Are you one of those senior people who knows that one day you, or your company, might find yourselves at the eye of a media storm? A well paid member of the C-suite, perhaps, or someone paid to handle the media on the C-suite’s behalf?
If so, I hope these observations on the recent Post Office scandal might help you decide on your own approach if that difficult day comes.
(It’s a fairly long read, but I hope an arresting one that it might be worth hanging onto. You never know when the storm is going to break about your head.)
My observations are based on what I’ve witnessed as a BBC News journalist — and, more recently, on my experience as a media trainer helping companies work with journalists.
The Post Office Scandal offers us three approaches you could choose. But I’ll suggest there’s a fourth that might work better.
1 The “Head in Sand, Fingers in Ears” Approach
This has been demonstrated spectacularly by Fujitsu, the company whose software is now known to have caused the bugs that created the misery at the heart of the story.
On January 9, I scanned their website to see what their response to this was.
Their homepage simply didn’t mention it. ‘NOTHING TO SEE HERE’ was the overall impression.
Instead, a picture of a lighthouse and a declaration of a Vision for 2030.
I tried their News pages. I clicked a link to their Press Releases. Surely, I thought, there’d be something?
The latest Press Release, on any topic at all, was July 2022, celebrating a Gold Award at a Customer Experience event.
I called their Press Officer. (At least he’d had the courage to put a phone number on the page.) He picked up. We had an amicable chat, and he explained to me that the company’s policy was simply not to comment publicly — although he would issue a brief statement ‘on request.’
Within four minutes, he’d sent it to me. I repeat it in full:
The current Post Office Horizon IT statutory Inquiry is examining complex events stretching back over 20 years to understand who knew what, when, and what they did with that knowledge. The Inquiry has reinforced the devastating impact on postmasters’ lives and that of their families, and Fujitsu has apologised for its role in their suffering. Fujitsu is fully committed to supporting the Inquiry in order to understand what happened and to learn from it. Out of respect for the Inquiry process, it would be inappropriate for Fujitsu to comment further at this time.”
My thoughts, as a journalist-turned-media trainer?
The ‘head in sand’ approach is very high risk. It suggests indifference bordering on contempt. From a business point of view, it is also likely to put new clients off — as they assess whether your company is even in touch with reality. Issuing a brief statement available only on request to reporters who can track down a Press Officer’s details — albeit one that does acknowledge the crisis and demonstrates empathy— becomes almost meaningless.
2 The Head Visible, Body in Sand approach
This is demonstrated by the Post Office.
Again, I was curious to see what they put about this on their website on the same day, as the media storm swirled around them and Downing Street started to notice.
Once again, I was led a merry dance trying to find anything.
No mention of anything newsworthy at all on the homepage. Instead, a handy guide to returning your Christmas presents.
Determined, I scrolled down, spotting a link to the ‘Corporate Website’.
Clicking on this — aha! — fourth from the right, a tab that actually acknowledged what had happened … ‘The Horizon IT Scandal.’
Beyond this lay another link to a web-article acknowledging the ITV programme that had finally brought all this bursting into the open.
This article is entitled: “A Response to Mr Bates v The Post Office”, and claims that the current Chief Executive welcomed the programme.
And within this link — I could barely believe my eyes — a video message from him, filmed before the programme had been broadcast, but clearly acknowledging its power and that it needed to be taken seriously.
My Thoughts, as a Journalist turned Media Trainer?
If you’re going to make the ‘head visible’, and go to the trouble of recording a message with the CEO, put it front and centre.
By hiding it so deep within your website, you give the impression that you want the credit for recording an empathetic message from a kind sounding leader — without having the courage to put it in front of the widest possible audience.
3 The “Hands Up, I Get It” Approach
This was demonstrated by the former Chief Executive of the Post Office, Paula Vennells, after several days of relentless pressure.
Her name was mud in the tabloids, more than a million people had signed a petition to have her CBE removed, and the Prime Minister was by now comfortable stating publicly he felt it should be considered.
There was no video message on YouTube or appearance on in front of news cameras, but — after several days in hiding — there was this statement issued to all media. It was the next day’s front page news for the press.
“I have so far maintained my silence as I considered it inappropriate to comment publicly while the Inquiry remains ongoing and before I have provided my oral evidence.
“I am, however, aware of the calls from sub-postmasters and others to return my CBE.
“I have listened and I confirm that I return my CBE with immediate effect.
“I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.
“I now intend to continue to focus on assisting the Inquiry and will not make any further public comment until it has concluded.”
My Thoughts, as a Journalist turned Media Trainer?
This demonstrates that hiding behind the excuse that “a public inquiry is underway” will no longer wash.
Paula Vennells finally had the grace to admit that too much harm had been done for her to remain silent. She displays an element of empathy. She doesn’t hide behind bland words, but chooses to use strong ones: ‘devastation’, ‘torn apart’ and, the biggie, ‘sorry’.
