Originally published in PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics on March 1, 2021.
By Celia Willis
Imagine your company as a human body for a moment. (In fact, the word “organization” stems from the Greek organon, meaning body.) Revenue and profit feed it. The face is your reputation, the skeleton is your company’s structure and the genome is your culture. The different muscles are the departments, and the heart, of course, is your people.
The connective tissue of any organization, company or community is communication, holding everything together, enabling it to move forward.
Creating community through communication
Businesses are collections of people working together toward a common purpose — just like a community. If you view businesses as communities like we do, then the following quote from Peter Bloch makes a lot of sense: “Community is fundamentally an interdependent human system given form by the conversation it holds within itself.”
Communications practitioners know this concept well. It is the whole basis for two-way and multilateral communication on behalf of our clients and organizations, allowing us to build and nurture relationships, create connections and engage in dialogue with those on whom our organizations’ success depends: our customers, investors, partners, vendors and employees. I call that building community, and I believe it is the surest way to success.
That said, it’s important to note that to effectively build relationships and strengthen community among stakeholders, we must do more than just disseminate information. We must tell their stories.
Storytelling is a powerful communication tactic because of its ability to build connections. Communities are bound by language and fueled by stories. As it has been said by many communications scholars, “Meaning is in people, not words.”
Connecting through stories
Life doesn’t happen one data point or one email at a time; it is a narrative. Rather than simply sharing information by way of a one-off story, the strategy becomes even stronger when communicators develop a larger plan and tie in the narrative across channels and tactics.
Coordinated and intentional storytelling within a community is engaging, memorable, relatable and can lift words off a page.
It’s important to remember, though, that communicating and storytelling are actions, and the reception of any message is impacted by the nuanced individuals involved. Each person is different and their history, background and assumptions will color their perception of your message.
So how do you tell a story that brings people with different perspectives closer to the core of your community?
Knowing your audience
Put simply, you must first understand your community. Ask yourself: What data do you have that tells you definitively what people think, feel and need?
Levels of engagement and buy-in within any community are inevitably varied. Some are champions of the organization, telling friends about it and even recruiting people to come on board. Others, however, are disgruntled — they’re in the outer ring of connection, feeling left behind and undervalued. And then, of course, you have those who fall somewhere in between.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, we have seen that those who are champions of the organization often have a much harder time influencing those who are completely disengaged. Instead, someone who is actively disengaged will be able to better relate to someone who falls in that middle ground.
Because of this, the messages needed to effectively impact those among each level of connection will be different. It is often a good first step to assess your community to understand where people stand.
By collecting data and mapping out your community, you can identify how to address each group in a way that will resonate most. And that job — the critical role of facilitating connections by understanding and meeting people where they are — falls to communicators.
Mapping storytelling to enable connection
Armed with a more comprehensive and nuanced view of your stakeholders, it is important to ensure that each is represented in the narrative. People need to see themselves in the stories you’re telling to feel included (and invested) in your organization’s shared purpose.
With our clients, we’ve used storytelling to offer hope and nurture community over the course of a particularly challenging year. We wove together values-based communications with stories of how employees and customers were going above and beyond to impact the community. Through what we deemed our “Good News Network,” we helped clients recognize the reality of COVID-19 while highlighting the positives across all areas of the business, demonstrating the strength and connectedness of the organization and the valuable role of each person involved.
As you seek to create connection with your community, ask yourself questions like:
- Do you know your community?
- What kind of information and data do you have that tells you what they need?
- Does your message make sense to them?
- Does your message align with the rest of the body (i.e., your organization’s values and priorities)?
- Do your collective communications tell the story of the organization as a whole? Do they connect the different areas of the business?
By aligning your stories with organizational goals and incorporating perspectives from all areas of the business, community members become engaged contributors and advocates that drive better business performance. Stories are a powerful tool that connects all parts of the business, lending perspective to how each department, team and individual works together.
The easier we make it for people to connect, the more they will do it. Treat your audiences as more than targets. Share your values. Seek to understand what their needs are. This creates a trusted, community-centric partnership and longer-lasting connection.
And that’s when the body that is your company can start walking — or even running — in the right direction.
Read more from Celia in PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics or connect with her on LinkedIn to continue the conversation.