Storytelling vital to earning employee trust, says journalist Soledad O’Brien

Learn from ‘struggling’ media outlets, and focus on storytelling, trust and transparency if you want to engage colleagues, the award-winning reporter advises at IABC’s World Conference.

Soledad O'Brien shares storytelling tips

“Two words to remember: trust and video.”

That’s how award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien welcomed 1,300-plus—the largest in the past decade—at the 2019 IABC World Conference, which kicked off Sunday, June 9, and runs through June 12.

O’Brien, a former CNN reporter who is now with Oxygen, urged communicators to use the failings of media outlets as an opportunity to gain the trust of employees who have lost faith in news organizations, which are “abdicating the role of contextualizing the issues” in favor of pitting opposing talking heads on air.

“The media doesn’t often give credit to audiences who want to learn about each other,” she said. “You can do better.”

Without trust, even deft storytelling will fail. You have to be honest. “Audiences will not forgive being lied to.”

Employees “want to associate themselves with an organization they trust,” she said. They expect actions to match value statements. “The upside of getting it right is huge.”

Gaining trust

O’Brien described her years as an entry-level reporter as a time when she didn’t dig into issues fully but chased dramatic headlines, none of which served her audience—a problem that remains in news today.

“When you don’t capture the complexity that everyone knows exist, you lose trust,” she said. “People don’t trust you to tell their story fairly.”

That crystalized when she overhead colleagues poking fun at Oakland, California, where O’Brien lived at the time. They joked about getting shot driving through Oakland to get to work in San Francisco.

That, she realized, was one reason the stories out of Oakland were primarily about crime and ghettos. That was their version of the story—it matched the narrative in their heads.

“When someone else tells your story,” she said, “expect it not to have nuance and [be] imbued with humanity. You might not even recognize your own story.”

She left six months later.

“I lost trust that we were there to do what we said we were there to do.”

Produce stories that employees want to hear, be truthful, and include them in the narrative. Communication must also be authentic, contextual and revelatory.

“What people actually want is to understand.” Employees want to know why things are happening.

“Don’t be fearful to be transparent.”

The story your company tells must match the lived experience. “What happens inside is what’s reflected outside.”

Building trust isn’t a nice to have; it’s a must.

“Employees want to see their employer as a partner,” she said. They’ve come to expect it.  Organizations that don’t meet that expectation will be left behind.

The power of video

The best way to tell stories? Video.

It’s how we find and share information, O’Brien said. Video, “is No. 1. … Video, video, video.”

O’Brien shared a one-minute clip of food shaming from ATTN. It’s a policy story featuring statistics, copy and animation—and it’s been viewed by 73 million people.

That video helped Fiona MacAulay, marketing and communications manager at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, realize that you can use short video to tell complicated issues.

“You don’t have to spend megabucks to make a video, which creates an impactful message, which reaches millions of people,” MacAulay said. “As somebody that works for a nonprofit, that’s something that we’re constantly looking to achieve.”

Not all videos have to be short. She pointed to podcasts and documentaries as evidence of the interest in tackling issues in-depth. The average time of stories she produces are six minutes.

O’Brien’s team did a feature on caregiving, of which Genworth used a portion externally for a commercial, as well as internally. Shot in O’Brien’s living room, she simply asked caregiver Ronda to “just talk to me about what you’re dealing with.”

“You have to have the guts to fight for stories that matter,” O’Brien said. Emotions are required to have “sticky” stories—those that resonate with you.

The key is transparency.

“You cannot, within the walls of your organization, B.S. people,” she warned. You can tell emotionally challenging stories, but only if you’re willing to be brutally honest. “If you deliver, you have a home run.”

Organizations should also tell stories about issues that matter to employees beyond the office.

Employees, O’Brien asserted, expect leaders to have opinions not only on work issues but also on “messy” and more complicated issues—immigration, gay rights, neighborhood gangs, etc. She describes them as “amazing opportunities.”

But tread carefully, said attendee Ulrik Grimstrup, communication manager at the University of Copenhagen.

“It’s right to talk about the issues, but you have to talk about the issues that somehow are related to the business,” he said. “I wouldn’t say my CEO should go talk about things that don’t have connections to the issues he’s dealing with.”

Christine Brooks, principal of Mercer, said it depends on the issue the leader is trying to address. “Internal issues as to why an organization is going down a particular path and how it affects employees, absolutely they need to be real, and it has to come from the heart,” she said.

One issue that leaders have been speaking out about recently is diversity.

“We’ve seen a huge trend of how diversity affects the business,” Brooks said, “but I don’t necessarily see them going after a cause or issue that hasn’t actually been brought forward to them that still does not affect the business.” At the end of the day, they will talk about it “if it’s going to affect the bottom line.”

A storytelling checklist for communicators:

  • Be relentless in telling stories about complicated topics.
  • Believe your audience has an appetite for more than just a sound bite.
  • “Sticky” stories include emotion. They don’t exist without it.
  • Tell all sides of a story.
  • Be honest. “Trust is everything. No one will believe you if they don’t trust you.”
  • Video is king. Instagram is more authentic, and brand managers can connect with audiences better through this social media channel. “News is missing the boat on what viewers want.”

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