By Ian Harvey/Principle Curator
Stories are the common currency of life.
Stories are essential to the human existence and have been since we first invented language and orated stories, evolved to scrawl pictograms on cave walls and right on up through the printing press and digital revolution.
Who we are, what we do, where we’ve been and our entire existence and reason for living are encapsulated in the stories we tell and share.
Stories are also political and business strategy weapons: getting in front of the narrative, framing the narrative and controlling the narrative are all high level media manipulation techniques used by all sides both inside and outside of media.
It touches on what I teach in my Media Training and Media Crisis Training seminars.
As I said at the outset, for humans, it’s in our DNA to share and tell stories. We are compelled to share and tell.
And in the digital age stories are often reduced to a headline and so, more than ever, framing the headline is actually more important than framing the narrative.
In this Financial Post column, Philip Cross takes a discerning look at how powerful narratives and overpower the facts, the intersection of where ideology wins out over logic.
He pegs the column on a new book by Nobel economist Robert Shiller entitled Narrative Economics which explores how stories – narratives – have
driven some of the biggest economic mistakes. His first example are the apocryphal yarns about how a friend of a friend, often a direct friend, got rich quick on the stock market and now doesn’t have to work.
This was during the roaring twenties when this story, or versions of it, were told and retold to hypnotized dinner companions. It wasn’t long before the average Joe and Jane were piling their savings into Wall St. and we all know what happened in 1929 when the House of Cards collapsed.
Today we call that going viral and we see examples of it everyday on Facebook and other social media. Some of it even leaches into mainstream media who have spurned the value of veracity in favour of digital immediacy such is the 24-hour news cycle compressed into the now 60-second cycle.
Shiller, as Cross notes, frames narratives as a thought virus spread by contagion, first by mouth as in the Roaring Twenties and today by social media.
Add in a celebrity to repeat the narrative and boom, it’s a hit.
“Economic narratives appeal to people because they offer easy explanations for how something as mysterious as the economy works and how individuals can use that insight to their own advantage. There are many examples of economic narratives that came to be widely circulated. One that helped fuel the bubble in the U.S. housing market before 2007 was the falsehood that house prices had never fallen in every region of the country at the same time (they did in the 1930s). Another is that stock prices are a random walk, which means an investor cannot beat the market. In fact, Shiller notes, “There is now a professional literature that finds imperfections not predicted by the theory.””
Schiller’s take is narrow looking mostly at economists and their ability to get their message out but spot on and while Cross widens the scope to include the widely circulated myths around inequality of income and wealth imported from the United States and applied to Canada as an impetus to enact “wealth taxes” I think the power of narratives and their ability to swamp facts is much wider spread.
Again, as I teach in my Media Training and Media Crisis and Disaster Response seminars, the story is everything.
If you get out in front of the story you frame the narrative that’s why it’s important to be first, especially in this era of the compressed news cycle.
For example, after a man was blatantly killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck during an arrest, spontaneous violent protests erupted in Minneapolis where it happened and spread across the U.S., England and Canada. Some would argue it was an angry reaction to years of abuse by police and each protest was independently coordinated.
Others would say it was as if activists had been planning and waiting for a trigger event to launch a concerted global response.
Let’s look at it another way: By getting out in front of the story and framing the murder by a police officer as a racist act, the agenda was set and that became the narrative and it in turn lit the fuse.
Curiously, within days of Minneapolis, a young woman fell to her death after police were called by her mother, begging them to take her into custody so she could go to a local mental hospital for treatment. No one saw what happened, police were in the apartment and she slipped out to the balcony and – according to statements made at the time – she was attempting to climb onto another balcony to escape from police.
So called “family members” immediately screamed racism and said police threw her off the balcony or pushed her off. Protestors soon rallied because they had got out in front of the story and defined the narrative as the all too familiar: racist cops kill poor Black girl.
While her death was a tragedy, in the absence of information from police, who weren’t allow to speak because the investigation was handed over to the Special Investigation Unit who themselves are notorious about their own cone of silence, the vacuum of information was filled by rumour and speculation.
Sadly some city Councillors who should know better immediately jumped on the bandwagon, reinforcing the unproven narrative and soon Black Lives Matter Toronto was demanding an immediate de-funding of Toronto police if not that they should be completely abolished.
The Mainstream Media, glibly played along, because the narrative agenda had been set and instead of challenging unfounded rumours and calling out false news, they lapped it up.
But these are only a few examples in a few areas where getting in front of the story has proved critical to take control and win media coverage for your agenda.
Both sides of the political spectrum do this but it seems the Left has been particularily adept and successful and has caught the right wing, or at least the targets of their ire, napping at the wheel.
While the oil sands might have been called the tar sands back in the early 70s, much as the La Brea tar pits were called in California, in the 1980’s they were rebranding as oil sands.
Of course, they’re not tar all as my go to Chemist In Langley explains. Tar is a manufacturered product made from distilling wood or bitumen. The oilsands contain bitumen. Still, why let science and facts get in the way of a narrative!
