There’s an insidious, four-letter word that continues to haunt and largely define the public relations industry (at least in the public’s estimation): Spin.
We know this. We fight it. But a big part of the problem is that the average person still does not know what it is we do. For that matter, some practitioners appear confused, limiting PR to media relations and/or publicity. Perhaps even more dangerous, the remit of PR is restricted to a smaller, subservient role under the marketing tent.
I’m proposing a new word—actually, two—bigger in both size and heft and a more apt description, which can be incorporated into your elevator speech:
Clocking-in at 23 letters, my aspiration is to gain acceptance for the organizational narrative descriptor and, ultimately, for it to prove to be (nearly) six times as powerful as the four-letter S-word.
A bit of the back story
Ira Basen’s 2007 six-part, award-winning CBC Radio Show, Spin Cycles: the spin, the spinners and the spun, proved to be highly influential for me. In my estimation, it was incredibly well-researched, balanced and objective (the sign of great journalism), making the crusade for PR practitioners to overcome the Spin moniker even more important. But it meant we needed to find a reasonable and rationale alternative, backed up by proof points.
One option is for practitioners to say during our elevator speech that we “tell stories.”
But that descriptor has two inherent problems:
1. In the English vernacular at least, “telling stories” can have the child-like connotation that one is telling lies…or spinning the tale. Not very helpful in overcoming our number-one stereotype.
2. Public relations is not the only profession that lays claim to “telling stories.” If you ask a journalist what he or she does, likely they will say they tell stories. Same with documentary film makers. Internal communications often say they are corporate storytellers. Marketers look to champion consumers…to tell their companies’ stories. Do you see the problem? The term has a lot of competition. It’s almost over-used.
My formal introduction of organizational narrative
When Craig Pearce asked me to contribute to his Public Relations 2011: Issues, Insights and Ideas free e-report, I knew this was a tremendous opportunity to define the role of the public relations specialist, at least as I saw it. I can actually remember sitting in front of my computer and thinking, “What is a better, more comprehensive way to say ‘telling stories?’”
Thinking long and hard about what it is I’ve spent so much of my working life doing, I came up with the term organizational narrative.
Possibly this has been used before. I’ve since learned that Dawn Gilpin, assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University, references the term in a comprehensively researched article for the Public Relations Review relating to organizational narratives in news release, “Narrating the organizational self: Reframing the role of the news release,” but to the best of my knowledge it had never been used to describe a primary role of the PR practitioner.
I used it three times in Public Relations 2011
In my contribution, Internal Journo and SEO Expert; New ‘Trust’ Calisthenics for the PR Pro, it appears twice:
By examining subject choices and phraseology, the focus of PR pros can move from a ‘how’ to attract attention, to a ‘why’ (and about ‘what’) search perspective. And, in assuming the role of internal chronicler, the organizational narrative can then be framed and shaped accordingly. (p. 15)
and later, in this same contribution….
PR-perspective mashup: internal experts
From a strategic corporate perspective, what’s particularly significant in the 2011 findings [Edelman Trust Barometer] is that the highest ranked (and new) trusted internal source is ‘Technical expert within the company.’ This information is important, as likely internal experts (e.g. engineering, HR or financial staff) were hitherto under-used in ongoing organizational narratives. (p. 16)
In my second contribution, PR Primer for (Social) Networking, I referenced the definition as follows:
Building positive organization-stakeholder relationships
3. Sharing anecdotes about the company and its relevant stakeholders, whenever and wherever it appears the organizational narrative is appropriate and the audience judged receptive. (p. 22)
My first convert and “organizational narrative” champion: Eric Bryant
I first got to know Eric Bryant, director, Gnosis Arts Multimedia Communications LLC (an Internet PR firm focusing on tech PR, nonprofit PR and local SEO) through Twitter chats, primarily #kaizenblog. On first online meeting, Eric can seem to be incredibly intense, mainly because he is constantly asking chat participants questions about topics in which he has a deep interest–he challenges assumptions, stereotypes and platitudes. Eric forces one to provide a comprehensive back story, as well as proof points.
But the other side of Eric is that once you win his respect with your information, arguments and persuasion, he becomes an incredibly generous champion. (As Eric appears to be with his own staff.) When I started using “organizational narrative” in my tweets, Eric asked me for some documentation about the concept. I told him that I’d used it in my Public Relations 2011 contributions–that to the best of my knowledge, I’d created the term.
Eric promptly visited Craig Pearce’s blog to register and download a copy of Public Relations 2011. He read it and my submissions, but continued to ask me (online and off) to better define what I meant by organizational narrative; Eric forced me to give my definition a more thorough and thoughtful think and response.
Then he made a very generous offer: Would I create a definition for organizational narrative to be featured in the Gnosis Arts’ online PR Dictionary?
I accepted his offer. Then I thought and thought about it.
Several weeks later, I sent Eric my inaugural definition:
Think of the organizational narrative as being like a giant tapestry that is continuously being woven, viewed and commented upon by various stakeholders. The organizational narrative comprises areas such as the history of the organization, research and development, unique selling proposition, business goals, company values, successes (including failures overcome), key players, and relationships within the company, sector and larger community.
From a public relations perspective—organizational reputation, value and relationship building—how well received and effective it will be is dependent upon two main things:
1. How much does current leadership recognize and value the remit of public relations (i.e., carriage and authority), including top-level counsel; and
2. How knowledgeable and skilled is the lead PR practitioner, agency or department at conducting the design and weaving, in terms of organizational research and monitoring (company and competitors) and communication and engagement.
Often it is only during an economic downturn or a crisis that the value of a consistent and honest organizational narrative is realized fully.
I say first version, because I’m positive it can be improved upon. I’ve already crowdsourced the definition to some of my trusted colleagues in the field of PR (practitioners and academics) and received all kinds of fabulous input for improvements. Inspired by Terry Flynn’s use of a wiki to compile existing information and then create a new definition of public relations for CPRS, my plan is to review all suggestions and incorporate as many of them as possible.
So here is my challenge to you, readers of PR Conversations:
1. Is organizational narrative a term you are prepared to embrace and use in defining what you do for your organization?
2. If yes, how can it be refined and improved?
I plan to do a second post regarding the revised definition. At that stage I will also send an updated version to Eric Bryant for the online PR Dictionary.
I look forward to your arguments, for or against, and especially to any crowdsourced suggestions for improvement. Finally, I dream about the day when I attend a networking event and overhear a colleague say, “I’m the organizational narrator for my company.”
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Note: I took the photo used to accompany this post at the recent “A Heart to Art Chat” unconference held at the Art Gallery of Ontario (which I referenced in our most-recent, phenomenally well-received joint post, Using Twitter for PR Events). As explained to me by the day’s main facilitator, Celina Agaton, this illustrative capturing of an event is referred to as “graphic recording” or “graphic facilitation.” I would suggest that it’s yet another platform by which an organization can record its “organizational narrative.” This graphic was presented to all attendees at the conclusion of the four-hour-long focus group or “unconference.” There was a collective gasp of delight at its appearance, as we saw our four-hours of discussions represented graphically.
FYI, graphic recorder, Liisa Sorsa, whose Twitter handle is @ThinkLink, is in the photo. She’s the blonde woman at the far left. Also in the photo is Rannie Turinga (centre figure, pink shirt), who previously made an “appearance” on PR Conversations, as the photographer for James Topham of War Child Canada. Rannie took photos all day at A Heart to Art Chat. His are much better than mine–check them out. But this blog post is all about my “organizational narrative” story, hence the reason I used my own photograph!