Be a More Effective PR Pro Through a Knowledge of Ethics Storytelling

Stories play an important role in our daily lives. Many of the books we read, whether fiction or nonfiction, are stories about people, places and events. The same is true of the movies we watch or the plays/shows we attend. It is all about stories. In public relations, of course, we are often asked to assist our clients in telling their story. Some of the stories we tell are about our client’s corporate culture, products or ideas.

Storytelling is a very effective tool in communication. We remember stories. We will remember stories or anecdotes in a presentation or sermon (even if we forget the theme or its content). When we hear a story we somehow connect with it because we consciously or unconsciously remember our own personal stories. And the connection, more often than not, is often emotional.

We need stories to create order out of our sense of living in chaos. Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D and MBA, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston, put it this way: “Stories have always been a primal form of communication. They are timeless links to ancient tradition, legends, archetypes, myths and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and universal truth.

They are how we make meaning of life. Stories are how we explain things, how we understand our place in the world and create our identity.”

Storytelling is an ideal tool to communicate ethics. Stories we were told in our early lives formed our moral conscience, helping us to discern between good and evil, between right and wrong.

We may not exactly remember what it is that our parents told us we should do or not do, but we do remember the stories they used to illustrate their admonitions.

What better way to convey to a child the danger of deception than the story of “Little Red Riding Hood?”

What better story to exemplify the value of having courage to overcome apparently insurmountable obstacles than the story of “David and Goliath?”

In ethics storytelling I would classify stories in two categories, which are not mutually exclusive.

1. Values-based stories. These stories exemplify specific values such as honesty, fairness, empathy, and truth telling. Values-based stories will portray heroes who lived those values even at the risk of personal loss.

 2. Corporate narratives. Every corporation has a narrative because it has a history. We should remember that a corporation is a work organization made up of people. Hence every corporation has “people stories” that can help define its identity.

 What constitutes a good ethics story? Here are four fundamental components.

1. Context. A context of time and place will make the story more authentic and believable. A story that happened “in Prague in the early thirties” will be more believable than a story that happened “in Central Europe, a long time ago.”

2. Dilemma. Ethics is very often about making choices. An ethical dilemma engages reader or listeners because it provokes the question: What would I have done in similar circumstances?

3. Decision. The decision should be the dramatic moment of the story, he tipping point of the narrative. The decision to be dramatic should be irreversible, a “no turning back” situation.

4. Resolution. To be an effective ethics story, the resolution should confirm that either the decision was the correct one, with positive consequences or the incorrect (unethical) one with negative consequences.

Here are five tips for a good story, ethics or otherwise:

1. Simplicity. Chip and Dan Heath, co-authors of “Made to Stick,” write: “The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure they’re simple—that they reflect your core message. It is not enough to tell a great story; the story has to reflect your agenda.”

2. Brevity. In order for the audience to remember the story, which is the ultimate goal in ethics storytelling, the story has to be brief. This will also allow the listener or reader to share the story with others.

3. Tell a story that moves you. If the story is relevant to what you have experienced or inspires you, it will show. Your identification with the story will be communicative. People react emotionally to other people’s emotions.

4. Be a good listener. Listen to other people telling their stories. You will learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

5. Practice. Tell the story to your family, friends or colleagues. This will allow you to evaluate their reactions and could lead you to make some changes in the presentation of the story. Also, by practicing you will feel more and more comfortable in delivering the story.

Storytelling can have a very powerful influence on the way people think and therefore the way people act. Storytelling can motivate listeners and readers to do the right thing. PRN


Emmanuel Tchividjian is senior VP and ethics officer of Ruder Finn Inc. He can be reached at

A Values-Based Story: Courage

1. Context. Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat, was stationed in Lithuania during WWII. As the German Army was approaching, Jewish refugees in Lithuania needed desperately to flee the country. The obvious country of escape was the Soviet Union. However, the Russian authorities refused to grant entry to escapees unless they had a visa for another country.

One afternoon, Sugihara noticed children and parents waiting in the snow and mud outside the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas. He asked his staff why they were waiting and was told that they were hoping to be granted a visa for Japan that would allow them to enter the Soviet Union.

The Japanese diplomat asked his superiors in Tokyo for permission to issue exit visas to the escapees.

The request was denied.

2. Dilemma. What was he to do? Obey his superiors or listen to his conscience?

3. Decision. Nevertheless, for reasons unknown, risking his life and career, Sugihara made the decision to listen to his conscience.

In direct violation of official Japanese policy, on July 18, 1940, he started to issue transit visas and did so for 10 days, spending close to 20 hours a day applying his signature on visa papers and then, when he ran out of visa papers, consulate stationary and when he ran out of consulate stationary, on regular paper.

Each time he affixed his signature, a whole family was rescued from certain death. He did so until the Japanese authorities closed the consulate and he was reassigned to Berlin.

4. Resolution. It is believed that he thus saved 10,000 Jews from the horror of the death camps, and that there are more than 300,000 people living today that owe their lives to this courageous man.

His career as a diplomat was destroyed because of his actions and while his colleagues became heads of major Japanese corporations, Sugihara, after being dismissed form the Foreign Ministry, lived a low-key existence almost until his death, doing menial jobs.

In 1985, a year before his death, he was recognized by the State of Israel as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” — E.T.