One of the more common conversations I have with potential clients is around the difference between corporate messages and a corporate story.
During an introductory coffee meeting or phone call, the discussion will sometimes lead to the potential client assuring me that they, in fact, already have their corporate story defined and their workforce engaged and aligned around it. With new business development I never push hard and try to sell something to someone who isn’t sure they need it, so my tactic in this situation is often to ask the person to share some of their story with me. Sometimes what they relay back is indeed a story, filled with purpose, depth and meaning. But more often what I will hear is simply a series of pithy, well-crafted, bumper-sticker-like sentences strung together, with little else. “That’s great,” I will acknowledge, “But that isn’t really your story; they’re more your corporate messages. There’s a role for both, but they’re different.”
“What’s the difference?” they will respond, and then I proceed to share the following:
ONE — Corporate messages are about we; a corporate story is about the world in which we exist. The vast majority of corporate messages focus exclusively on the corporation itself: on the work that it’s doing, its latest accomplishments, its plans for the future, etc. In this regard, corporate messages are more insular. A corporate story however takes a broader view, considering first the world around the organization, then its larger role within that world and its impact on the people who live in it. A corporate story provides a sense of purpose and meaning behind corporate messages by helping the communicator and the audience understand the context for them, therefore making those messages more approachable, believable and palatable.
Look for example at Apple: a company, a brand that clearly has a story, one of challenging the status quo and empowering and delighting people through incredible design. When Apple found itself under a barrage of criticism over its labour practices in China, its Corporate Communications department responded with a series of well-crafted messages broadcast through the typical channels of statements, interviews and press conferences. Because Apple has such a strong story—one deeply rooted in humanity and humans—their messages resonated, and the company was given latitude to correct the situation. In contrast, look at GM, which doesn’t have a strong story (if, sadly, any story at all anymore) and is therefore less able to right the communications ship after its record-setting recall crisis.
TWO — Corporate messages are controlled and controlling; a corporate story is flexible and trusting. Corporate messages are typically crafted by some department dedicated to this sort of thing (e.g. Corporate Communications or Media Relations) and once determined become something relegated to a select few who are then expected to memorize and repeat those messages verbatim—i.e. to be consistently “on message.” But this sort of practice creates a state of fear and division within an organization, with those select few worried they’ll say the wrong thing, and the rest of the staff expected not to say anything at all. This approach had some success 20 or 30 years ago when we still lived in a one-to-many world of broadcast communications; but in the many-to-many world of social media we now live in, it does not.
A corporate story is more generous, motivated by a desire to cultivate richer understanding among all employees and faith that once that’s seeded, people will instinctively know what to say. As my esteemed colleague Paul Belserene once said to me, “Any automaton can deliver a corporate message. It takes a human to tell a story.” Unlike corporate messages, which look to inform or convince people, a corporate story looks to engage and inspire them. Its primary motivation is to connect with people (not the least of which are employees) in a meaningful way, helping them to not only see the larger corporate story, but also see themselves in that story. When that connection is made internally, employees will embrace the corporate story as their own and then more readily share it with others, albeit in a more personal and less rigid way: like thousands of great jazz musicians riffing off the same score. Look at the high level of employee engagement at companies like Google, WestJet or Zappos: all companies that entrust their employees with their story and foster an incredible sense of ownership and pride in it as a result.
THREE — Corporate messages are one-way communications; a corporate story is a conversation. A corporate message is something one person pushes out onto others hoping that, with enough repetition and conviction, it will stick. If someone asks for clarification or further meaning, the originator of that message will typically just repeat it, making the message feel ‘canned.’ Look at how hard a time BP had with the Gulf oil spill, simply repeating the same message over and over again (“We’re working on it”) until the public stopped believing and stopped listening. In contrast, a story is an authentic exchange of meaning shared from one person to another. It’s a two-way dialogue, engaging the audience and making them as active a participant as the storyteller. A corporate story invites employees and the public in to build on the story, and in doing so connect one person to another in a way that means something to both.
To be clear, Corporate Communications and the key messages they develop and deploy play a vital role in any organization. The mistake corporations make, however, is thinking that those messages alone constitute their story. A company’s story is what lies behind and between its messages, and this is especially important when engaging and aligning the most powerful storytellers of all: employees. Importantly, corporate messages tend to be more temporary, responding to changing circumstances and new situations. A corporate story is more timeless; it’s the ether that continually permeates and floats around those messages. Stories are not opportunistic, they don’t change when the conditions change. The messages conveyed in the spirit of that story may adjust, but the story endures.