old as history. Stories tell us who we are. They shape the landscape in which we find kindred spirits; the compass with which we try to navigate in networks of human connections. Since the dawn of time, we have been telling each other stories, sitting around a campfire, or in our cave. In the Middle Ages, the travelling minstrel acted as a singing newspaper or magazine. A good story has the power to entice you out off your linear thought process and to dream along. A well-told story is easy to remember and to pass on. When a story is passed on, the new narrator suddenly becomes the owner of the story, and the listener is on the verge of sharing that property. A sound story can deliver arguments, even evidence, and displays authenticity that shines on the storyteller. Stories always carry emotion. This gives the listener a sense of intimacy and a sense of security. He or she belongs to the community.
Corporate storytelling, or, to put it coarsely, the story of a company, network, or organization, is a powerful instrument with which to unite and engage stakeholders, include them in the organization, incite them to co-create, share knowledge, and inspire. The story ensures that stakeholders understand the identity of the company in such a way that they keep it in the back of their mind.
Besides reviews of services or products from stakeholders, I believe good corporate stories always contain elements or topics that refer to the vision, the culture, the leadership, and the conceptual and social business concept of a company or organization. These are, after all, the critical factors of success in Organization 3.0! What can an organization or company substantially “talk” about? Basically about everything as long as commercial language is not used, and there is no self-glorification or other forms of introspection. As the former CEO of Coca-Cola once excellently articulated, “beware of the temptation to look in the mirror, while you should be looking out of the window.”
The corporate stories – a term that has a broad definition, because it encompasses text, sound, and image – can be told in different places, both physically and virtually. They are entirely cross-media. Simultaneously, but also parallel or serial, sometimes entwined, sometimes independent of each other. They originate from different authors, producers, and suppliers. And, these are not always your preferred communication co-workers, because stories are not only told, but passed on. This is the crux of the situation. Obviously, the content of the stories has to be inextricably bound up with the total corporate (market) communication; otherwise the organization’s credibility is at stake.
At the same time, the stakeholders are passing their stories back, usually via the same media. That is interesting. It is an illusion to think that you can control or correct a story-process these days. A wrong product is a wrong product. A slow call center is just slow. An unmotivated employee ruins the moment of truth. A good story can’t fix that, and there is the snag. The dilemma is that it is not just a company or organization that tells stories about its products and/or services. Customers, employees, and other stakeholders use the Internet to endlessly, really endlessly, tell each other stories about issues that they do or do not like. It happens in different places, and in places you did not even know existed: on blogs, forums, review sites, and other places, people gather to share their opinions of and experiences with you, your staff, and your products or services.
The consequences of this are well reported. On the website Wikileaks, you can find confidential information, such as “secret” memos and reports, intentionally leaked by staff. There are infamous examples of organizations being demolished, and unfortunately, not always mistakenly. Dell Computers has to deal with the forums Dell Sucks and DellHell. On these forums, former employees and other stakeholders share their critical and funny stories about Dell. The classic blog Dell Lies, Dell Sucks by Jeff Jarvis forced the company to completely overhaul its customer service. Many other companies are given hell on a regular basis.
We can’t escape the fact that like-minded people are more likely to believe each other than the company’s story. This is an enormous challenge for organizations. There is a two-part remedy: continuously monitor your own reputation (risks), and continuously air your story. But you do have to have a good story to tell!