Wrestling With Corporate Storytelling

Leslie Billera
Leslie Billera

“Racism isn’t born. It’s taught.” Undoubtedly, this is a storyline worth thinking about. But compare it to this: “Racism isn’t born, folks. It’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. Know what he hates? Naps. End of list.” What does the second quote say about the speaker’s personal brand? He is no-nonsense. He is funny. He is blunt. He is bold. And he is definitely not boring. Whether Denis Leary—originator of this quote—writes his own material or not, he has a way of telling his point of view so that it engages, entertains and stays with you.

The good news is that you don’t have to have Hollywood heft to bring the art of storytelling to your personal and corporate brand.

By way of example, consider one of JCPR’s clients, financial services firm HighTower. In an industry not known for razzle-dazzle, JCPR tapped the art of storytelling—and a character named Lou the Butcher—to make sure the firm’s new business model got the attention of the best and brightest Wall Street advisors.

In a video designed to appeal to HighTower’s potential clients of high-net-worth investors, the CEO compares the firm’s transparent approach to a dietician and its Wall Street competitors to butchers. Using an animated whiteboard, amusing characters and a compelling story, the video brings HighTower’s core differentiator to life. To date, the video has garnered more than 50,000 views on YouTube.

You need to crawl before you walk. In the world of brand messaging, that translates into nailing down your core narrative before you add storytelling elements.


Developing your core message is an essential exercise. It gets everyone, internally and externally, on the same page in terms of explaining your brand’s attributes and differentiators. This exercise should happen at least annually, if not semi-annually, to keep all messaging consistent and fresh.

Take the time to delve into the gaps in your industry and think about how you fill them. Think about your company’s purpose, what you do and for whom, and how you go beyond your core mission.

Make sure all of your messaging reflects the tone and voice that supports your brand’s identity. Ultimately, this critical messaging document should work equally well with your target audience and the media that reach them.

Once you have the core narrative developed, it’s time to add the storytelling embellishments.

Every brand has a story. Some have had them but lost them along the way. Others have always had them but have never properly communicated them. The goal is to find your story and then define how that story should be told.

While “storytelling” is generating a lot of the buzz in the communications industry lately, it’s quite simple from a PR perspective—if a story interests journalists, they will want to share it.


In a series of workshops—each about two hours long—with internal stakeholders who have lived your corporate story first-hand, ask the following questions:

• What is the origin of your company/product service?

• How did your team come together?

• What early foibles and successes have you encountered?

• What do you do? Why does it matter to those you serve?

• What impact do you know you’ve had on the people you serve? Be sure to record these storytelling sessions and transcribe them later to make sure you don’t miss any verbal gold worth using as you develop your story.

Once each of these questions have been asked and answered in the greatest depth possible, place the responses into the following “buckets” for one cohesive storytelling document:

Elevator pitch. Your 30-second description (yes, you should time it) will quickly describe what you do with a perfect balance of fact and story. About three sentences long, it will be highly digestible as well as conversational.

Storytelling narrative. In no more than 300 words, the narrative should present the personal story behind the brand, be peppered with your best anecdotes, and still hit your products/services top line features and benefits.

Storytelling quotable sound bites. In a recent Corner Office piece in The New York Times, bit.ly CEO Mark Josephson said, “I like to manage with a compass and not a map.” This quote illustrates his management style perfectly and became the title of his profile. As off the cuff as they might seem, the best sound bites are planned, written down and committed to memory.

Storytelling timeline. This can be a tough one, but it’s worth the time. Get out the white board and sync with your old Outlook calendars—do whatever it takes to review and record even the smallest landmarks of your brand’s journey.


With more C-suite executives watching and sharing video than ever before, a passionate person telling their story first-hand brings power to any size communications plan.

Your visual brand identity instantly tells your story. Make an investment in a high-quality brand identity—logo, website, marketing collateral like one-sheets or brochures.

These visual elements need to reflect the story you’ve worked to create. Does your brand identity say you are energetic and innovative? Conservative or traditional? If your story says one thing and your brand identity says something else, you’ve got a problem.

Stories are made every day. A meeting you had with a potential investor who you spilled a cup of coffee on by accident is tomorrow’s great anecdote—especially if he or she comes on board with financing anyway.

As long as you communicate your ideas persuasively, you will engage both hearts and minds no matter what the channel. When you do that, you win.


7 Key Elements of a Great Story

The media love stories that contain the following elements:

1. Surprising: Make sure there are elements of surprise somewhere. Plan your “aha! moment.”

2. Touching: What are the values and motivations in your story? Do they resonate with your customers?

3. Obstacles: In Hollywood, there’s no script without conflict. What does your company have to overcome? And why do your customers care? Do they face the same obstacles?

4. Risks: The higher the risk, the more interesting the story.

5. Individual details: Add small, memorable details like colors, sounds and smells to bring your scene to life.

6. Empathy: Is the person in your story likable and endearing? Your customers should be able to relate to him or her or find him/her inspirational.

7. Simple: Don’t get too complicated. Keep sentences and speaking points short, sweet and pithy. To test the simplicity, factor, see if you can summarize your story in a single sentence. —L.B.


Leslie Billera is VP of marketing at JCPR. She can be reached at lbillera@jcprinc.com.

(This article is an excerpt from the PR News’ PR Writer’s Guidebook, Vol. 1. To order a copy, visit prnewsonline.com/prpress/.)

 This article originally appeared in the October 27, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.