Winston Churchill said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
An Internet search for “Charlotte police shooting” will pull up more than 20,000 news articles and videos littered with speculations and quotes from witnesses, family members and police. Did Keith Lamont Scott have a gun, or was it just a book? The viral nature of the story quickly escalated and soon there were riots in the streets.
It’s not just police departments caught in this crossfire. In today’s connected world, a story — any story — can take off and leave an organization, brand, business or individual caught flat-footed. Although it might not lead to riots in the streets, if businesses don’t have their story straight when a crisis happens, someone else will tell the story for them — and, more likely than not, that version won’t be something they like.
Companies should consider the following guidelines:
Knowing the Core Story
Every organization needs to have a clear sense of “who we are” to be able to tell the story that explains where it came from and why it exists. It should determine what its brand promise is, why it is here, what good it does in the world, and how it helps people. A brand story needs to be not only about how the company or product came to be, but why it came to be, and, finally, how it keeps its team and consumers committed to its cause on a daily basis.
Perhaps most importantly, these stories must be real and authentic; this is an opportunity to express the human side of business. After all, businesses are people serving people. Brands with a humanized persona — brands that feel more like a friend than a company — have a better chance of surviving a negative messaging firestorm. Remember when Lululemon’s founder started talking all kinds of crazy in 2013? In today’s connected environment, those comments could have been the death of the brand. However, Lululemon is a brand built on stories — consumer stories, aspirational stories, hopeful stories. So, although the comments put the brand under a microscope, years of good storytelling work paid off and Lululemon is stronger than ever.
All businesses should find their core story now in order to be prepared for the worst. If these stories seem nonexistent or hard to find, a great start is to dig deep to find any possible experiences that consumers will understand and relate to. Any trials or failures that led to success are great story starters. The most important part of the relationship with consumers is trust, and trust is developed much easier when both parties can share in a common experience, a common story.
Developing Story Collateral
A set of story collateral should effectively communicate a brand promise; videos of executives and why they come to work every day, for example. The old phrase “actions speak louder than words” is no exception here — examples of the brand story in action must be shared with abandon. These stories should be told across all platforms and modes of communication; blogs, videos and even images with a 100-word story to go with them allow adaptation to any circumstance in real time with compelling narratives to keep pace.
Consistency is key — especially in the story being told and in the regularity with which it is told. Social media can be a messaging dream come true but it can also be a business’s worst nightmare — a place where rumors and false information spread quickly if stories aren’t crafted consistently and words aren’t chosen carefully. However, if a breadth of consistent stories is already available and there is an established routine of sharing them, the details will be retained on every post, keeping the message uniform and reliable.
Building a Story Suite
No company was built from a single story. Every person on the team and each client served has his or her own unique encounters of the role the business has played in his or her life. Each one of these stories can be integrated to define the brand and help mitigate an onslaught of negative press, but only if they’re on hand. Taking the time to find these stories is important, as well as beginning to cultivate and share them now, via social media in particular, so that they’re accessible in times of need.
Aside from broadcasting story across social media, employees and team members should be as familiar with these stories as they are with the back of their hands. They should be well versed on telling both the company’s story and the story of their place within the company so that they can communicate them with ease and confidence both when necessary and when not — brand storytelling shouldn’t be reserved only for times of crisis.
Filling the Silence Gap — with Truth
Fact: Bad things happen to good companies. Think Chipotle and the E. coli outbreak. Unfortunately, waiting to clarify every last detail before going public with the information at hand will allow others to intervene and tell their side of the story before anyone in the business has the chance to. Just like a game of telephone, the more the story is told and the further it gets from the source, the less likely it is that the true details will be retained. If “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” it’s imperative that action must happen fast. Businesses need to be fully equipped with a multitude of stories that can be used to fill the void while internal teams work to choose the appropriate next steps. These stories must be set in motion to reassure consumers that the brand promise still rings true even in this time of crisis. In the meantime, legal counsel should be providing guidelines as quickly as possible to have new stories on hand to adapt to the current circumstance. When a business is in the wrong, it’s important to say so; people love to forgive but hate a cover-up. If in the wrong, extreme transparency should be exhibited, and the story told should tell a tale of the lesson learned from the situation.
On the bright side, if a crisis is handled well, it can be turned into a story that will strengthen the brand. Depending on the severity of the situation and how it is handled, a media disaster can be turned into a story of a company that overcame hardships and came out the other side stronger and better than ever. Good storytelling can survive the chain of communication and message distortion; if the story of a business overcoming a negative circumstance is well written and relatable, people will be talking about it.
The rumor mill thrives on the time it takes a business to act when disaster strikes, and if the business is unprepared for it, the long-term damage can be irreparable. Taking steps to stock up an arsenal of stories that back the brand promise and sharing those stories is an important part of making sure the company’s intentions won’t become misconstrued. Training the troops to accurately share the story is essential to the outcome of any crisis. If the team is prepared and the story well crafted, the truth will be crossing the finish line before any lies have a chance to define the brand.
Kindra Hall is a storytelling advisor to top entrepreneurs and brands, helping them to capture attention in a crowded marketplace. She is a storytelling keynote speaker and travels internationally, delivering her storytelling workshop for audiences ranging from sales teams and marketing groups to leadership forums.