Leaders Who’ve Discovered Vulnerability Need to Explain New Approach

[Editor’s Note: Miri Rodriguez is known for her work with a software giant and as an advisor to Adobe and Walmart, among others. In a wide-ranging interview early in the pandemic, we asked this master communicator about brand storytelling and empathy's role in communication, including how leaders should introduce their softer side. ]

PRNEWS: Many brand leaders are attempting to add emotion to their internal communication during the pandemic. Is it working?

Miri Rodriguez: I’ve been hearing from employees that...some leaders are aiming for a sensitive approach. They are sharing personal stories of working-from-home chaos or feeling a little bit of burnout.

Ironically...employees do not relate to these attempts; these communications feel dissonant. This usually happens because the leader has not spent time building trust with stakeholders. And during a time of crisis, even if leaders mean well and want to appear relatable and approachable, audiences may find it hard to embrace it.

PRNEWS: OK, what can a leader do then?

Rodriguez: If leaders who never showed up vulnerable in the past are intending to do so now...their communication should first explain this new approach so that the audience has a chance to become receptive.

PRNEWS: Your book, “Brand Storytelling: Put Customers at the Heart of Your Brand Story,” emphasizes empathy and vulnerability. How much is too much? How do you convince executives to communicate with empathy and vulnerability?

Rodriguez: I understand how these soft skills can be taken further than needed, running a risk of negative effects and backlash from audiences. Balancing empathy and vulnerability in communication and engagement is important.

I recommend brands identify key messages they want to share while also creating boundaries around those they are unwilling to convey. If done well, stories rooted in empathy and vulnerability will awaken emotions from audiences.

A good way to judge how much is too much is to measure audience engagement with stories. If the audience responds...the story is just right. If not, this is where prototyping stories comes in.

PRNEWS: Can you explain prototyping stories?

Rodriguez: Prototypes are low-cost, low-effort story concepts that are tested with audiences progressively to learn their responses and receive guidance on whether the stories, the level of empathy and vulnerability, are landing.

Brand executives, and as a result the brand entity as a whole, who reject the notion of empathy and vulnerability are, in essence, rejecting the notion of having emotional intelligence and a growth mindset.

We can all hypothesize what will happen to them as technology advances make their way into organizations. Newer generations will continue to demand a more connected, human approach to the consumer experience. Modern employees will seek to work for brands that have a social stance and purpose beyond the bottom line. Those are the arguments I use.

PRNEWS: What are you counseling brands about selling and pitching during the pandemic?

Miri Rodriguez

Rodriguez: Indeed, brands are scrambling to find the right tone, angle, space and moment to show up—and to do so authentically and not tone-deaf during a time where everything is rapidly changing, including customer emotions, commerce evolution and financial woes.

I am getting a lot of questions around exactly that: How to act best and if there’s opportunity to continue advertising during this global pandemic. The answer to the latter is yes. However, brands should lean into empathy as a behavioral blueprint to answer the how.

I am advising to consider customers from a human perspective. What are they feeling? How are they acting because of these feelings?

Social media is flooded with consumers connecting with each other, talking about uncertainty, mixed emotions and how they are trying to cope. Brands can leverage these stories to make decisions about pivoting, offering extended customer experiences or simply aligning their messages to the sentiments of their customers.

Some brands even ask if they should tone down their typically colorful, animated attributes. They will know the answer if they take time to understand the experience their customers are having. It’s OK to go off brand—or not. Customer feelings and their conversations are your best guides.

PRNEWS: What’s working in internal communications?

Rodriguez: Internally, stories cutting through the noise are those that first take time to create a setting and explain to audiences the why of communication before the what.

Stories cutting through the noise are filled with empathy and sprinkled with hope. Human, relatable, emotional and inspiring—but also authentic—to remind us that we really are in this together and that we will get through it together.

PRNEWS: People are worried about the future, their kids, health and jobs? Do they have the attention span to listen to stories? Are you monitoring storytelling?

Rodriguez: Yes, I’ve been using my social media channels and Google Alerts to monitor storytelling trends...and finding on a daily basis that people are tuning into storytelling as an essential business-forward tool for personal branding, entrepreneurs, startups and industry giants alike. Storytelling is bigger than ever.


Rodriguez: Because it provokes an empathetic connection, invites a human-to-human approach and is driven by vulnerability—the very behaviors customers are expecting from brands during this moment.

People are reading more, doing more self-reflection. Even essential workers, who are working longer and don’t have a lot of extra time, are bombarded by the buzz words of story, creative, empathy and vulnerability. So it is top of mind.

I don’t know that storytelling has changed in essence, but it has found its way more poignantly into people’s hearts and minds today as everyone (people and brands) desperately does what they typically do during a crisis: attempt to connect with one another. And storytelling does this best.

PRNEWS: How can brands be creative in this moment?

Rodriguez: Brands have an incredible and historic opportunity to do something they possibly wouldn’t have thought of before the pandemic. They can reassess their value proposition to new and upcoming generations, smart consumers and digital commerce. This is the time where brands can look at their brand mission and ask: ‘Why do we exist? Does my customer know this, and love it? Does the market know this and love it?’

If the answer is no, or they’re not sure, it’s a great time to go storyboarding on the brand mission, purpose and future. This isn’t a rebrand. It’s more a narrative angle evolution to showcase new perspectives the brand can offer today.

Note: A version of this content appeared in the May 2020 edition of PRNEWS. For subscription information, please visit: http://www.prnewsonline.com/about/info