Constructing the Organizational Narrative: PR definition in the making

Graphic recording by Liisa Sorsa of "A Heart to Art Chat" unconference at the Art Gallery of Ontario

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.”

* * *

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!

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80 Replies to “Constructing the Organizational Narrative: PR definition in the making

  1. Hi Judy, so I am coming to the party after everyone else seems to have gone home but I sense their goodie bags contain some great stories! We (me and few others) have just re-drafted the PR undergrad programm here in Lincoln and the new BA(Hons) will have organisational narrative/story telling as one of the key strands running through. We have recently moved to the School of Journalism from Buisness and so I am using this as an opportunity to develop this aspect of the craft. PR tells the client’s tale and gives narrative/voice to the client. PR engages in conversations on behalf of the client and we all like a good story when we chat….It all feels kinda obvious and you have articualted it so well, Thanks

      1. Jane – likewise thanks for the contribution and interesting to hear what you are doing. I know the guys at London College of Communications are thinking along the same lines. My only caveat is from the narrative perspective, PR remains a strategic function and isn’t seen as a specialist content creation, brand journalist role as I’ve seen touted around. That would seem to me to be the age-old technician function just rebranded. I see narrative as far more strategic than that – and have included reference to this in the Public Relations Strategic Toolkit that I’ve just co-authored with Alison Theaker (to be published early Autumn by Routledge – blatant plug!). Hope to write a post developing this further at some point in the near future – so watch this space and join the party!!

  2. How can I not simply adore this paragraph from the Toronto Star article, Has Rob Ford lost his grip?

    Not only does it emphasize the importance of properly staffing the communications/public relations functions and providing frequent and honest communication… but it actually uses the word “narrative!” Coincidence? (FYI, Rob Ford is Toronto’s current mayor. His popularity has plummeted in recent weeks.)

    Bolding mine:

    “By his own frugal doing, Ford’s office is short-staffed. Since his victory last October, they’ve struggled to establish an overarching communications strategy and a post-campaign narrative. The Ford brand is murky at the exact moment it’s needed most: selling unpopular cuts to a public that doesn’t want to take its medicine.

  3. How can I not simply adore this paragraph from the Toronto Star article, Has Rob Ford lost his grip?

    Not only does it emphasize the importance of properly staffing the communications/public relations functions and providing frequent and honest communication… but it actually uses the word “narrative!” Coincidence? (FYI, Rob Ford is Toronto’s current mayor. His popularity has plummeted in recent weeks.)

    Bolding mine:

    “By his own frugal doing, Ford’s office is short-staffed. Since his victory last October, they’ve struggled to establish an overarching communications strategy and a post-campaign narrative. The Ford brand is murky at the exact moment it’s needed most: selling unpopular cuts to a public that doesn’t want to take its medicine.

  4. The word to play with in association with narrative is allegory, which is the story-telling part of metaphor. But oh dear, we are getting into rhetoric. Thank God for that…though don’t get me started on parables.

    1. Think of this blog post as being like your daily amusement park, Paul.

      You can come for a visit, have a read through the new comments, then leave thinking about how much smarter you are then the rest of us PR people trying to figure out new and/or better ways to do or say things. 🙂

  5. Judy, apologies for being so very late to this party. I like organizational narrative quite a lot — in past lives we’d begin brainstorming discussions with, “what’s our story?” Even before discussion of objectives or messages, we’d seek to understand a wider context and more fully realized narrative. Often this discussion would lead to strategies we’d not thought of previously — the stories we tell give life to our organizations.

    Framing this context and these stories as organizational narrative makes a lot of sense. I think you should tease this out further…


    1. Sean,

      In my view, the party really only gets going when you arrive to add your cheer!

      I wonder how many organizations brainstorm with “what’s our story?” at the front end? (Does “what’s our narrative?” work equally well?) What a wonderfully sensible approach. Particularly when paired with your observation, “Often this discussion would lead to strategies we’d not thought of previously—the stories we tell give life to our organizations.”

      I hope you continue to work with us (kaizen-like) to “tease” this out. Thank you!

    1. It seems to me the issue this tread addresses is largely semantic. Whether or not we like the term spin, which has taken on a pejorative connotation, presenting an organization’s take or point of view on a topic, product or issue is part of what we do as public relations practitioners. I don’t call this spin, but I can see why many people do.

      Here’s an illustration of what I’m saying. Journalists transitioning to public relations sometimes ask me explain the difference between writing a news story for a media outlet and writing a press release on the same subject for an employer or client. I tell them the job of a journalist is to present a factual and balanced story. The job of a public relations professional to present a factual (no lies permitted) but often one-sided story that tells an organization’s side or piece of the story and thereby advances the interests of the organization. In other words, the press release doesn’t have to present opposing points of view or mention competing products. It can do this if it serves a useful purpose, but it doesn’t have to.

      To me the term organization narrative includes the activity discussed above but implies much more. So I don’t see it is a perfect substitute for spin. I like the sound of “organizational advocacy” better, but it too is not a perfect fit.

      1. David,

        The problem with your “organizational advocacy” approach is that you are focusing primarily on media relations and hence the same issue of “spinning” or selectively telling a story which causes issues for PR. It is this aspect of a single perspective that I raised initially in suggesting that any organizational narrative needs to hear and consider other voices/perspectives so that, at the least, there is internal understanding of the tapestry of the narrative around the organization.

        Again, I return to the point I made above however, that it is naive to present journalists as somehow being custodians of a more objective narrative. You may well believe that the role of journalists is to present a factual and balanced story – but that is not the evidence of most output from them. There is always an agenda and selective presentation of information. So journalists are presenting their own part in the narrative, but not necessarily one that is any less imbalanced than that of the organization.

  6. Judy, your point is misfired. I agree with you; the word narrative is perhaps what PR is all about. But the word on its own does not have magical powers and is easily brushed aside. Before we can own the word narrative for 21st century PR, we first need to fathom the inner-mechanics or anatomy of narrative… for that we need to consult our Roman and Greek friends, the way that Queen Lizzie I did (I’ll discus her mastery of narrative in part-2; she read Aristotle and Plato in Greek and Cicero and Quintilian in Latin).

    1. This isn’t a war, Paul. Why are you talking about misFIRING?

      And, again and again and again, I have never once said that constructing the organizational narrative is “what PR is all about.”

      I am simply looking for a viable alternative to the “spin” moniker that is often applied. Because I don’t think many PR practitioners (other than you) like being identified that way (“spin doctor” etc.).

  7. This is a valuable and timely discussion as even folks on the internal side of communication struggle to express many of the same concepts in a meaningful way.

    Perhaps one part of the answer may lie in creating a ‘sound bite’? e.g. PR is the organizational narrative told interactivelyb and cohesively (making this up…) or Organizational narrative is the lever through which vision and change are embraced.

    Thanks Judy. You always make me think in new directions.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Dennie. It was a delightful surprise to see your name turn up in the comments section.

