Yesterday a colleague told me about a conversation he’d had with an individual who had recently left a large Financial Services institution. The aforesaid Institution’s Communications Department (which is an excellent Communications Department, I hasten to add) had taken it upon itself to write their strategic, or corporate, narrative. Well, that’s its job isn’t it? It’s as close to the business as any department, has an important relationship with the C-suite, and a strategic narrative forms an essential communications tool for leaders. Who, if not the Communications Department, is qualified enough to undertake this essential task?
The problem was that the narrative landed badly, fizzled out and, well, has gone nowhere.
I’m not altogether surprised. Without wanting to be contentious in anyway, here are seven reasons why a Communications department should think extremely carefully about crafting a strategic narrative and expect it to land with a punch in the organisation.
1. If a Comms department is seen to ‘own’ the strategic narrative, it will never be more than just a comms or engagement initiative. To get buy-in and commitment to it, you need the Executive Team to own it, and thereafter leaders and managers throughout the entire organisation, and ultimately the entire workforce. This is different from the Executive team ‘signing it off’. If they have not been consulted individually on its content, and then brought together as a team to work through it and give it their blessing as a single, unified team, aligning behind it, committing to it and role-modelling it as a co-created piece of work, you will not get true alignment and the narrative goes out to the organisation at risk. And without alignment as a united senior team, you cannot hope to align the rest of the organisation.
2. A strategic narrative needs to be an honest, credible and transparent Story. A member of the Communications team may well have conducted some interviews to extract the content, but we have seen too many times how Executives are not prepared to open up fully to one of their own, particularly someone in a more junior position. To get to the kernel of truth often requires a third party – a peer – who is skilfully able to navigate the political waters of a very senior leadership team in a non-threatening, objective way.
3. A corporate narrative should be a direct mirror, or reflection, of the views of the most senior team, often supported or embellished by a wider perspective from others, but ultimately owned by that senior team. They need to be credible. They need to be believable. They need to be honest. And you'll only get one shot at it. Try and repeat the exercise because it went wrong the first time will mean it is received with cynicism and lack of trust. It’s very hard to regain that trust and credibility once it’s lost.
4. A strategic narrative is not about artful wordsmithing. In order to be authentic, it has to be the output of a dynamic, personal and intensely honest conversation between interviewer and interviewee. I have seen so many Communications Heads take pen to paper when the first draft is less than acceptable, only to impose their own viewpoint on the Story. If this happens the authenticity as a truly collective perspective is immediately lost. Nor should a truly effective strategic narrative be judged by its polished words and sanitised view of the world. It’s about tone, language, honesty and emotional punch. If you want to convert your cynics, it’s got to be credible – warts and all. This is something that is often extremely difficult to achieve for an 'insider.'
5. The benefit of a good strategic narrative is that in almost all cases these days it forms part of a wider change agenda, acting as a catalyst for change. This means that its principal stakeholders should be from all over the business: those concerned with leadership development, culture, talent management, IT, process and system engineering (which may well be affected by the content), Executive coaching and facilitation, brand, sales, marketing, communications capability-building and ongoing strategic development. I repeat, a strategic narrative is never just a ‘communications’ exercise.
6. A strategic narrative should be crafted within a proper narrative structure – a rational and emotional flow, with a beginning, middle and end. It should be written in down-to-earth language, almost as a conversation, built on a deeply personal collective perspective. What it isn't is a series of facts about your strategy, vision, goals, objectives, purpose, mission and values. The writer needs to truly understand the power of a proper story structure, and bring meaning to its component parts in an emotionally compelling way. This is quite a specialist skill, not owned nor fully understood by a great number of Communications Departments (quite understandably).
7. Lastly, for a strategic narrative to be truly effective, it needs to manifest itself in more than just words. It needs to be embellished and brought to life by a powerful creative identity that will enable a Communications team to link future messaging back to the narrative. This creative identity is not just about illustration or applied branding. The narrative will have at its heart a core message or big idea which will form the basis for a sustainable and exciting campaign, and the Story – or big idea within the Story – needs to be told in pictures as well as words. A successful visual identity will heighten the emotional connection and breathe life and soul into it. The team behind the big idea is a creative team, which needs to work hand in hand with the writer as he/she is starting to develop the narrative. One cannot work without the other. It's not impossible, but it's rare for an in-house Communications team to have this unusual blend of skills.
This is not an arrogant viewpoint designed to put Communications teams down in any way whatsoever. We work with some of the biggest companies in the world, all of whom have some of the most talented Communications teams you could wish to have and many have been instrumental in helping deliver successful corporate narratives. They are essential facilitators of the process and vital stakeholders. Quite honestly we can’t do without their buy-in and help to build momentum behind the narrative and embed it into the organisation.
But the crafting of the narrative and ensuing alignment process is a delicate, political and potentially risky process. It can be cathartic, energising and the source of great clarity, understanding and commitment. It some cases, however, the process can be disruptive – particularly when there is a political agenda at play, or lack of consensus around the strategy, leading to certain leaders realise that they cannot align behind the strategy and therefore should think about their future with the business. The last thing you’d want is for the Communications team to be the political fall guys.
Think carefully about who you choose to implement the narrative-building process. Go to the professionals; these are often external (objective) consultants who have a great track record, understand what an effective Story structure involves, have credibility in storytelling and who can build trust quickly at the most senior level. Of course involve your Communications Department – they are vital players in the process, but tread very carefully. You may only get one chance.