We humans are different from other critters in the world in at least one way: We have a natural capacity to create, use, and misuse language and symbols. (Thanks to Kenneth Burke for this insight.) This capacity for “symbolicity” carries with it a great responsibility to follow the rules for effective language and symbol use with other people who are competent in the language and symbols we share. The capacity for language creation, use, and misuse also requires sensitivity to others—especially ethics—and a penchant for storytelling.
Ever since we were kids we have loved stories. In fact, narratives have been key in the history of civilizations—so much so that another and related way to define us humans is “homo narrans.” (Thanks to Walter Fisher for this insight.) As storytelling animals, using language and symbols of our own making, we like and need to draw others together through the tales we tell. Imagine the stories employees tell about their organizations and how valuable they can be!
Employee storytelling has been an especially hot topic lately in the public relations field, as my observations of Internet content and e-mail has revealed. For example, storytelling was the central theme for Edelman’s 2014 Academic Summit in June. One session in particular, led by Stacey MacNeil, VP for HP’s employee communications, gave us professional symbologists (from industry and academia) some important principles, especially these:
- Storytelling can be an effective strategy for employee communication. Instrumental in this aspect at HP is (1) an internal marketing-based approach to gain mindshare among employees, (2) a newsroom approach to create content, and (3) content delivery methods that give employees what they need and want to know so they can use it.
- Employee storytellers are only as good as the stories they have to tell. HP employee communications tells stories about what is going on, especially the triumphs, as told through the very employees who are responsible.
- A central, credible source for and about corporate news is key. HP News Now is the channel through which employees hear news first, not through external news media. In fact, a key enabler is that HP employee communication owns the internal PR technology channels “soup to nuts,” with IT being an important partner.
- Encourage employees to contribute to the corporate narrative. HP wants its employees to tell their stories outside the company, which demystifies the organization while also making it more personable, among other things to internal and external audiences.
These principles are bound together by one very important value: Trust of employees to say and do the right thing with any and all information the company gives them. We all know how important trust is in our own families and friendships, and it is no different in organizations. Employees are de facto ambassadors of their organizations, and their credibility with others inside and outside the organization reflects back on the organization itself.
So internal public relations has much responsibility for the corporate narrative, and must enable employee storytelling well and ethically. Internal PR will never, can never, and must never control stories employees tell anytime anywhere. Yet inspiring cooperation between an organization and its publics through storytelling is essential and valuable.
Employees are active storytellers, and they will tell their stories to others about being members of the corporate family. Those stories may range from personal ones about them to broader ones about the larger organization. Employee satisfaction (in all the aspects that are part of it) goes hand in hand with storytelling. No matter what story an employee tells, it should add value to the corporate narrative and, especially, to the organization’s reputation, image, and brand. The HP way for employee communication presents sound principles others can use.
The natural human ability for storytelling may be one of the greatest resources for effective employee relations and other relations with organizations’ publics. Employees can and do add to the corporate narrative with their stories. So we PR professionals must make sure employees have the best, authentic, and ethical language and symbols to use (not misuse) when telling their stories about their organizations.
Peter M. Smudde, Ph.D., APR, is Associate Professor, Illinois State University.