      I see you’ve zoomed right into the elevator speech. I think I prefer your second offering, except maybe we adjust it to say, “Organizational narrative provides a tapestry in which vision and change are embraced.” ?

      And I’d like to add that internal communicators can and should have input and impact on the organizational narrative. Especially the most knowledgeable and skilled ones, like you.

      1. I have no issue with anything you say. Actually I agree and I especially love the idea of acknowledging a balance between internal and external input… but (there’s always a “but” 🙂 credibility with executives who don’t regularly use or understand metaphor when expressing concept may not follow you with the word “tapestry”.

        It’s hard enough to help a leader or division express their story – moving beyond using numbers and met milestones as the core narrative. There’s is possibly an interim step before we ask them to participate in a tapestry? Unless the explanation is not meant to be used beyond those of us already engaged in the communication conversation?

        1. Dennie,

          I had to laugh reading your comment as in Bernay’s 1961 book: Your future in Public Relations he terms PR as “the bridge between thinkers and doers” . His view is that managers are largely doers with little time for those who who think, whilst arguing that the combination is of greatest benefit. In particular, he states that business “suffers from a lack of theoreticians in meeting its problems”. He concludes:

          “Public relations can and must play an important role in encouraging and hastening this necessary rapprochment between thinkers and doers of our society.”

          My second chuckle comes in the reflection that “tapestry” is a metaphor that would not be understood – but you chose the term “lever”, which is likewise a metaphor in envisaging how a heavy weight can be lifted with little effort. So the implication is that mechanical or what may be considered traditionally male-oriented metaphors are okay but not ones which may be more artistic or feminine in construction 🙂

          I’m with Eric Schmidt (chairman of Google) who last week called for the nurturing of polymaths able to accommodate both science and arts in their thinking. So I have no problem in envisaging, explaining or justifying organizational narrative as a tapestry, through which we can leverage vision and change (to mix my metaphors!).

          Let’s stop shying away from treating management as it if is intellectually stupid and act as that bridge (another metaphor) as advocated by Bernays half a century ago.

        2. Dennie,

          If I didn’t recognize the contributions of internal communicators I’d have Sean Williams, Toni Muzi Falconi, João Duarte, you and some others to answer to….

          Regarding your comment about executives not understanding the “tapestry” imagery, how about you do some research in the field and test it for me? Keep in mind that the word “tapestry” only appears in the definition of Organizational Narrative. I would not expect companies to actually be talking about their tapestries in normal dialogue and messaging. Although wouldn’t a commissioned tapestry be a great way to recognize a significant landmark or event?

          Also, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with numbers and “met milestones” (new phrase to me—like!) forming a part in the organizational narrative. After all, people who think those ways also contribute to the “visual representation, allowing multiple pictures and threads” (as per Heather).

          Have fun with it!

          1. Judy – I will ponder this further not least because the metaphor of a tapestry is of interest to me and ways of realising this could be useful for my PhD research. Anyway – regarding the point about when to stop reading and when to revise, my view (in spirit of kaizen) is now and forever. Revise, read, revise, get input, read, revise etc. Of course, you will reach as point at which you feel it is done (at least for now).

            I’ve also started looking at digital representation of tapestry given Dennie’s observations. I was thinking that if there is a way of inputing words, images, and other aspects of the narrative to produce a visual allegory (thanks Paul!) that is the output of a digital process, that would also engage the senior management. I note that Microsoft for example has researched production of digital tapestries from images and of course, Wordle does something similar with wordmaps. I’m sure there probably is a software package that would produce an organizational narrative which could receive input much as a digital photofit. What do you reckon?

          2. Ha! I wasn’t actually thinking in terms of putting a stop to the exploration once and for all, simply sending Eric a first revised definition and/or starting to write a follow-up blog post. If this concept gains traction, I can see the definition evolving as frequently as a tapestry in process would.

            Interesting idea, the visual aspect. Thanks to Tom Murphy for sourcing the following for us (and very quickly, following an email of request):

            “I wasn’t aware but I did a quick search on Bing brought up this academic paper from Microsoft Research.

            And more interestingly perhaps, that led to the creation of AutoCollage a product from our Research Group.”

            Perhaps applicable for the chosen visual for (yours or mine) follow-up blog post!

            And very cool that this metaphorical discussion is colouring your PhD thoughts and/or research.

  8. I love the word narrative. But like the words “spin” “propaganda” and “ideology” it has form. The Cold War was supposedly a battle between meta-narratives. Post-modernists and post-structuralists bash each other up in their endless squabbles over what narrative is about etc.. Moreover, issues may have something to do with narratives, but little to do with the confines of organisational narrative. Hence I think that in this discussion I am minded to agree with most of Ira Basen’s comment.

    1. Paul, why does it not surprise me that you juxtapose “narrative” in relation to “spin,” “propaganda” and “ideology?” Meaning that, by extension, if you love the word narrative, you also love those words equally. 🙂

      It’s unclear to me what you mean by “the confines of organisational narrative.” If an organisation/organization doesn’t have a narrative, how can stakeholders know what it’s about? By dismissing the concept, you leave a vacuum of information, let alone potential for dialogue and changes.

      More often than not, I too am in agreement with Ira. But as Heather pointed out (admittedly after your comment), “…journalists themselves are expert in ‘the deliberate shading of news perception’.” So let’s attempt to work together, PR practitioners and journalists, “to [determine] where on the continuum [objective truth and the flat-out lie] happens to be on any given occasion,” at least partially through the organizational narrative.

  9. Hi Judy:

    Sorry about the delay in weighing in on this.

    Thank you for your kind words about my spin series on CBC radio, and also thanks for stimulating this really interesting and important discussion.

    I called my series about PR and the press “Spin Cycles”, knowing that it would upset many people in PR who understandably want nothing to do with the word “spin”. But it works in terms of grabbing the audience’s attention in a way that no other word does, which, I imagine, is why you are hoping to find an alternative.

    I interviewed about 60 people for that series, and asked all of them for a definition of “spin”. They ranged from the flat out “spin is bullshit” response, to the more nuanced “spin is just emphasis” approach. The former tended to come from people who worked in non-political PR who thought spin was antithetical to PR, while people who did political communications were more comfortable with the word.

    In his New Political Dictionary, William Safire defines spin as “the deliberate shading of news perception.” Although Safire was referring to political spin, I think that definition does apply to much of what PR does in the context of media relations. PR is about advocacy, and that involves trying to influence news perception. That’s why as a reporter, I get PR people following me around and sitting in on my interviews whenever possible.

    There’s nothing wrong with advocacy. It is an important part of a democratic society. I also think bullshit is bullshit, and spin is not bullshit. If it was, it wouldn’t be as effective as it often is. Spin lies somewhere on the continuum between the objective truth (if such a thing is possible) and the flat out lie.

    Journalists, and now more often citizens, are tasked with the challenge of determining where on the continuum it happens to be on any given occasion.