I have little sympathy for Mrs Vennells. But I do respect her wisdom in having the courage to come out of hiding. It meant, of course, that she remained in the news spotlight — but she had taken some control of that spotlight, and that, in my judgment, reflected well on her.
If you’ve read this far, you may be shouting at me — “but John, my company pays lawyers vast sums and they tell me in no uncertain terms that I should not to say a word in a situation like this.”
I think the time has come to suggest that perhaps such certainty from lawyers is part of the problem.
It creates the culture of control, paralysis and fear that may have got Fujitsu and the Post Office in this mess in the first place.
Yes, the legal stakes are indeed high right now for many managers at Fujitsu and the Post Office. Criminal convictions are being breathlessly discussed in the media. It’s never a good look when your crisis leads to emergency legislation in Parliament.
As I write, I have in the corner of my eye the Public Inquiry hearings, now broadcast live on the BBC News website.
So let me end with an example of a Japanese company that did take a different approach when the stakes, too, were very high indeed.
In 2010, Toyota had to recall 8.5 million cars, because of potentially fatal defects.
Here’s what the President, Akio Toyoda, did, albeit after some dithering.
He apologised to customers, and to the US Congress. (It’s reported that he offered his condolences to the families of those who may have died or been injured as a result of those defects, though I haven’t been able to confirm this for myself.)
He bowed before news cameras.
And an ad campaign was created, admitting the company he led hadn’t lived up to its safety standards, and explaining how those issues would be fixed.
There’s still time for Fujitsu and the Post Office to take this “we are to blame, actually” approach.
It takes courage.
But perhaps it’s time for their managers to now face the fear and show that courage.
It’s what their victims have been doing for more than twenty years.
People lie at the heart of storytelling, and it’s been like that since the dawn of time. The Bible and Koran are surely testament to that. I made that case in my Newsroom Secret of 2 October, and suggested how you needed to find real people, AKA real case-studies, in order to tell powerful stories in your business.
But the most powerful storytelling in business involves three other ingredients, too. Happily, I’ve contrived it so they all begin with P.
Pictures — Place — and Peril.
What made you click on the link to this article? I’ll bet it was because that photo of the launderette made you just a little bit curious.
If you’re scanning a news website, or even a good old fashioned newspaper, what draws you to read a particular story? I bet it’s always the picture.
The most inspiring news editor I worked with in TV News was always crystal clear — the most important part of our 28 minute news bulletin were the pictures we chose for the opening sixty seconds of headlines. I could have crafted the most skilful script to sum the story up, but it was the pictures that compelled an audience to stay tuned.
Let’s translate this to your business. You’re launching a new service. It’s a bit boring, but it’s important and you’re damn proud of it.
The temptation is to simply write about it, and leave it there. Resist that temptation. Instead, think hard about what image you could use to draw the person to read the words you’re going to write. I did it just now when I sat down to write these paragraphs. I forced myself to think — what’s the picture going to be?
This article is about the art of ‘storytelling.’ That’s potentially quite dull. But by associating it with a picture of a man standing outside a launderette, it seems I’ve drawn you in.
Of course, Google Maps could have simply used a headshot of their launderette owner.
But they haven’t, have they?
We see him framed fairly small in shot, surrounded by his authentic launderette. It’s clearly a real business owner, in a real street, facing a real business challenge.
So here’s an idea. You’re proud of your latest product. Let’s say it’s a garden swing-seat. You’ve had loads of great testimonials. They’re all on your website. But think how much more powerful they could be if they showed a real customer of yours, enjoying that swing seat in their garden.
Sounds absurd? I’m not so sure it is nowadays. You don’t need to send along a photographer. Just ask your client/customer if they’d be happy to send you a snap. It may take a bit of persuasion, and you will get a few knock-backs, but you only need one or two to create that sense of trust and authenticity for a visitor looking at it on your website. You’ll have created an emotional connection. You’ll have drawn them in. They’ll want to find out more.
That’s the power of storytelling.
Not convinced? Here’s an example from Wilverley.com, a company that actually makes garden swingseat, delightfully known as The Idler. (Full disclosure: it’s run by my sister-in-law.) Plenty of photos of swingseats, of course … but the one that connects with me emotionally is the shot of Denise from Oxfordshire, dozing with her cat …
There’s not much peril in the swing-seat business.
Or is there?
What if you’ve looked at a few swingseats that just didn’t feel comfortable, or that were too cumbersome to pack away, or go mouldy when it rains? Part of the Wilverley Idler’s storytelling is that some rival swingseats might have those flaws … they hint at this peril in their copy.
The picture of our launderette owner implies that customers might have been turning up too late to collect their garments — but thanks to Google Maps, that’s a problem solved!
So here’s an example to end on, from a government department gearing us all up for Brexit a couple of years ago.
Here, with one image and 31 words, is storytelling that ticks all my “Ps”.
There’s a real person in it.
He appears to be in a real place, a proper warehouse. There’s no soft-focus drag and drop from Shutterstock here.
