You’ve probably heard more than once that you need to control your narrative. It’s a phrase that is ubiquitous when it comes to media handling yet often it can be hard to truly understand what this means before you know what to do with it.
The phrase often has negative connotations simply because of the word ‘control’; making it seem like it is a bad thing that is manipulative or deceptive. However, controlling the narrative is more about listening to what people are saying about your agency so you can improve the way you communicate with the public and engage with the media.
Every agency has a story to tell and it is important to be able to tell it in a way that you can manage effectively in terms of timing and language so you can effectively serve your audience. Good storytelling means a better chances of positive outcomes.
Essentially, it’s about telling it your way, before someone else gets to tell it in a way that may not reflect the whole picture.
What is a narrative?
Put simply, in relation to communication, it is the ongoing story that is told about your agency. It’s what the public and stakeholders read or hear about you and affects their perceptions and opinions of the work that you do and what you represent as an agency.
Just because the narrative is about your agency, it does not mean that it was written or subsequently controlled by you. A narrative - or storytelling - can be authored by the media, a group of people online or any number of unconnected sources that influence anyone in your world.
When it comes to crisis communication in particular, storytelling effectively maintains the level of trust toward the organization and reduces the responsibility attribution during a crisis.
What is the difference between a story and a narrative?
A narrative is essentially what your agency is, what it’s about, what it represents and its values. This is something that should be the bedrock of your communication strategy and constantly be nurtured and managed. It should be about the history of the agency, the people and the work that it does.
A story has a finish and an end - therefore this could be a single issue that you are working on such as a crime prevention initiative or a health campaign. It could be an incident or a crisis. Many stories contribute to the shape of the narrative of your agency.
Why should you care about your narrative?
Misinformation - the main topic of conversation in recent times - is here to stay and will likely become harder to fight. That’s why you need to be starting from a strong position of a good narrative. The stronger your agency narrative is, as long as it is positive, means it is harder for misinformation to take over. With a solid and reliable reputation, it means there is no fertile soil for rumors and bad actors to grow in the community. Work and time invested in your reputation and the stories you tell will pay dividends when it comes to the inevitable crisis that you will have to deal with. Create strong and unshakeable foundations to help you cope with what comes at you in the future.
Establishing a narrative
You may feel like it’s too late to start establishing a narrative, but the time is now. There are small daily, weekly and monthly actions that you can take to ensure your reputation is strong enough to create that unshakeable narrative where you are in charge of what gets said about you.
If you don’t have a communication strategy - start writing one now and make sure it has points threaded through it that will build your narrative. This includes things like identifying core values of your leadership team and internal reputation. It means being committed to having better relationships with the media, giving appropriate and timely training to members of staff who engage with stakeholders. It’s also about ensuring you have a clear strategy and point of view on key issues that affect your community. There’s a lot you can do with less effort than you realize.
How do you control your narrative?
Regaining or controlling your narrative without doing ground work to set up strong foundations in the first place can make it harder to control. You may have moved into a new position where you're picking up the pieces from something that happened to sully the reputation of your agency or it could be something that has changed slowly over time after a succession of smaller negative events.
Be honest and transparent
Honesty really is the best policy. This is different from withholding information for operational or legal reasons. You can be honest about what happened, why you do what you do and particularly, when you will give more information. You can’t unpick lies and so this will garner trust and respect.
Put forward good people
There are always good people out there, willing to tell their story. These people work with you and by allowing them to engage authentically with the public you’ll be able to show integrity and build trust.
Do what you say you’re going to do
If you’ve made a mistake - either individually as a leader or as an organization - say what you’re going to do about it and make sure you do. There is nothing worse than broken promises for ruining your reputation.
There are always situations and circumstances that are beyond our control, but the reaction and subsequent actions taken after a challenging situation can be controlled. Look to establish a strong reputation every day and build on this. Learn from mistakes, adapt and be authentic.
Read more: What is Transparency in Communications?