    I think your effort to find a new word to describe what PR does is a worthwhile endeavour. “Spin” is probably past the point where it can be rehabilitated, in the same way that “propaganda” can no longer be used synonymously with PR as it was earlier in the 20th century. But I think Heather is correct that “organizational narrative” doesn’t really address the main problem, which is how that narrative is formed, what it contains, and how it is presented. In other words, the narrative can simply be another way of communicating spin. So i guess the big question is are we talking about changing what PR does (I don’t imagine so) or are we talking about a re-branding exercise (if I may use a dreaded marketing term)?

    Anyway, I think you have launched something important here and I look forward to the continuing discussion.


    1. Ira, I’m simply looking to find an alternative, more useful phrase than spin.

      Did you catch this wonderful article in last Saturday’s Toronto Star (by a “professional storyteller”)?

      I’ve excerpted a couple of my favourite (and most relevant) paragraphs:

      The tale of Rob Ford and how he’s lost the plot

      “One day I was telling once-upon-a-time stories to a group of Grade 2 kids. When I said the show was almost over, one little boy piped up: “Never finish!” I took it as a compliment because boring stories, like, for example, your neighbours’ home videos, make us want to shout: “Finish now!” With good stories, you enjoy the suspense as you wait to hear what happens next.

      After that same show, another child asked me, with a 7-year-old’s unabashable honesty: “Sir, are all storytellers professional liars, or just some of them?” I don’t remember what I told him, but what I wish I’d said was: storytellers use fiction to tell the truth, and the more stories you know, the more ways you have to tell the truth. And the more truth you know, the more courage you have to make a difference in the world.”

    2. Ira – of course, spin is not the preserve of public relations practitioners, since journalists themselves are expert in “the deliberate shading of news perception.” That may be another reason why PR people sit in on media interviews (and often record the conversations) not simply to influence, but to witness discussion with executives prior to the journalist “spinning”.

      We could of course, view the journalist input into the narrative as simply another dimension of the story, or threads in the image to use the tapestry metaphor again. I suppose this is another aspect that makes the idea of narrative interesting – since spin implies separate people each taking information and telling it in their own way. Narrative could be more cohesive, with the various perspectives contributing to a broader narrative.

      1. Sorry for the delayed response. I’ve been busy writing guest articles elsewhere on the interwebs, plus I didn’t want to take attention away from Feri Thierry’s excellent guest post on “Austria’s proposed lobbying register.” It’s important that PR Conversations offer up its tapestry and platform to a wider range of narratives and informed opinions.

        Heather, I know that your goal is to explore a concept you consider of value in all of its potential and manifestations, including what areas haven’t been addressed and could be improved. I also know you understand I’m not trying to create a new definition of “public relations.” But I suspect some other contributors and readers came to believe your investigations ultimately translate to criticism (and rejection) of my “organizational narrative” concept. Likely that speaks to your own reputation and use of narrative, critical thinking and persuasive abilities, rather than actual fact.

        I quite like your final thought (paraphrase): “An organizational narrative is more cohesive than a single person’s thoughts, with the various perspectives contributing to a broader consensus and understanding.” Hmm. Maybe I can use this….

        1. As ever you are welcome to any of my random thoughts or musings here! And, I was not rejecting “organizational narrative” as a concept but reflecting on it, as you say, through the process of critical thinking and some persuasive (I hope) argument!

          Anyway, I was wondering if you’ve looked at wider reading on the topic of story/narrative? This post stimulated me to return to my bookshelves to look at Jennifer Moon – who has written extensively about story (she uses the word interchangeably with narrative) in higher education and professional development. (She is a lecturer at Bournemouth University and I attended her critical thinking course a year or so ago).

          I think you’d find a lot in her work, and that of other authors she references, to help with considering the concept of narrative and particularly in taking it from the suggestion of an alternative for spin into practical application. Could be worth looking at further for a future post.

          1. Heather,

            Jennifer Moon and her work are new to me. I am hugging to myself the fact that this post inspired you to return to you bookshelf. My only concern is when and where to stop the research and begin the arduous task of revising the organizational narrative definition, given all of the tremendous feedback received from you and others.

            If you feel inspired to riff on the concept with you own post, please proceed. I look forward with anticipation to reading any fruits of your revelations (apologies for the mixed metaphor).

  10. Please, let’s not over intellectualize this issue. I say this as someone with a master’s degree in communications from BU, as a former adjunct instructor there and at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as a journalist for 10 years, and as a PR practitioner for more than 30 years.

    The term public relations still best describes what we do — communication that enhances organizational reputations, develops and communicates messages that explain the mission of an organization, promotes dialogues with constituencies, and, most importantly, establishes relationships that stand an organization in good stead with key constituencies.

    That said, the term public relations has come to have the pejorative meaning of spin in some quarters and is taken by many to mean everything from hospitality to marketing, which has largely subsumed PR.

    So we need a new term to describe what we do. Organization narrative points in the right direction but doesn’t work a comprehensive and understandable name of a profession compared to, for example, marketing, journalism, finance, medicine, nursing, construction, etc. I would prefer the old term organizational communication, strategic communication or simply communications.

    But none of these is perfect. We need something new.

    1. I’m not entirely sure who you believe is “over-intellectualizing” this issue, David. In my mind, the various commenters and I are simply setting out to answer the two questions posed at the end of my post:

      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 also want to emphasize to you, again, that my intention has never been to find a new definition for public relations. Only an alternative to the moniker of “spin” that continues to be bestowed on us. The part of the public relations remit that relates to “telling stories.”

      I welcome your continued input on the “organizational narrative” debate, but that is the defined task at hand in this blog post/project, not a “new term to describe what we do.” (Side note: I think you will get a lot of push back from regular PR Conversationlists, if you try to limit public relations to “organizational communication” or “strategic communication.”)

      Query: as an American, have you approached the Public Relations Society of America about perhaps updating its (official) definition of public relations? It sounds like you are well-situated in terms of education and experience to participate in a re-working (similar to the CPRS Flynn, Gregory, Valin definition).

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  11. Judy,

    Narrative is a powerful term. It implies complexity and flow. As with any good story, it needs a consistent “mythology” for both the creators and consumers to refer to put the narrative in context. And you rightly point out it needs a “lead practitioner” to maintain the vision and consistency.

    +1 for Organizational Narrative


    1. Thanks, Alan! (Alan is yet another smart and interesting person I’ve met through Twitter chats–which remain, in my mind, the best format for free, online professional development and networking. A guest OpEd coming soon on this topic.)

      I also appreciated you sending me a link to Reawakening the Grand Narrative yesterday. In my post I did indicate that documentary film makers also talked about “telling stories,” and given the home for this Jeff Gomez article Tribeca Films (, I’m guessing he’s coming at this (mainly) from a film maker’s perspective, especially in terms of documenting political and social changes in the world. Of course I am a huge fan of documentary films and am blessed, living in Toronto, to have access to Hot Docs (both the annual festival and its monthly Doc Soup program).