Fossil fuel opponents continue to demonize them as tar sands and just as they reframed the narrative by rebranding coal as “dirty coal” sometimes in the 1980s. You couldn’t say coal unless you said dirty coal, thus pushing their agenda to the top. Salmon farms in B.C. similarly became “Feed Lots” the idea that the dirty farmers on the coast were not better than cattle farmers fattening up their herds for the slaughter.
Talking of which, opponents of salmon farming were so successful in getting out in front of the story that they successfully created the idea that the farms were responsible for the decline in wild salmon stocks. It took a Royal Commission to squelch that but they still persist and the aquaculture industry is still fighting to preserve jobs (many in First Nation communities) 15 years later.
In disaster PR it’s especially important to get out in front of the narrative. The classic mistake was BP’s response during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill. BP failed to get in front of the story and as a result it’s brand was hammered. It didn’t help optics that it’s CEO downplayed the incident. He may have been technically accurate but it wasn’t the right thing at the right time. BP had to hire a PR company which spent the next decade repairing that damage and still carries the stigma of greenwashing, even with its new CEO’s promise to move away from fossil fuels with few details how this will be executed without serious revenue disruptions.
On the flip side Maple Leaf Foods was faced with a PR and brand disaster in 2008 when it was discovered that listeria bacteria had contaminated their sliced meat products and resulted in 22 deaths.
While the full story would not come out until much later, Maple Leaf took the PR offensive and jumped in front of the narrative, making a video with CEO Michael McCain apologizing and admitting responsibility. This, he said some years later, was done against the advice of their lawyers because it was the right thing to do.
It also threw the media a bone, and satisfied, they turned the braying pack on government food processing regulations.
That’s a classic example of getting ahead of the story. The flip side is falling behind the narrative where you’re always playing catch up, reacting, rather than being pro active and being seen to be in charge.
One of my favourite city editors, a stereotypical old school type with a drinking problem and a cigarette dangling from his mouth used to growl at reporters in the way only codgers could: “Jones! We’ve been sucking hind tit on this story. The Star is kicking our arse. Get out there and get me something that puts us in front. Now!”
Whether you are covering the story or selling the story, get in front it and you set the agenda, as we’ve seen, and the media will be forced to run with the news you are releasing. It’s why holding press briefings and being available instead of secretive and silent always work best.
In framing the narrative, the headline is everyhing and this is what Shiller is driving at in his book.
When I was putting out the business section of a daily newspaper there were few economists who framed a headline as well as Dr. Sherry Cooper, the head economist at the Bank of Montreal. Her headlines on economic reports – jobs, unemployment, capital investments- made my job a piece of cake.
It’s alway about the headline. It’s no accident that there’s a Page One Editor who chooses the stories for the front page, selects the top story of the day and writes the main headline for it.
It’s an important job. The headline is story and the story is news and that’s what a newspaper sells.
Climate change activists like Extinction Rebellion, the direct action arm of Greenpeace and Greta Thunberg defined the headline and controlled the narrative through blockades and her case well crafted hooks. What? You thought they were spontaneous? Nope. Another actor playing a role with lots of puppet masters behind the scene.
“How dare you!” and “the house is on fire” will rank up there with Al Gore’s now laughable “inconvenient truth” and “97% of scientists.”
Here’s a list of 10 myths and how we’re getting it all wrong on climate change thanks to a distorted and controlled narrative.
The list is long and it happens daily.
The distorted narrative around Dirty Canadian Oil despite clear evidence it is the most sustainably produced oil and gas on the planet, is one which is having a devastating impact on our economy, especially in the western provinces.
The Coastal Gas Link pipeline was hijacked by a group of FN calling themselves Hereditary Chiefs who opposed it and, funded by outside groups, set up a blockade that ended up in delays and ignored court orders until the RCMP were called in. The reality was that the FN people in BC voted for the pipeline and it was approved by their elected band councils.
BTW, for some other side of the story, the flip side to the narrative pushed by the foreign funded activist groups check out this local website which pulls back the veil in detail as to what is really going on in local FN politics and the false claims by Hereditary Chiefs. You won’t read this in mainstream media because they have swallowed the approved narrative hook line and sinker.
That didn’t stop the powerful PR machine of the activist networks propagating the absolutely false narrative that the pipe line was an abrogation of indigenous rights. The result were rail blockades across Canada and a severe economic hit which put us on a weaker footing going into the Covid-19 pandemic.
The takeaway is this: Even if you don’t have a story to tell, understanding how approved narratives prevail will make you more aware of how you’re being manipulated on social media and by mainstream media. Also, understand how this strategy is going to be used against you. Here’s a list of 10 ways activists want to drown out your voice.
But if you do have a story and you want to tell your story and propel it forward instead of having it flop on the deck like a dead fish, think of it as a negotiation.
Start from a position of power. To control the narrative you have to get in front of the story, be proactive, be definitive, be nimble and responsive.
So first, figure out your story, your key points, stick to them, repeat them firmly and directly and don’t be distracted or knocked back.
After you’ve gelled your narrative, create the headline.
You can’t explain anything in the digital world without a story to hang it on and it all starts with the headline.