At its recent stakeholder day, the new chief executive of Marks & Spencer, Steve Rowe, commented that although the company has, by common consent, one of the most far-reaching programmes of social responsibility, still only a minority of its customers know or care very much about it.
It’s a common problem.
We know that the issues around corporate social responsibility can be genuinely fascinating, and of interest to a wide audience. Getting your story out there is an important step to creating a deeper relationship with customers that can boost loyalty and lead to all sorts of beneficial outcomes.
But even the best companies seem to be better at creating the programmes than they are at telling the story of what they’re doing.
In the social media age, we know a lot about what makes an impression on the audience, because we can measure this by how much it gets shared. There are lessons to be learned (without descending to the trivial practices around ‘link bait’ headings).
Specifically, there are three elements to creating more compelling stories that companies can implement immediately in how they talk about their corporate social responsibility.
1. Focus on one issue at a time, and paint a picture as to why this issue represents an unsolved problem that affects people’s lives.
Any great story involves the resolution of conflict, and so you should make clear what was the impact of the issue before you took action. If you’re looking at dealing with an issue of, say, child labour in the supply chain, begin by showing what that really means for the people that are affected by it.
If you can describe the issue in terms that make it feel personal to the viewer or reader, then that is obviously most powerful of all.
2. Make it about people. One of the big mistakes of how companies talk about CSR is that they make it all about the corporate entity. The company believes an issue is important. The company triumphantly creates a solution.
But nobody relates to your corporate entity. They don’t care about it.
They may, on the other hand, relate to one or more of your employees that are trying to help solve a problem.
The company still gets the recognition for providing the platform and support for these people. Just because it doesn’t have your brand all over it, it doesn’t mean you don’t get due credit.
But stories are about people. And they have to be real people, whose motivations and purpose are an authentic part of the story.
3. Don’t be afraid to show failure. This is the thing companies find hardest to do. We all know that in order to succeed, you probably have to fail multiple times, but generally companies only want to show the successful end result.
But there is no drama in a story that doesn’t have the potential for failure. And nobody believes a challenge was very difficult if it is easily solved right first time.
Not that I’m suggesting you should manufacture drama – to make it seem more difficult than it was. Because almost always you won’t need to – it was there already.
If you’re focusing on an initiative that was easily solved first time around, it might be that what you’re looking at isn’t much of a case study in the first place. “Company does easy thing” is not going to make the front page of any newspaper.
Initial failure makes the ultimate triumph seem greater, and it creates the sense of uncertainty that keeps the viewer hooked.
Indeed, you can even make a powerful story out of your work on a problem that hasn’t yet even been solved – where you are simply opening a narrative loop that can only be resolved at some point in the future.
There’s a reason why the TV soap operas – which were the first masters of the art of addictive content – finish episodes with cliff-hangers.
The most important thing to remember is that you’re always telling a story, and you should accept the logic that comes with it.
Hundreds of tedious corporate case studies have been created because their authors believed that they were describing a state, or explaining a process.
If you recognise that actually any such narrative is in essence a story, then it becomes much more natural to reflect on what is the structure of a good story, and allow that structure to guide you.