      There is a lot of crossover in the two concepts, except that the average company’s “organizational narrative” likely isn’t nearly as dramatic (and sweeping) as many of the examples Gomez used. The challenge will be to find the elements unique to any company that are worth weaving into the tapestry.

      Thank you for the +1 for Organizational Narrative…as well as for stopping by and weighing in on this blog post. “See” you online, soon!

  12. “But I think an interested, active and prevalent media, whether it be traditional or social, has forced organizations to do is to more closely examine what it is they selected—and call them out, publicly, when the selection rings false”

    Of all the words and ideas above, I believe this most accurately sums up the challenges now facing people who work on PR/Customer Service/Organizational Narrative.

    The Organization Narrative is no longer under the direct control of the organization. The empowering nature of technology means that we are all at the mercy of the mob so it behooves us to give the mob reasons to be pleased and tools to express their pleasure with the organization.

    As professionals, it is our challenge to understand this paradigm shift and through that understanding, make sure that our organizations are ready to act and react to the changes that are being wrought. Today’s customers expect and reward transparency and also expect to be a part of constructing the narrative. We can either include, guide, and support them or do it the “old way” which will encourage communities wholly outside of our control to spring up and we may not know what is being said about us until it is too late.

    It’s interesting to see how often people say they want two-way engagement with their audience but don’t really provide any tools for it to happen. I applaud Gnosis Arts for running a Wiki and allowing user contributions. It’s a brave new world, people and the the Organizational Narrative is as good of a catchall term as any for what we have to consider going forward.

    1. Hi Jason, thanks so much for weighing in.

      To bring others up to speed, I “met” Jason during the #cxo Twitter chat (which focuses on customer service), where I learned about a real cool initiative of his company, whereby customer service conversations and recommendations are tracked via a wiki, which can be accessed internally by a variety of employees, and to a certain extent externally. Meaning that decisions made as a result of customer feedback are made transparent—or at least translucent—to interested individuals for review and further commentary. In my mind, this quite a unique case study or way of making use of social media, one where the results can be continually woven into the organizational narrative. I hope I got this descriptor right, Jason.

      Now in your comment, Jason, I’d put Control in that negative category of words, just like Spin and Heather’s Official. And I agree that the days of ultimate control are over. But I don’t think I would be as quick to concede so much power to the “mercy of the mob.” 🙂 After all, what organization wants to be herding cats, 24/7, or taking its cues from a mob? Better to work at developing champions, who provide objective criticism, rather than rants. Access to tools, such as your wiki, is a desirable state. Provided the organization has the wherewithal to not only build but to adequately monitor, engage, respond and communicate resulting changes.

      Reacting to suggestions for changes is good…but even better is to be looking at the ongoing organizational narrative and figure out in advance, i.e., anticipate, where and what the customers and other stakeholders want—even before they realize that is what they want. That is, as long as it fits in with the strategic direction and can be met by the resources of the current organization.

      Customer feedback is great—and like gold if mined properly. But the overall interest in the organization is often limited by what any particular customer has an immediate interest in, whether it be products and services, price points or, probably most importantly, the way they are treated and how they view the company, holistically (as a “good” or “bad” one). But I’m always cognizant that those people are not necessarily thinking (or caring) in terms of the impact decisions may have on the organization as a whole or, especially, regarding how decisions may impact other stakeholders. For example, employees. Particularly frontline employees. Ergo, I’d say that allowing input into the narrative, monitoring usage of platforms and tools, analyzing the resulting conversations should definitely be made a priority, with the overarching goal of implementing the ones that make the most sense to the greatest number of stakeholders. But not letting the mob “lead” or rule. That simply does not make good business sense.

      Again, I congratulate your company on the wiki initiative. Further to the comments of Heather and Davina, I suspect it must be incredibly gratifying for customers “active“ in your social media space to see their diverse voices, perspectives and suggestions (even complaints) resulting in outcomes or changes in company behaviour and policies, in terms of how the organizational narrative is changing, moving forward. People like to be listened to. People like to effect changes. And from a public relations perspective (“reputation, value and relationship building”), satisfied and happy customers are also gold.

      Now how can I make use of your suggestions in editing the current definition?!

      1. “whereby customer service conversations and recommendations are tracked via a wiki”

        Actually, the wiki IS the customer service portal. Before I describe it in detail, I want to stress that the idea is by no means mine nor all that original. There have been lots of methods to crowdsource customer service but the following seems to be the one that works best for all stakeholders. Unfortunately, I can’t show you how WE do it as our business is membership based and the metrics people would go ape if a ton of users came into the support area and started mucking about. However, I do know of other sites that use a similar method and will post a link to one of them that’s public at the end of this.


        The initial touch from the customer to us is via the website where they are asked to classify the nature of the touch into categories. We use slightly different names, but the general gist is:

        – Question
        – Problem
        – Testimonial
        – Feedback/Ideas/Discussion
        – Not A Customer Yet / PreSales

        This creates a new entry for that customer and anyone can respond to the new ticket. The org staff get to post in a different color, moderate the comments, and edit things for clarity. The customer is allowed to mark an issue as completed and once that it is done, we classify it appropriately and it becomes a permanent part of the searchable archive so other customers can resolve similar issues without necessarily posting. Each article has a rating widget so we know which are more helpful and which ones need work and can promote/demote appropriately. Resolved articles are still editable by the community to account for changes and improvements that happen over time. If the org wants it, all articles are shareable on social networks.

        This approach has a ton of advantages for the org:

        It makes identifying brand evangelists easy. You will see which customers hang out in the support area and attempt to help others. These people are ripe for cultivation into an evangelist role.

        It helps to turn your customer service into brand managers, extends their reach and makes their jobs a bit more fun. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t rather be a discussion moderator than answering the same old calls and emails over and over again? This approach engages your customer service staff and gives them a fair amount of ability and responsibility to interact with all people requesting service and also with community members who are participating. Their satisfaction increases, their productivity increases, and the community as a whole is more engaged. Reps can also refer one another to different entries on an as needed basis (offline conversation or email) so the right person helps the right customer.

        It makes your customer service appear more responsive and extends “service” hours if you have engaged community members worldwide. You’re not as locked into 9-5 service (small orgs) if your community is helping itself 24/7. If you have identified and recruited brand evangelists, you can even give them some extended permissions in the system so they can keep working long after the regular employees have gone home.

        Systems like this can be gamified quickly and easily. Want to provide some fun stuff for your users who are active in the community? Give out prizes or “flair” for helping. Edit posts, earn a badge. Answer posts, earn a t-shirt. The possibilities are quite literally endless.

        Presents an excellent message to someone who isn’t a customer yet. “You’re not just a customer…you’re a member of our community and our community is a fun, helpful, vibrant place to be.


        The obvious examples of crowdsourcing support are the question and answer sites. Experts Exchange, Stack Exchange, Quora, etc. Those businesses fail without crowdsourcing but the flip side is the power users earn special privileges and free up the customer service staff to become more brand managers. Users can contribute to help, or to correct information, or in any other way necessary.

