What do we mean about “narrative” and how does it relate to the doing of things? People in Public Relations and communication tend to talk about “the narrative” more than 9th grade English teachers teaching Catcher in the Rye and most people just nod their heads, hoping that they can control the problem happening in the news.
A narrative is the story that tells us what something meant. When a big thing happens in the world, news organizations seek to find the “gripping” parts of the story, so that they can best package it up for us to consume. Often that narrative is being prepared for us in real time, as it was in the Super Bowl this year.
This GIF is of the interception that basically ended the Seahawks chances of making an amazing comeback in the final seconds:
(It still gives me goosebumps)
Two things strike me on reflection of that game.
1. The result of that interception is that people start talking immediately about Brady’s legacy as the “greatest quarterback of all time” or GOAT (which is the weirdest acronym I have ever seen).
2. The result of a Seahawk touchdown would have been confirmation that “cheaters don’t win unless they cheat” and a further example of the tarnished reputation of Brady and Belichick.
Seriously, the meaning of the game and how it relates to both Brady and Belichick’s career depended almost entirely on that one play. Brady wasn’t even on the field when it happened and had left with the lead, so the idea that it would somehow be his fault that they lost is beyond ridiculous.
Okay, so what does this mean to us?
Well, for one thing we have to realize that narratives are like living, breathing dragons. If you don’t respect its power, then you might end up getting burned.
(Isn’t that right, Mr. Williams?)
In this video, Brian Williams is trying desperately to get out in front of the narrative and close the holes. It has that rushed feeling one gets from picking up big dog poop with a plastic bag. You are just praying that you don’t get any on your hand…
The key to dealing with a powerful narrative is to give a more powerful and authentic narrative back. The trouble with Williams’ apology is that he is trying to double down and recapture the credibility that he had before. All that does is anger the dragon.
(Mmm. Toasty half-truths and misrepresentation)
Unless you have a rookie cornerback who can intercept that last minute pass (see Super Bowl), you are bound to take a beating at first. Here are three things that you can do to help yourself or your company when things get rough:
(Disclaimer: this is in no way to be considered legal advice. Hire a lawyer if you are facing criminal charges.)
1. Humility: The dragon loves it when we seek the spotlight or try to claim that we should be above reproach. The best example of someone managing to refresh their image (despite truly absurd and awful facts) was Marv Albert in the 90s. If you don’t know Marv, he does the play by play announcing for the NBA. He is famous. He also was accused and pleaded guilty to, uh, biting a woman (and others) while forcing her to have sex with him. He did two years of “rehab” doing no-name sports until he was finally asked back in 99. Maybe because he took his ostracism silently and without any visible complaint (and because the NBA is essentially a sexist organization) he has been completely exonerated in the public eye.
2. Offer a Better Story: The more that we try to argue against a story that is already out there, the stickier that story becomes. This was covered pretty well in Made to Stick. One example that they use is the worm liver rumor about McDonald’s hamburgers in the 1980s. It was both disgusting and compelling, so people couldn’t stop talking about it. They couldn’t convince people that it wasn’t true until they finally made a public announcement saying that it would be economically unfeasible to make McDonald’s hamburgers out of worm livers. That made sense and the rumor went away (until recently with the whole pink slime accusation). If you can present a better narrative that both makes sense and is compelling, then you can help people to move past it. That is incredibly hard, however, and requires that you also be authentic.
3. Be Authentic: As John Wooden once said, “reputation is what others think of you, character is who you are.” And he always chose character over reputation for that reason. You are more likely to weather a difficult narrative if you present your most grounded self. The more that you want others to think something about you, the more likely they will think the opposite. Remember: the bigger the story, the bigger the dragon. You have to be able to trust yourself and who you are and stay true to that while buffeting the storms of stories that are swirling around you. Nelson Mandela was a good example of this during his presidency. He had to navigate a number of stories about himself and about his country in order to fully commit to reconciliation. In my experience, that kind of clarity comes when you are able to be authentic in your communication, regardless of what is going on around you.
The better you are at these three things, the easier it is for you to make your way through the difficult narratives and not to get bogged down in the more ridiculous ones. The more you respect the power of story and how it relates to your own truth, the better off you will be in your communication.