How to keep the OppValve open: tell your story well and build trust
Let’s state the obvious. Trust is essential to make business work. A good reputation is essential to maintain trust with everyone you deal with, every day. That’s why companies need to explain their thinking and actions to a wide range of audiences: investors, customers, employees, local communities, policy makers, regulators and influencers.
How well a company responds to sustainability pressures can make or break its reputation. The issues are often emotional: caring (for the environment) and sharing (distribution of wealth, enhancing lifestyles, protecting human rights).
This is why corporate stories about sustainability are so important. Why they must be told, and told well.
What makes a good corporate sustainability story?
Our ability as humans to tell stories, create myths and describe values separates us from apes. Storytelling helps us communicate with large groups of people and turn ideas into reality. This applies equally to stories of capitalism, socialism, Christianity, Islam, or indeed, sustainable development.
Our reactions to a threatened environment and social injustices have coalesced into the narrative of sustainable development. But this story has struggled to find universal support because it threatens the status quo and demands change. That’s why so many
people think scientific warnings, such as climate change, are a hoax.
Unless we can all believe the story of sustainable development and why it is needed, threats such as climate change will overwhelm us. To succeed, the sustainability story must be told in a convincing way. But this is something business has failed to do with sufficient conviction and authenticity.
The story has to be real and gritty. And it must connect with audiences at an emotional level to inspire change.
Such authenticity is rare because business – driven by the dated desire to keep things relentlessly upbeat – falls into many storytelling traps along the way. Read on for our top tips on how to dodge the traps and stay true.
Authenticity trap one: green and pink washing
First there was whitewashing – slapping nice words over the blemishes and cracks to give the illusion of purity. It’s an age-old practice of the public relations industry who love to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
Then, when interest in the environment took off, PRs rushed to paint their clients green. After all, the public love a company that looks after the planet.
Take hotels, which leave little cards in the bathrooms promising to limit towel and sheet washing, claiming that the sole reason behind the limited-laundry policy is to save water and energy – and the environment. Who could disagree? But what else is the hotel doing to protect our precious ecosystems? Seldom is there any indication of broader environmental objectives, which make the laundry promise ring hollow. Especially when you realise the real reason is a cost saving to the hotel and not the planet.
More recently, greenwashing has been joined in the lexicon of caring deception by “pinkwashing” – the practice of companies using their support of breast cancer charities to massage their caring image and sell more product. This is especially prevalent in cause-related marketing and the misuse of the pink ribbon as a sales incentive.
- Tell the truth, it’s easier to remember and refreshingly authentic
- Treat your audience with respect
- There are no easy fixes to sustainability – don’t pretend otherwise
Authenticity trap two: complexity vs triviality
Sustainability is complex but it doesn’t have to be. So much sustainability storytelling is either too technical or too trivial. It’s not easy to find the sweet spot in between, but it is vitally important to enhance understanding and connect with your audience.
Complexity comes mainly from environmental science, but also the business processes that are involved. Talk of CO2-equivalents, value chains and intergenerational equity can be confusing to even the most intelligent audiences if they are unfamiliar with the sustainability lexicon.
No matter what we produce at Context – white papers, reports, animations, infographics, websites – the editor’s question is always this: will this be understood in conversations at the school gate? If not, we look for ways to make it simpler without trivialising it.
Oversimplifying is hazardous. The temptation is to exclude awkward details that mess with the logic flow of the narrative. This often happens when devising animations and infographics. You see it, for example, in material recycling diagrams where the storyteller edits out, say, the special equipment needed to fully close the loop. Or forgets to mention that markets for the recycled materials don’t exist. We must admit the inconvenient truths.
- Think visually – use pictures
- Summarise and provide references for the viewer to dig deeper
- Use everyday words
Authenticity trap three: balancing optimism and doom
Is the world coming to an end or are we at the beginning of a golden period of prosperity? It’s all doom if you read environmental commentators in the liberal press. But plug into the utopians on the right and the world looks much brighter, with no problems in sight other than the hoax of climate change.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. But corporate storytellers locked into outmoded PR myths find it hard to admit to anything but the sheer brilliance and future success of their enterprise. So much so that there have been attempts to banish sustainability in favour of something considered more upbeat and positive.
Some have actually tried to rebrand sustainability, using words such as prosperity or plenty in an attempt to get greater buy-in from sceptics. This desire for positive spin is understandable. But it ruins a good story. The most engaging stories are about overcoming adversity so it makes for a rather empty tale if you can’t admit to any problem or hurdle.
Authenticity demands honesty and everyone recognises the existence of problems – we experience them in our everyday lives, so why should corporations be different? How you overcome the problem is what’s interesting and therein lies your story.
- Doomsayers will not succeed, but neither will unbridled optimists – find a happy compromise
- Admit to problems. Overcoming adversity is at the core of all good stories
- Remember your audience won’t be hoodwinked by excessive positive spin
Authenticity trap four: preaching
It’s that churning feeling you get when watching a holier-than-thou TED Talker telling us why we are bad people and how we can be better. The sensation is similar to that evoked by the Sunday school teacher explaining the concept of original sin. While preaching and finger-wagging is usually the preserve of the sanctimonious Greens (what, you don’t compost?), corporate storytellers often suffer from the same need to hold the high moral ground.
This usually occurs in stories about hazard, risk and safety, especially product safety. Dip into any description, infographic or video extolling the multi-faceted precautions taken to ensure worker and product safety. These are stories devoid of any hint of fallibility and are imbued with a haughty sense of self-righteous indignation that anyone – anyone – could possibly doubt the rigorous, failsafe corporate systems that mitigate any risk whatsoever.
Proof of fallibility is in the constant stream of product recalls and those who die in work accidents. Talk privately to risk managers and they will freely admit to the difficulties of managing personal and product risk. But don’t expect to find such honesty in the corporate narrative.
Preachiness also pops up in the softer side of business, where corporates help the so-called ‘under-served’ (poor people). It’s here that corporate storytellers over-rev wildly, losing any sense of proportion while extolling the virtues of their community activities on a largely bewildered neighbourhood invaded for a day by office workers on their (single day) of community volunteering.
- Leave preaching to priests
- Help your audience understand hazard and risk, and admit to its challenges
- Truth enhances a story, don’t be afraid of it