        To see a small business use case, look at Formidable Pro:

        It’s not 100% editable in all cases, but it is open to any visitor and encourages pre-sales activity.


        Using a system like this is a commitment. Once you start down this path you may find it very hard to put the Customer Service genie back into the bottle and restrict who can do what. If you do, you may alienate the same brand evangelists you cultivated through the open program. Also, you cede a lot of control (yes, Judy there’s that word again) of your narrative to this system. If done openly and properly, it will usually be the first thing a new person sees when researching your org. You can extract the choice bits and use them in more official narrative versions, but (and yes, I’m quoting Firefly) you can’t stop the signal.

        1. Thank you for that very comprehensive explanation, Jason. It remains an excellent example of two-way communication. And I think it definitely shows a way that customer feedback and changes can be woven into the tapestry of the organizational narrative.

          BTW, I took a guess at some of the formatting that got stripped out.

  13. Thanks for weighing in, David. I look forward to eventually reading the paper Bruno Amaral and you wrote–do you have a link?

    I don’t disagree (at all) about the concept of reaching out to stakeholders and determining/facilitating a nexus of values, which impact the organizational/organisation, and that this is an extremely important role for the (strategic) public relations practitioner.

    But, again, the crux of this post is finding a reasonable alternative to the prevalent word, SPIN.

    At a minimum, I guess should revise my narrative to say that being the organizational narrative is an important, but not necessarily the primary, role of the PR practitioner.

    1. Judy,

      David Phillip’s recent(ish) post has lots of interesting information including links to the Bled paper as a Google document:

      I can see this all links up in many ways with the corporate narrative being the “content” in communications. (I put that in inverted commas as I dislike the term – I don’t believe people create “content” as that is a very non-human term more akin to producing beans in cans.)

      I’d also encourage you to continue to explore the tapestry motif – as you are aware, it is one I am using in my PhD work looking at career strategies. The beauty of a tapestry idea is that these other elements of PR can be considered as the threads (warp and weft) on which the narrative(s) are being crafted. This may be useful in thinking about the importance of the strategic elements (values, relationships and so forth) as the necessary underpinning of the communications – story building, narrative, etc – that is the more visual imagery.

      Perhaps also stories vs narrative isn’t a matter of childlike simplicity or high brow terminology as the story is simply one way of building a narrative, but not the only way.

      I take the point also about the power of SEO vs social media and to a large extent I agree. However, this suggests that dialogue (let alone two-way symmetric which is an entirely other matter) is only possible via social media when dialogue takes many different forms. The information gathered via SEO in itself may be part of gathering multiple voices and perspectives – and the resulting information will likely be examined further through offline discussion with friends, contacts and even representatives of the organization or organizations being researched.

      What we likely have is the emergence of that organizational narrative being crafted by various means and by various people. We may not be able to see all the picture all of the time – and the perspective and interpretation of that image may also be situational or individual. But the idea of PR contributing towards that imagery is an interesting one. Of course, marketing also contributes towards this tapestry – and we are not just talking about words (which PR people tend to see as their dominant means of communication) but also pictures, video, music, and other sensory perceptions that together craft the narrative.

      1. Thank you for supplying the link to David Phillip’s recentish post, Heather.

        Was “content” (creation) always another vaguely bad or bland word, or is this yet another we can point a finger at social media (similar to community)? You don’t like content; I dislike automatic curation of said content. There’s no weave-width for automated and unread tweets in the organizational narrative! But I digress.

        Definitely, the tapestry image is not going anywhere. But, ooohh I am liking your “…. these other elements of PR can be considered as the threads (warp and weft) on which the narrative(s) are being crafted.”

        Although I must admit to being a bit surprised to see “crafted” in there!

        You list two strategic elements:

        What are some others?

        So the narrative wheel isn’t reinvented, currently the definition indicates:

        “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.”

        I concur, social media and its various forms of dialogue are not the only options. I honestly don’t think I have ever suggested that, in the blog post, definition or my comments. If anything, I consider myself a social media pragmatist. But the various platforms definitely lend themselves to being noticed and/or having conversations, albeit not always about positive things.

        I also agree with your “…resulting information will likely be examined further through offline discussion with friends, contacts and even representatives of the organization or organizations being researched.” The question is how—including how to include these things into the definition, without making it a novella. Traditional town halls and focus groups, voicemail comments, email suggestions, small face-to-face meetings—things that are already in the average PR practitioner’s toolkit, perhaps. But do these things need to be addressed in the definition?

        Having a strong relationship with marketing is definitely a necessity. Branding, for example, I’ve always believed is primarily in the marketing realm. Perhaps that is because when I was involved with an intensive rebranding project, marketing led the project. But it was done very well, with lots of participation from various stakeholder, including me as the PR rep. Smart marketing department includes PR in major processes, for the more holistic perspective. Because marketing should be aware that its main goals are different, as per David’s great summation “…goal of marketing is to generate immediate transactions rather than building lasting support.”

        Do you see words as the dominant means of communicating for the average PR practitioner? For me, it’s 50 per cent at best.

        I did include video and podcasts in one comment, but appreciate you adding in photos and (especially) music and other sensory perceptions. Even if they don’t make it into the final definition, it’s definitely good to sense their presence in the weaving.

        But, again, the question is what and where to add to the definition…?

  14. Judy, very quickly….

    Bruno Amaral and I did some work on the nature of relationships using many thousands of blogs and blog posts.
    Based on a paper I gave to the Alan Rawel conference ‘Towards Relationship Management’ (JCM) we identified that people come together as and when they have in common (to a greater or lesser degree) a nexus of values (we used my semantic software to identify semantic concepts to use as a metaphor for values).

    I am pretty sure this is the largest empirical study into the nature of relationships in the media ever and so feel reasonably confident about it (the paper is published as a bledcom paper).

    From this study, my belief is that PR has a primary role to facilitate a nexus of values with the organisation’s selected stakeholders (organisations cannot be all things to all people all the time – and, ethically, should not try).

    The organisational narrative (not English spelling!) is obviously important as part of the process but is it sufficiently and all encompassing?

  15. As promised, I spent a great deal of time this weekend considering the comments left, up until Saturday afternoon. I’m incredibly gratified at the initial responses. I want to recap, here, the various things I’m learning. I’m also replying to each comment, separately, which will be fed in consecutively, immediately after posting this. People who have responded and signed-up for the comments—or who already subscribe to all PR Conversations comments via the dedicated RSS feed—will receive my responses automatically by email. But if you are a first-time reader or have not commented as yet, likely you will need to scroll back through the comments to see and read my responses, plus the context of the original comments.

    First-off, I’m taking away there’s a generally positive acceptance of the need to find a replacement to the insidious S-word, one that is more compelling and richer than the currently used story telling. Excellent.

