Corporate counselors must be sure there is a great story to tell

Corporate PR counselors are masters of keeping our clients out of trouble. As Warren Buffett once quipped, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." We understand the value of reputation and will protect it at all costs.

Corporate PR counselors are masters of keeping our clients out of trouble. As Warren Buffett once quipped, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." We understand the value of reputation and will protect it at all costs.

This is most visible in our media training seminars. We teach clients to stay "on message" and "bridge" to the messaging map no matter what question is posed. But as any football coach would attest, you will not win the game if you only have a strong defense.

Some communications consultants have taken this to heart and reinvented their media training programs, challenging clients to make carpe diem their maxim, not caveat actor. "Storytelling" has replaced "media training" as the new mantra. And in today's environment where it's all about "engagement," smart executives are creating stories that are not just compelling, but more easily shared by customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

I recently tried out my agency's "Storytelling Training" module with an asset management firm. The CEO was more interested in focusing his team on telling a compelling story than on worrying about being "off- message" or misquoted in the press. "We've done great work on how to communicate 'who we are,'" as he put it, "but the story is still pretty boring."

Over the next few hours with his executive team, we focused on crafting a story to captivate potential investors, as well as teach the firm's MDs how to use the tools of good storytelling - establishing a setting, creating tension, building up to a key moment - to make stories come to life. Ultimately, the firm found the exercise to be most useful where it counts - in new business presentations. No longer would MDs simply tell investors the firm has "a robust risk-management system," for example - a client priority, but hardly compelling. Instead, the chief risk officer himself would be called on to paint a firsthand picture of how his own skepticism about the firm's risk-management controls was tested and ultimately turned around by the firm's resolute and deft handling of a potentially disastrous trade. It was a great story.

Storytelling is hardly new. PR has long used this tactic to promote companies' products and services. But in the corporate context, we've lost our way in our risk-averse quest to keep clients out of trouble in an unforgiving media environment. Senior executives must "protect" the brand, but must also be their companies' most compelling brand ambassadors. If they don't capture our attention and leave us wanting to hear the rest of their story, who else will?

Paul Jensen is Weber Shandwick's North American corporate practice chair.

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