Corporate storytelling and messaging

In the communication arena corporations are always struggling to build or maintain their distinctiveness (being perceived as different or better in the competitive market) and legitimacy (being perceived as acting in accordance with normative rules), and corporate communications plays an important role in this area.

As identified by Halderen, van Riel and Brown in their paper “Strategic messaging in challenged industry settings”, corporate communications contributes to these two objectives through “strategic messaging”, by using messaging tactics designed for key stakeholders in order to influence their opinion and perception regarding the organization.

Effective messaging tactics are helpful for stakeholders to better understand the organization and its position. Corporate communication is not only about informing the stakeholders, but as stated by Cornelissen (2008), is also about “symbolic crafting and projecting a particular image for the organization” in stakeholders’ minds.

Communications managers should know how to influence stakeholders’ perceptions by crafting a distinctive and legitimate organizational identity. For example, according to Halderen et al., companies can increase their perceived distinctiveness by constantly communicating identity claims about organization’s distinctive features, such as innovation, leadership, culture or history. Moreover, to increase legitimacy, organizations need to demonstrate the alignment between their identity and institutional beliefs and norms. 

The authors suggest that in order to reach this objective the messaging needs to be carefully composed by three important elements: sincerity, consistency and transparency. In order to reach sincerity the messages need to reflect the “organization’s beliefs, convictions and actions” which will provide integrity and display authenticity to the message. 

Corporate transparency is related to the quantity and quality of information disclosure by the organization and should be managed on three fronts:

  • Information disclosure: provide selected information based on a careful balance of the priorities if internal and external stakeholders
  • Clear explanations: explain the logic and reasons behind their identity in order to foster understanding and predictability of the organization’s actions, leading to a rise of trust.   
  • Engaging dialogues: learn and understand stakeholder’s expectations and standards against which the organization is evaluated

 

Consistency is reached through promoting a coherent and logical story over time, facilitating the internal understanding of corporate messages so employees can act as corporate ambassadors.

Cornelissen (2008) defined themed messages as “messages that relate to specific capabilities, strengths or value of an organization” that are “continuously and consistently communicated to stakeholders to achieve the strategic intent of changing or consolidating the company’s reputation”.

An effective way to put all these concepts together is to create a corporate story, which uses a narrative communication approach to express corporate identity by creating an emotional bond with stakeholders. Fombrun and van Riel (2007) defined corporate story as “a structured textual description that communicates the essence of the company to all stakeholders, helps strengthen the bonds that bind employees to the company, and successfully positions the company against rivals”.

The authors also found in their reputation surveys that “companies with the best reputation had used consistent and distinctive corporate communications built on a platform of strong corporate identity (who we are) and corporate brand (this is our offer)”.

Fombrun and van Riel (2007) suggest that in order to build strong corporate stories, the reputational drivers should be using as starting points and employ proof points to embody the story. In this sense, the authors propose the following model to develop the corporate story which will use “cause-effect logic” in order to reach persuasiveness. The model combines the company’s abilities, activities and accomplishments as follows:

 

  • Abilities: are the core competences that have enabled the company to be successful. Here are described the organization’s operating system, its competitive advantages compared to the competition and organizational identity elements.
  • Activities: summarized by the core activities the organization is involved in including its business, structure and operations.
  • Accomplishments: the overview of the company’s outcomes and recognition in the market, such as market share, positions in rankings and surveys, ROI, reputation scores. 

 

It is important to remember that the corporate story is a dynamic tool that needs to be constantly nourished by company’s activities and accomplishments, which reinforces the corporate identity and needs to be promoted through multiple channels to stakeholders.

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