    I also realized that perhaps I did not emphasize, enough, that I’m not looking to promote a new definition for public relations. My scope is more limited; I’m merely looking to add a new definition into our remit, albeit not to indicate this is something innovative; simply renamed or rebranded. Or, alternatively, more simply encapsulating. And, ultimately, my goal is for it to be drilled-down enough to fit into the time and attention constraints of an elevator speech.

    Based on one of Heather’s comments, my first resolution is to do away with the word “audience.” It’s too passive and does not recognize that organizations should not be simply broadcasting messages.

    The other, more complicated need is to find a way to build in more clarity and oomph about the fact that the organizational narrative is not a solo effort (even if PR is taking the lead) and that multiple perspectives, including incorporating two-way engagement, need added emphasis.

    My main challenge is to revise the inaugural definition to be clearer, more complete and comprehensive, but not to add a ton of extra words, which might increase the scope, yet make it less memorable and/or confusing. If anything, I’d like the definition to be shorter, yet increase in clarity.

    I definitely think there’s room for additional conversations and input, from more voices. Please feel free to add in your commentary, no matter the length of your comment or the area. I am aware that I can’t be too precious about hanging on too much to the definition of organizational narrative I proposed. After all, if I’m the only one using it, it won’t be embraced nor will it have much—or any—carriage and authority….

  16. I’m back, sadly with not much more to add. The tapestry analogy is a good one. It calls to mind a relatable concept of weaving together different elements in order to create something more and yet as I type, I hear that quote in my head (I thought was Shakespeare but it’s Scott) “what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Which brings me back to the ‘spin doctor’ or ‘story teller’ problem.

    I do like ‘organizational narrative’ quite a bit and understand that the term is a part of the overal PR definition, and yet agree with Heather and now David. Both mentioned the flow of discussion, that in today’s social world the narrative is not controlled solely by the organization but instead is a also a multi-directional dialogue among many that occurs around a brand and company; that it not only flows out from the company but also others, with different points of view; it also comes into an organization via listening, as it does with any relationship. I don’t have a better answer and will keep reading, thinking about this. FWIW.

    1. Please don’t be sad, Davina. It’s great that you bring in the Scott quote, as that was in my head as well back when I was working on my submissions for the e-report. But I always pictured that as a spider web, rather than a tapestry—looking to “catch” critters, rather than to create organizational champions.

      As I told Eric (or maybe it was Heather), offline, when I was playing around with a word picture, my first attempt used the concept of the oral story teller (a long and honourable tradition, which for centuries preceded mass use of the written word for documentation), whereby people would gather around the teller—an event when he travelled to their village, etc.,–to hear about past history and achievements. Ultimately, I discarded that for a living tapestry image, simply because I think the average PR practitioner actually spends more time on a range of communication management, than she or he does on actually speaking to people, in the traditional sense. And my version of communication management includes print and online documents, video/podcast creation, etc., plus all of the wonderful options social media platforms now allow us. Of course social media also affords alternative forms of dialogue, which makes it a hybrid of the two.

      Regarding the above, it’s obvious to most that I’m a huge fan and champion of social media, especially moving forward. But just as was declared in last week’s #solopr chat—volunteered by many of us (was it Karen Swim who first introduced?), even though not an official question—we in public relations must remain cognizant of the fact that it (social media) and the early adopters still comprise a relatively small part of the ongoing dialogue with various stakeholders, especially from an organizational point of view. We are not there yet, where the majority of our known or unknown publics are making use of it as the primary communication channels or vehicles. Our own circles of colleagues, friends and families bear testament to the adoption curve.

      At this stage researching and putting a lot of focus on honest SEO is probably the more viable option. I shared with Eric, yesterday (Saturday), that on his online PR Dictionary was already the number one pole rank for organizational narrative. Not bad results for a blog post that only went up on Thursday! As Eric bills SEO as one of his firm’s specialties, we are both feeling quite tickled at these early results.

      If you’ve had a chance to read it, you may remember these paragraphs from my Internal Journo and SEO Expert; New ‘Trust’ Calisthenics for the PR Pro, submission to the e-report

      “Although companies continue to funnel resources into social media, results of the 2011 Trust Barometer suggests the self-collecting of desired information (much of it by way of search engines) remains more prevalent than the ‘two-way symmetrical communications’ (beloved by many in PR) afforded through new media channels (corporate blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc).

      And yet, I see some tremendous opportunities to build on early social media efforts (partly by using search), based on the data provided.” p. 16

  17. This is an important conversation. It’s headed in the right direction, but I don’t think we’re there yet. Organizational narrative seems clumsy to me, a high brow way of saying story telling, which is, of course, an important part of public relations but not the only one. The points made about organizational narrative are well taken. It sounds one-sided, which doesn’t fly in a social media world. Organizational dialogue might be better, but it still wouldn’t account for all of PR.

    I wish I could suggest a comprehensive name that’s better than public relations, which is admittedly problematic for a number of reasons, including the fact that it conjures up images of “spin doctors” and has come to mean everything from hospitality to marketing. That said, it remains the best description of what we do that I know of, imperfect as it is.

    To me the essence of public relations has three aspects: increasing visibility, enhancing reputation and establishing enduring relationships in order to advance the interest of an organization over the long haul. That our profession has been increasingly subsumed by marketing disturbs me greatly, since the goal of marketing is to generate immediate transactions rather than building lasting support.

    So let’s keep working on this. If we can get it right, it will be well worth the effort.

    1. Hi David—it’s such a charge when we get new voices participating on PR Conversations, and when it’s my current pet project you decide to weigh in on I’m particularly appreciative. Thank you!

      I think we can all agree that story telling is preferable to spin. My aim is to improve upon the alternative many have chosen. Why? Because the phrase story telling still implies a one-off, one-sided narration to an audience.

      I laughed when I read your “Organizational narrative seems clumsy to me, a high brow way of saying story telling,” because I had suggested in the first point that story telling can have child-like connotations of lying. So I guess I made a child-like concept too high-brow! The challenge is to find a word somewhere in between, I guess. Or else I work to persuade you that it’s the best alternative we have at this point…. 😉

      Whatever alternative is selected (if one is), I don’t think organizational dialogue works, at least not as a way of replacing spin or story telling. Because that’s the crux of my project/new definition: finding a replacement for the S-word, not providing yet another definition for public relations (I remain content with the relatively new CPRS one, in which Flynn, Gregory and Valin used a wiki to create). Because I agree with you that story telling/narration are not the only things that PR focuses upon. Especially “…during an economic downturn or a crisis that the value of a consistent and honest organizational narrative is realized fully,” which I built into the inaugural definition. Those sets of circumstance definitely demand more senior-level PR expertise and skills, beyond the organizational narrative.

      I like your description of public relations, “increasing visibility, enhancing reputation and establishing enduring relationships in order to advance the interest of an organization over the long haul.”

      It’s actually quite close to my shorter (in the definition), “From a public relations perspective—organizational reputation, value and relationship building….” (full props to Terry Flynn for that one, based on his tweet of more than one year ago), by which I tried to encapsulate the definition of public relations within the definition of organizational narrative.

