5 lessons communicators can glean from GE’s recent woes

Drop the investor-centric fluff, and find the core story of what makes your company unique. Hopefully, that doesn’t consist of execs who demand backup planes to follow their private jets.


Pity poor GE and its new CEO, John Flannery.

The company’s great reputation is tarnished. Its stock price has tanked.

GE’s previous CEO kicked a host of problems down the road to Flannery, who took over in 2017. Flannery is doing damage control, while taking what must be immensely unpopular steps to save the company.

How could the corporate titan that was once touted as the best-managed company in the world fall so far? Jack Welch‘s succession planning and testing has been hailed as a model of great corporate leadership and governance. He let three leaders know they were in the running, then he tested them for a year in various leadership positions with specific challenges. The winner, Jeff Immelt, grabbed the reins as GE’s sharp descent began.

The company has been selling off assets, downsizing and trying to find a way forward amid ongoing PR pummelings. All this has presented an array of communication troubles.

If you were assigned to tell GE’s story, what would you say? How would you reverse the company’s communication fortunes?

Here are five considerations for corporate communicators whose companies have fallen on hard times:

1. Every corporation is created for similar reasons, but every corporation is unique. Don’t spend much time on the commercial stuff—making money, making cool things or even being responsible “corporate citizens.” Rather, unearth the unique story at the core of your company.

2. The big story is not as interesting as the little ones. CEOs almost always get this wrong. They think about—and are rewarded for the success of—a few basic numbers. ROI, profit, growth—that’s what leaders obsess over.

For the rest of the world (and workforce), the “little” stories that animate the actual business are far more interesting. Nobody—beyond a few people who stand to make money on the results—cares whether GE’s profit margin is 10 percent or 12 percent.

3. The early, relatable stories are always the most interesting. We can all relate to origin stories. People love humble beginnings and tales about overcoming early struggles.

When you explode in size, it’s hard to get excited about the bland, investor-centric stories that inevitably arise—unless they’re atrocious or enraging.

For example, under Immelt, GE had not only a fleet of private airplanes, but also a shadow fleet of private airplanes whose role was to follow the others around in case they had mechanical difficulties. If Plane A broke down, Plane B was at the same airport, ready to go. How’s that for relatability and responsible spending?

4. Stories should home in on one clear point. Corporate communicators are always being pressured to load their work with lots of messages.

  • Make the picture show diversity!
  • Let’s set it in a green building!
  • Don’t remind people of that!
  • I’d like to cite our work in Africa!

Unfortunately, telling lots of stories at once is a recipe for disaster. In each piece you produce, focus on one key message.

5. Don’t presume the destination. The interest in a story lies in the struggle. The result is much less exciting than all the failures attempting to achieve the result.

If your corporate overlords want to keep everything positive, chirpy and anodyne, you must resist. Fight for stories that show behind-the-scenes effort, real emotion and dogged struggle. That’s the stuff of compelling stories.

John Flannery has his work cut out for him. If GE is going to straighten out its mess, the company needs a new story—urgently—to replace the current negative narrative. Stories might not appease investors, but communicators can certainly play a key role in turning the tide of negative perception. That’s no small matter.

Nick Morgan is communications coach, speaker and author. A version of this post first appeared on Public Words.

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