And there’s a sense of Peril — new rules are coming, but if you visit our website we can help you sort them out.
So next time you’re wondering where the stories lie in your business … picture real people, with a peril resolved, in an authentic place … and your business may live happily ever after.
Recognise those two little waifs in this lovely picture (©Sarah Frank) ?
Of course you do. It’s Hansel and Gretel, trotting off to meet their fate in a big black cauldron in the kitchen of a cottage cunningly constructed of candy sticks and gingerbread.
So what is it about this story — or any other fairy story — that means you remember it from all those years ago?
It’s my journalistic belief that all good stories — whether in a children’s book, a news bulletin or a business website — depend upon four principles. Happily, they all begin with P.
Let me share some thoughts on the first P — leaving you more able to tell stories in your business, and communicate so much more powerfully with your clients, your customers, your staff and your stakeholders.
(And in my next three short articles, I’ll share thoughts on the others. Spoiler Alert — I don’t like to be a tease — they are: Pictures … Place … and Peril!)
So. The first P stands for … People
People relate to people. People do business with People. People make the world go around. Whichever cliche you choose, it’s living, breathing, blood-pumping people who lie at the heart of all the greatest stories.
Stories from our childhood bed. Stories from the Bible or Koran. Stories from history. And yes, stories from the news.
The first impulse of any journalist when tasked with telling a story about, say, hospital waiting lists is … to find a person who’s on one.
If it’s a really complicated story about data protection regulations, the reporter will be off to track down the victim of a breach.
A local campaign to cut the speed limit on a country road? Look! That journalist’s already on the phone to the organiser asking to speak to the person who had the accident that triggered the campaign.
Let’s apply that to your business.
You run a cloud-based web solutions software firm? Hmm, not much of a story there yet. But what about the person who founded it? What drove her to do so? How much risk did she take to get there? How many hours has she put in? There’s the beginning of your story.
You’ve just launched a new product that (whisper it) is a bit similar to your rival’s? Where’s the story that will make it different? Track down the person who designed/built/prototyped (you fill in the gap) your product. How proud were they when they nailed it! Tell their story. Own that story.
Let’s say your audience is internal — it’s your 75 staff, who you just know are going to be bored rigid by the new Health and Safety protocols you’re about to announce. You know what to do. Find someone whose working life will be safer as a result. Tell that story. Then share the details of those protocols.
It’s not self-indulgent. It’s not vain. But it does require effort.
There’s another word that journalists use for these people at the heart of their storytelling. It’s a word you know and use all the time too.
So if it helps to change your mindset, replace the la-de-da phrase ‘story telling’ with the in-your-face phrase ‘case-study hunting’ … and you’re on the way to engaging much more powerfully with your audiences.
You don’t need two doomed children in a deep dark forest to capture your audience with a good story.
I urge you to watch this video right to the very, very end. Don’t be tempted to tune out after the first thirty seconds or so. You might think, as I briefly did, that it perhaps looked a bit too slick to have an authentic impact.
But I watched it to the startling end. And there’s a lesson in it for all of us about the power of storytelling.
It’s been produced by Network Rail, as part of their annual campaign to prevent deaths on the railways. As a reporter, I covered all too many inquests and spoke to all too many distraught parents whose lives had been destroyed by one rash act by their child or teenager at a railway line.
So why am I sharing it with you, a business audience?
Because I cannot remember when I last saw a form of communication, designed to persuade and change behaviour, that demonstrates so powerfully what ‘storytelling’ can do.
And that is relevant to you in your own business communications. You’re always being told, aren’t you, that storytelling will deliver more sales, happier clients and loyal staff. But you may have wondered what that actually means in practice.
So let’s look at what Network Rail have done here. And ask yourself — could I do the same in my business?
And the result? You’ve been emotionally engaged. So your behaviour may be changed.
Isn’t that what you want in your business? Emotional engagement, and changed behaviour? I sincerely hope it doesn’t trivialise Harrison’s death, by suggesting that it’s okay for you to note what Network Rail have done, and use stories — albeit, much less heartbreaking ones — in your business.
It needn’t cost a fortune. You don’t need to get an entire production team in with actors, as Network Rail did, for obvious reasons. These days, a decent phone and mic, with some thought about the lighting, recording one simple conversation, can do a professional job. You’re unsure about editing? I bet some young gun on your team won’t be …
I sincerely hope that in taking the death of an 11 year old boy, and using it to explain how powerful a tool video can be to get a message across, I have not caused offence. As a courtesy, I asked Network Rail if they were okay about me using their video to illustrate the power of storytelling. They said they were more than happy for me to share it in this way.
I do hope you never have to tell a story on camera as distressing as Network Rail did this week.
But I do wish you well as you consider how much more powerful Harrison’s story is as a short video — rather than a sad statistic.
My free to download, video illustrated guide that will give you the confidence to record more video messages — whether for your website, your staff or your clients. Because video builds trust — and in the age of the smartphone … ‘we’re all broadcasters now!’Subscribe to Download
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