      I’m very glad you are on Team PR against the encroachment of our marketing peers to subsume us. I think you’re line here is brilliant—“since the goal of marketing is to generate immediate transactions rather than building lasting support.” We must remain vigilant!

      Please keep weighing in as this definition evolves; your thoughts and opinions are valued.

  18. Thanks, Eric, Heather and Davina for your great comments. It’s been kind of a wild week, so I’d like to rest up and reflect a bit, myself, before responding more thoroughly.

    But, Heather, I do want to indicate that I don’t see being the “organizational narrator” the only role for public relations. Simply a big part of it. I did say:

    ‘….but to the best of my knowledge it [organizational narrative] had never been used to describe a PRIMARY role of the PR practitioner.”

    Ta ra until I’m feeling clever enough to respond to your clever comments–much appreciated!

  19. I had mentioned to Judy on Twitter last night and earlier this morning, that perhaps the idea of “organizational narrative” is more like a movie or TV series. You have your subplots (individual narratives) but these are woven together in a tapestry of an overarching “storyline”. Judy replied that it would need to be a never-ending loop that is augmented over time, as well.

    1. I’m really enjoying the way you are embracing this concept, Eric, and looking for other analogies or outlets. Regarding the never-ending loop, think about an all-day Lucille Ball special for the 100th anniversary of her birth. Not only would you see all of her great work, over multiple series, but perhaps other things could be inserted in—details from her real life, tributes, cut-out bits, etc.—fleshing the historical, set programs out, per se. Yes, in a continuous loop. Maybe as it was being broadcast, phone calls, tweets or emails from TV historians and fans could be incorporated into the special….

      In case you missed it, I also commented to Heather above on this concept:

      “…perhaps a better analogy would be live theatre in which the fourth wall is broken down, and the audience is commenting upon and influencing the direction of the play…. Or a docent at a museum or historic house explaining a tapestry to an avid and vocal tour group, who ask questions about a particular corner or scene…and the explanation is enlarged upon, depending on the interest expressed. Of course that particular tapestry couldn’t be changed, but if the weaver-artist was listening, perhaps the next instalment s/he wove would be reflective of the interest; i.e., becoming an interactive art form.”

  20. BTW, as per discussion on Twitter, I did mean to say that the image from the “A Heart to Art Chat” is brilliant as a “graphic recording” or “graphic facilitation” recording of the day’s narrative. Alongside this, as you indicate (and I concur) the term tapestry is useful, as these types of visual representation allow multiple pictures and threads. They could also be created by multiple hands (or voices). I think this type of visualization also brings to mind the current craze of infographics – which again offer an interesting way that an organizational narrative could be represented. How many PR people are creating such imagery for the organization’s narrative purposes, I wonder?

    1. Thanks, Heather (for this second comment and set of observations).

      When I took the photo I already knew I’d be working it into one post or the other. It proved to be serendipity, although that’s certainly not why I accepted the invitation to attend the “A Heart to Art Chat.” I simply liked the idea of me, as a stakeholder, including past member and volunteer, being asked to contribute voice to where the AGO could or should head in future. It was a really well-organized event, with excellent facilitation and all kinds of interesting and passionate people, including current staff, people from the arts, community activists, current AGO members and individuals from the community with an interest in this important cultural institution. And of course Liisa’s graphic recording proved a highlight.

      I really liked what the second International History of PR Conference did with its post-conference video, which you contributed and linked to in our three-person-joint post, Using Twitter for PR Events—and not just because some of my tweets are featured! I think it is another great example of an organizational—or event—narrative.

      I’m not overly fond of the majority of Infographics, probably because some people in my Twitter, LinkedIn and Googl+ streams are over-using the concept (although some are definitely useful and interesting). I think they provide a good snapshot in time, but remain unsure I’d consider them a sustainable and evolving organizational narrative.

  21. I was going to say that I need to ponder this, then come back with more thoughts. After reading Heather’s excellent comment, I REALLY need to let this sit and then read it all over again. I don’t like PR being resigned to the kid’s table under the marketing tent, know it’s more than media relations and really feel effective communication lies at the core of almost any business enterprise. I like ‘organizational narrative’ over the simplistic ‘storytelling’ but as Heather points out, there is much more to it. So for what it’s worth, I’ll be back as I have some thinking to do.

    1. I’m so pleased you weighed in, Davina! I’m also delighted you picked up on the marketing tent analogy.

      The funny thing is that analogy is not truly mine. I don’t know if you know my Twitter chats marketing “frenemy” (we’ve actually moved beyond that status, more respectful about one another’s occupation and having a lot of smart and fun dialogue), Ken Rosen, but he was going on vacation for one month and sent a friendly joke-tweet my way, saying he hoped whilst he was gone I didn’t “manage to relegate marketing under the big PR tent” or something to that effect. Here I simply turned Ken’s analogy around for my purposes! Pssst. Don’t tweet this to Ken, but I actually think I’m slowly turning him around to recognizing that PR is/should be an equal partner with marketing, definitely not under….

  22. Judy – thank you for this considered and helpful post. One the one hand I think the concept of organizational narrative is very helpful and I think you will find that it is a concept of PR which is shared by Simon Sproule the global Nissan head of marketing and communication (who is a British PR person with international experience). I shall send him an email pointing out your post. The global Nissan corporate website seeks to tell “stories”: and Corp Comms magazine reports the hire of former Reuters correspondent, Dan Sloan to help the company rival the media by telling its own stories and news. (This print edition is not yet on the website but for future ref: The piece also reports Ford’s Content Factory initiative which again seeks to align “messages and materials for a variety of audiences”.

    You can also see this approach in the communications from companies such as Innocent ( and Lush ( which are both quirky, consumer brands.

    However, as you asked for reflection on the use of organizational narrative in respect of defining what PR practitioners do, then I have concerns. This all still feels like a traditional approach to one-sided communications where the organization decides what its narrative is, and the PR people are tasked with relating it. Of course, PR may be involved at the strategic end in determining the narrative – but it will be one particular perspective of the organization. This leads me to a few other thoughts:

    1. Organizational narrative could be seen as a simplistic approach to craft (I use the term deliberately) an “official” story. This has echoes of “spin” if the narration seeks to present a selective

    2. I believe organizations are more interesting and complicated than a single narrative may reflect. It is possible to conceive an organizational narrative that doesn’t seek to tell a simple tale, but I wonder if that more holistic yet more nuanced approach would be taken.

    3. Is there a single reality even if you take a more complex approach to the narrative? If you look at most novels, for example, they tend to present the narrative from a particular perspective. But if we consider other viewpoints, the narrative would differ. Could organizational narrative do that or does it have to reflect an “official” viewpoint?

    4. The organizational narrative implies a telling role for PR rather than a listening one. Again, listening and understanding the “audience” is an important part of narration, but would need to be emphasised.

