If You Don’t Tell Your Story, They’ll Tell It For You
Over half a decade ago, comedian Stephen Colbert ranted in his political-satire talk show about his love for Wikipedia and how he believed it could turn reality into “wikiality,” a state in which simply publishing something on the internet made it true. The funny/ironic/insane part is that as he was taping the show, Wikipedia’s edit records showed that someone with the username “Stephencolbert” actually was actually making the edits that Colbert was talking about making. Wikipedia’s administrators swiftly banned the account.
It was an endearingly futile gesture in support of digital truth. Most of us have accepted by now that as much as we love the internet and all it’s brought to us, it’s also a cesspool of misinformation of all sorts. It’s everywhere, whether it’s in the form of a clueless relative innocently forwarding a warning e-mail about sunscreen making you go blind (“Mom, haven’t you heard of Snopes by now?”), a news outlet hastily tweeting out unchecked rumors in the wake of an ongoing crisis, or any number of the bizarre conspiracy theory forums that are always just a click or two away.
Brand PR and marketing departments feel this acutely. It’s human nature to want, or even psychologically need, to fill in the blanks when we don’t have the full story on something. We crave a consistent narrative in order to be able to fully process information. (There’s been some in-depth user experience research on this.) But having several hundred publishing and social sharing tools at our fingertips at all times just makes misinformation entirely too easy to propagate – whether the propagator knows it’s false or not. Any brand that’s gone through an image crisis knows that if they’re slow to respond, the internet will start responding for them, and it’s rarely pretty. The brand gets accused of obscuring the truth, consumer anger grows, and — even if the brand wasn’t doing anything sketchy in the first place — the speculation cycle grows so vicious that the brand is forced to shoot down each little tidbit of misinformation like a game of Whack-a-Mole.
We saw this “holes in the narrative” problem rear its head with that “Game of Thrones” wedding fiasco. No, not the one that closed out Season 3.
Silicon Valley fixture Sean Parker got hitched earlier this month in a ceremony that was, among other things, rumored to have been inspired by the TV show “Game of Thrones, and located on a set of temporary medieval ruins in the midst of a redwood glade in Big Sur, California. The internet rumor mill went into overdrive, and simmering resentment over the wedding’s (largely exaggerated) opulence and environmental cost manifested itself in death threats.
None of the rumors were fully true, according to Parker. In his (surprisingly believable) narrative, he had been working the entire time with a conservation organization to help restore a paved-over campground whose owners had been targeted by the California Coastal Commission for a handful of environmental violations. But because this hadn’t come to light, when the Coastal Commission violations were revealed, the world associated them with Parker’s wedding setup. There was a compelling but easily misinterpreted narrative there, but (perhaps in the name of privacy) Parker didn’t tell his own story until the internet speculation machine had gotten out of hand.
Another pertinent example of a brand’s narrative having its gaps filled in unfavorably is also Parker-related. The movie “The Social Network” (in which a hard-partying portrayal of Parker was played by Justin Timberlake) and its relationship with Facebook functions as a sort of meta treatise on storytelling both in terms of its plot and its development.
Facebook declined to cooperate with the making of the film, and as a result, both book and movie are packed with moments in which the writers have assembled which facts they know and filled in the blanks with (largely negative) interpretations where they don’t. There are, perhaps coincidentally, subtle cues about this theme throughout the film — Mark Zuckerberg’s lawyer (a fictional character) warning the young Facebook founder that the decision in the intellectual-property lawsuit he faces will be made by people who are already set up to consider him a villain. The technologies he’d created, ironically, were the same ones that were making it possible for control of his own narrative to be seized by the internet media, and eventually Hollywood. (If you’re interested, I wrote more about this when the film was released.)
The tired old marketing buzzword for solving all this is “transparency.” Dozens of lukewarm social media consultants will suggest that starting a company blog to share photos of your company strategy sessions or guest posts from your technical team will help avoid your PR department’s next aneurysm. But transparency implies that a brand should more or less do as much as possible behind a glass wall. The real problem isn’t that people don’t know enough. It’s that they aren’t given a consistent narrative that they can follow without gaps. “Transparency” doesn’t solve this.
With a few possible exceptions that have maintained Dick Cheney-worthy levels of stealth, every brand is getting talked about on the internet — one study found that fully 70% of brand-related content on Pinterest was user-generated and hence out of the control of the brands themselves. Attempting to control the conversation rarely works out, particularly with brands that get too aggressive in deleting negative comments on their blogs or social profiles. A slapdash strategy to achieve some obscure “transparency” goal may bear little relevance to what the world actually wants to know (the awkward Frisbee tournament photos likely won’t achieve much beyond a few retweets).
It’s storytelling that can actually do something — knowing the characters, knowing the themes, and knowing the plot (or at least what the plot is projected to be), and in turn identifying where in the brand narrative people are likely to start filling in the gaps. No brand will be able to fully avoid PR and image crises, but a grasp of its narrative and how to publicly present it to minimize easy misinterpretation will mean you’re far less likely to have to deal with an entire internet speculating that you’re running around razing old-growth redwoods in the name of getting to be a Lannister for a day.Image by Mark Seliger