Storytelling Q&A With A CSR Expert

I recently connected with Susan McPherson (@susanmcp1), head of communications consultancy McPherson Strategies, to discuss the role of corporate storytelling in CSR and sustainability initiatives. Susan, named one of the “Smartest Women on Twitter” by Fast Company magazine and the founder of the popular bi-weekly #CSRChat, has spent her career focusing on the intersection between brands and social good. 

Q: Storytelling is quickly becoming a buzzword in marketing and communications. As a CSR and sustainability communicator, what does corporate/brand storytelling mean to you?

A: Corporate storytelling is just like any other kind of storytelling. It's all about finding engaging, authentic ways to connect with your audience. We are beyond the era of corporate speak and jargon-filled brochures. Today, it's all about communicating with your audience through powerful stories that make them think, feel, and look at the world differently. Corporate storytelling is a shift from "this is what our company does" to a much more powerful "this is why we do what we do." It's about mission and purpose, which is why sustainability storytelling is extra powerful. 

Q: What are the key elements of compelling corporate/brand storytelling?

A: Authenticity: I can't stress this enough. Brands need to ensure that the stories they tell are in line with their voice, values, and mission. The stories themselves need to speak to authentic human experiences. If you're using storytelling just a means to sell something, people will see through that.

Anecdotes Plus Data: Stories about individual people and specific moments are much more personal and powerful than those that speak broadly about a program. That being said, you need to balance that kind of meaningful storytelling with data that demonstrates impact. Framing your data in ways that are understandable and relevant to your audience is key.

Creative Use of Platforms: The great thing about digital and social technology is that we now have so many ways to tell stories and opportunities to engage our audiences in the process. Smart brands are making use of these channels to reach people in new and exciting ways. 

Q: Which brands are doing storytelling really well and why? What makes them particularly different or effective? 

A: Intel and Girl Rising: Intel partnered with the amazing documentary film and social movement, Girl Rising, because the tech company is committed to educating girls around the world. It's a brilliant partnership because it gives Intel a built-in story that they can use to communicate their commitment and engage employees and customers. 

Coca Cola: Coca Cola's journey page is an excellent example of a company that created an engaging, proprietary media site to tell its brand story. The content on Coca Cola Journey ranges from How To Throw a Coke-Themed Wedding to success stories of the women the soda company has helped through its 5x20 women's empowerment program.  It's a totally integrated picture of what Coca Cola is all about. 

The Verizon Foundation: If you browse through the Verizon Foundation's website and various reports, you'll see powerful personal stories mixed with hard data. Through videos, anecdotes, and personal accounts, Verizon tugs at the heart strings. With numbers and data visualization, the company communicates its impact in a crystal clear way. 

Q: How is the current digital landscape impacting our abilities to consume and create stories? Are there any platforms in particular that you think are more suited to storytelling than others? 

A: It's all about finding the right platform for your story. For me, Twitter is exceptionally effective because it's the place where the #CSRchat community lives and engages. But Facebook is incredibly powerful for brands that want to capture a visual moment with an anecdote. Even GIFs can be great storytelling tools depending on the story you want to tell. I think the key is being aware of all the platforms, tools, and technologies at your disposal, and then figuring out which align with your storytelling goals.

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