    5. Finally – what about the role in the narrative for others to tell the story too? Should the role of PR be more like one of an editor or, perhaps better, a curator. That implies someone who is active in locating and presenting the organizational narrative. To be a curator is perhaps part of the responsibility, where an informed and knowledgeable postion is required to collect and review all the elements of the narrative (and other relevant artefacts) that tell the wider story of the organization.

    1. Thanks for all of these great examples, as well as in forwarding your esteemed colleague a link to this post. They may prove helpful for a guest post I’m considering writing, which will have more of a tactical focus than this one.

      Heather, in regards to your comment, “This all still feels like a traditional approach to one-sided communications where the organization decides what its narrative is, and the PR people are tasked with relating it.” I don’t disagree. But I’d like to point out that, for the most part, I was seeking to find a better word or words for “spin” and not finding “telling stories” an adequate alternative, even though that is the phrase most frequently used. Surely both spin and the telling of stories are primarily one-sided, but even less inclusive than an organizational narrative can be, at least in my inaugural draft of the definition?

      In response to your numbered commentary:

      1. I’m sure a lot of organizations still seek to present a selective position. But I think an interested, active and prevalent media, whether it be traditional or social, has forced organizations to do is to more closely examine what it is they selected—and call them out, publicly, when the selection rings false. And that’s often when the spin moniker gets applied.

      2. I’m going to push back on your criticism that my first-draft organizational narrative definition implies that it’s a single narrative. I’m sure it can be improved upon to reflect how interesting and complicated is the organization, but the very first sentence includes,

      “Think of the organizational narrative as being like a giant tapestry that is continuously being woven, viewed and commented upon by various stakeholders.”

      In his second comment, Eric proposed a TV show or film, but perhaps a better analogy would be live theatre in which the fourth wall is broken down, and the audience is commenting upon and influencing the direction of the play…. Or a docent at a museum or historic house explaining a tapestry to an avid and vocal tour group, who ask questions about a particular corner or scene…and the explanation is enlarged upon, depending on the interest expressed. Of course that particular tapestry couldn’t be changed, but if the dedicated weaver-artist was listening or receiving feedback, perhaps the next installment s/he wove would be reflective of the interest; i.e., becoming an interactive art form.

      3. Interesting observation. I think I addressed that, or at least tried to:

      …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…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…and communication and engagement.

      Official is another word that has become tainted, at least as it pertains to PR. What is a less-bureaucratic alternative? Maybe authoritative?

      What I would hope is that the CEO, etc., does listen to the counsel of the lead PR practitioner, in terms of what is the best, most transparent—or at least translucent—organizational narrative, based on the monitoring of opinions and, particularly, direct engagement with relevant stakeholders. Ultimately, a person in a position of authority does have to decide which questions will be answered and what the answers will be about an organization, whether stated directly or through the PR representative.

      4. I deliberately built in key words to imply that this isn’t all just telling—such as “viewed and commented upon,” “relationships within the company, sector and larger community,” and “communication and engagement.” Maybe just not enough of them!

      On the other hand, I think you’ve pinpointed a word that has to be replaced: Audience. I’d like to find a more two-way alternative, although I fear that social media has made Community a rather clichéd concept.

      5. In my first submission to Public Relations 2011, I did detail at some length the positive impact of using a variety of internal subject experts. But I suspect you are mainly talking about external sources. Branding, stakeholder feedback and so on.

      Definitely there is a role, especially consumer advocates and champions, by way of testimonials and such. The inherent problem is the self-selecting aspect, whereby the positive narrative makes it in and the negative are ignored or de-emphasized. Yes, social media can help. But some of the problems include the more extroverted, the cranks, dominating the narrative. People can be quietly happy…or unhappy…but that isn’t necessarily captured or publicly dominated in the organizational narrative. Except, of course, if the negativity forces an organization to change something significant. The best ones already do that.

      Thanks for the props and considered feedback. Given how much value you add to PR Conversations and the PR industry in general, it’s quite gratifying that you liked this post and have embraced the crowdsouring project almost as if it was your own initiative. Of course you are making my editing task harder, not easier (damn you, Yaxley!). But I know it will be a stronger definition in the end, as a result of your input.

  23. Judy, I had no idea you had been pondering this new phrase for so long. It is interesting to see how you’ve grappled with coming up with a phrase that better describes what PR is about. It’s like, you knew what it was, but it took a while for the conception to become clear to consciousness. I find a lot of things happen that way; I know something intuitively, almost subconsciously, but become clearer on the specifics of the thing only after a long period of time of thought, study, reading, conversation and wrangling about.

    Thank you for your too-kind comments as well. You are a PR practitioner I have come to admire and respect – even if we don’t always agree. You seem to always be pushing for truth, greater sincerity and realness, in your communications here and on Twitter.

    I personally have derived great benefit from knowing you. Not only have I learned a lot, but by associating with people like you and @mitchellfriedman, and by reading the ideas of people like @commaim and @billsledzik – whom you introduced to me – sharpens my PR game. You and those of your ken have solid, established reputations in the PR field, and so some of that “rubs off” on me simple by association! (That’s ok; I’ll take it however I can get it.)

    We have actually written our very first and admittedly amateur organizational narrative. You can read it here: . I owe that to you; had I not met you and had these conversations, it wouldn’t even be in my vocabulary, let alone be something on our website. So thank you.

    Eric Bryant, Director
    Gnosis Arts

    1. Thanks, Eric. You’re right about the “grappling” aspect. On the other hand, that’s what we tend to focus on here on PR Conservations, tackle the big-picture stuff, whether it be emerging trends or new initiatives of note. One person will post about something that matters to her or him, then hopefully rich dialogue results. It’s one of the reasons I was keen to sign on when Toni Muzi Falconi invited me (and Markus Pirchner, plus some others—I recruited Heather Yaxley within that first year) to participate in this collective, international blog when it launched in the spring of 2007. And the tremendous thing about doing all of this in an online platform, whether it be a blog or Twitter chats, is the smart and conversationally generous people you get to meet—even if only virtually—from around the world. I now count you in that category, BTW.

      You know that line Elli St. George Godfry always says at the beginning of the #kaizenblog chat [paraphrase]): We like to tease apart ideas and debate, but always keep the discourse civil and respectful.

      I found your organizational narrative on your site quite interesting. Congratulations on taking the time to encapsulate not only your company’s USP, but also your personal journey and the choice of name. Perhaps you’ve mentioned before the reasons for Gnosis Arts, but this is the first time I truly grasped what it is about. To keep weaving the tapestry, maybe you should revisit that definition, perhaps monthly. Get input from other stakeholders—the most obvious ones being your staff and present or past clients—and see if it could or should be revised.

      And I agree with you about the importance of intuition; I think it’s one of the most important and under-rated skills in our PR toolbox. I’m not sure how much it can be learned, however. I think either you’re born with the ability to intuit effectively or you’re not (fact-based, not just opinion-laced). Although I suppose everyone can work to hone the trait, especially when supplemented by data and analysis, as per your organizational narrative.

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