The Heroes, Skeptics, and Ne’er Do Wells of Brand Storytelling

Engaging the characters at your organization

So, you’re a communicator working in a company or nonprofit organization and you just got the green light for a new publishing initiative. Congratulations! You’re one step closer to telling great stories for your organization.

All you have to do next is get your organization to act like a newsroom when it typically acts like a research firm, or a think tank, or a service provider, or a product developer. And then you’ll want to get your colleagues, who each have their own responsibilities, skill sets, and experiences to do something new and outside of their comfort zone. In short, all you have to do is change the fundamental nature of how your organization communicates with its audience. That’s it.

Ah, crap.

This is the challenge facing so many organizations that want to tell stories, engage audiences in new ways, and structure their internal operations to better accomplish these goals. All the strategic planning and creativity in the world does not necessarily equal an effective content strategy and publishing operation. To truly be successful, you need the people to make it happen.

For advice to communicators who may be in this position themselves, I turned to my colleague Brock Meeks, a long-time journalist with experience at big national media organizations and at leading newsrooms for both nonprofits and corporations.

“How do you start a ‘newsroom’ within a non-news organization?” I asked.
“You have to think of yourself as a movie director,” he responded.

In any organization, there is a cast of characters that will either work for or against your efforts, he said. Some will give you great stories to tell and be ambassadors for your brand. Others will protect the status quo and try to poke holes in your work. Finding them, engaging them, and getting them on board will be crucial to your success.

With some help from Brock, here are the characters (complete with examples from your favorite shows) that can make or break your newsroom.


Local Heroes

Local Heroes are your most valuable resource. They have been at the organization the longest and have a wealth of institutional knowledge and stories to share — how your company developed its most successful product or the research project that shook up the field five years ago.

Longtime stalwart of Dunder Mifflin, Pam Halpert

Tips for engaging them:
Local Heroes are easy targets. Before you came along, the only outlet they had for their stories was lecturing new interns in the break room. Find the Local Heroes early, bring a notebook, and tell them they have a new opportunity to shape how your organization’s story will be told. Repeat often.

“These people are a fount of knowledge,” Brock says. “It’s more about accessing that knowledge than adding new job responsibilities.”


Evangelists

Evangelists are very excited about the idea of storytelling. Maybe they are social media power users, or former journalism majors, or novelists on the side, or just generally pumped up about life. Most importantly, their enthusiasm for starting a newsroom in your organization is infectious, and can convince peers to join the cause.

The endlessly optimistic Deputy Director at Parks and Rec, Leslie Knope

Tips for engaging them:
It shouldn’t be hard for you to find them, but it’s important you do so quickly.

Whether they are in senior leadership, on the communications team, or in the mail room, evangelists will be useful advocates for your work, and probably your first contributors, strategists, and storytellers (read: guinea pigs).


Headliners

The Headliners are the superstars of the organization, influencers in their field, and the people that colleagues respect the most. They may already be accomplished speakers, authors, tweeters, etc. or they may just be brilliant people who don’t have an external outlet for their ideas.

Everyone’s favorite POTUS, Jed Bartlet

Tips for engaging them:
Do your research before engaging them. Did they write an influential report that not enough people read? Did they give an amazing speech that no one captured? Find out their pet idea or initiative and offer to interview them about it. Come to the Headliners with a value proposition for how your publishing efforts can enhance what they are already doing.


Skeptics

As you might imagine, not everyone is going to be on board with your strategy. When you lay out your newsroom plan for Skeptics, they are the most likely to say stuff like, “What stories do we really have to tell?” or “Why would anyone care about what we have to say?” They are going to question whether your organization’s newsroom is worth the time and energy. Their overarching motto: “Why fix something that isn’t broken?”

The persistently skeptical director at Parks and Rec, Ron Swanson

Tips for engaging them:
Skeptics can be a bummer, but do not avoid them!

Because of their initial doubt, Skeptics can actually become your best advocates. “Once you flip a skeptic, that’s priceless,” Brock says.

To “flip” them, you need to build an airtight case. As you begin your publishing efforts, aggressively measure the impact. Use web analytics to show how your content is reaching new audiences. Get testimonials from the people whose stories you helped tell and compile reader feedback. Don’t misrepresent your efforts but show Skeptics that something is happening. People are reacting. That’s always more compelling than the status quo.

And if they don’t flip, that’s OK. At least the Skeptics aren’t the…


Ne’er Do Wells

If the Skeptic’s reaction to your storytelling efforts is “meh,” the Ne’er Do Wells’ reaction is, “Over my dead body.” They will work against your efforts by limiting your resources, devaluing your work to others, or mounting competitive efforts.

Why? Some people feel threatened by change. The idea that organizations should adopt the practices of a newsroom is still relatively new. It’s also time-intensive and requires people to rethink their roles. It may also steal air from Ne’er Do Wells’ pet projects which could be competing for the same time and resources.

That villain who is always trying to foil your plans, Snidely Whiplash

Tips for engaging them:
In our experience, there are fewer Ne’er Do Wells than you might think. But if you run up against one, be nice. Try to calmly show them how what you’re trying to do benefits them directly.

Ask them about the coolest thing they are working on and try to think of a way to tell their story. Figure out the people they want to reach with their work and come up with some ideas for how to reach them.

If the Ne’er Do Wells scoff, go and do it anyway and report back to them. Success has a way of bringing even your harshest critics to the table.


Yes, organizations can build their publishing efforts through freelance writers, or a new team of digital strategists, or by training a traditional communications team. But the most successful, sustainable newsrooms are extensions of the organization’s culture.

To embrace that culture, you have to embrace the many characters that have helped create it.

Creating a culture of storytelling is just one of the many things we think about for clients at Atlantic Media Strategies. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, the Digital Trends Index, and get in touch with us on Twitter.