Storytelling at the core of corporate CSR branding

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The story corporate story should be at the core of any CSR effort. It is what I would call the cement that holds everything together inside the organisation and makes it possible to communicate with a degree of persuasion with its audience.

If one looks at storytelling as elements of branding one can distinguish three elements Culture, Identity and Image.

Culture being the stories that employees tell each other from the old t the new guy or among the old-timers or is the ones told in the employee magazine as examples of good cultural behaviour. It is also the informal stories that circulate among employees or close associates about how we saved the day by some act of heroism or how we beat the people from accounting at the annual summer go-card trip.  All these stories being told everyday at all levels of the organisations is building, reshaping and reinforcing corporate culture.

The Identity is what employees belie to be unique to being in just this organisation. One can call the corporate identity the reflection of the stories that is being told. One could say that they are the collective way of interpreting the stories we call our own which outsiders might not understand the fine details of. One cannot totally distinguish culture and identity from each other, as they are interlinked and always evolving. However, one can project or at least try to project ones identity on the surroundings as explicit examples of corporate culture.

This leads to Image, which are the pictures outsiders get of the organisation when it hears the corporate story being told. Stakeholders listen to the stories being told but are also taking part in its reproduction creating a mirror of the corporate image that the organisations identity can use as tool for affirming or renegotiating its culture and its feeling of being one.

In order to analyse and understand corporate storytelling one can use the actantial model developed by Greimas, which basically breaks down the story into six different but essential components.

The axis of desire, which refers to the subject or hero (who can be both good or bad) and the object, which is the thing he/she/it, desires. The axis of power that can be broken down into a helper or the person or thing that helps our hero and the opponent that is the person/thing trying to stop our hero from achieving his goal. The helper assists in achieving the desired junction between the subject and object; the opponent hinders the same.

Finally we have the axis of knowledge that is composed of the sender and the receiver. The sender is the person or thing that is requesting the establishment of the junction between our hero and the object he desires. The receiver is the element for which the quest is being undertaken.

Using this framework of understanding one could for example look at the most prominent CSR stories of 2010 the BP oil spill or the Google battle for free speech.

BP‘s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Deepwater Horizon was one of the world’s largest ever oil spills, and understandably this story absolutely dominated 2010. Not only did it put a final nail in the coffin for BP’s once vaunted sustainability reputation, but it heralded a major rethink about the viability of deep sea drilling. BP didn’t cover itself in glory by failing to come up with a realistic remedy until far too late – and ended up picking up most of the tab, thereby putting paid to the usual assumption that pollution is simply an ‘externality’ of business.

Here the CSR policy of BP could be seen as a helper in telling the story that the company was trying to communicate. However, the hero or BP executive management was not able to use the help they were getting and ultimately failed to keep the BP CSR brand intact. That the power to decide if BP was allowed to win or fail in the efforts was given to the local fishermen by a combination the statements in the CSR policy and the medias efforts to find a compelling case to write about.

Google’s battle for free speech

Google’s withdrawal from China at the beginning of the year was a landmark decision in the battle for free speech on the web. A real clash of titans, no other story this year illustrated better the clash between government and big business around human rights issues.

In the Google example we have a case were the CSR policy was used successful even though the case did not come out as a commercial success for the company. When the company was challenged on its policy it stood by its values and identity and ultimately was able to prevail as a ethical brand taking a decision to withdraw from china rather than compromise its ethical standpoint. The winner becomes the Google identity and brand which is viewed its stakeholders as a company who puts people before profit.

These stories and many more show that CSR is an essential part of the corporate brand and that it is central in the story that we tell. Also that the policy is not something that corporate executive should take lightly but that it is actually a document which quite literally can help or break a company brand.

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