There’s been much talk in recent weeks about Russia’s intent to control the narrative on Ukraine. Unsurprising, perhaps, given the country’s tight grip on state media but just the same, it’s got me thinking about this concept we call the narrative: a term that gets too easily thrown around in PR and communications work.This from the Washington Post:“The vast majority of Russians consume their news through official media, especially television, which is downplaying the conflict’s violence and casualties. At the same time, Russian TV is serving up an Orwellian diet of Moscow’s efforts to “restore peace” in a brother nation, and feeding the Russian persecution complex over Western aggression. The nature of Russia’s relatively older and poorer population limits access to — and interest in — Internet-based news. Because of worsening state censorship and blocking of foreign sites, Russians are unlikely to find vastly different web-based narratives anyway.” So, how can anyone find truth in the stories of this time with a smokescreen this thick? Stories, of course. As my middle school math teacher would say, “the answer you need can be found right there in the question.” I believe everyone has a story. I learned this first from an unlikely mentor early in my career, who said to me: “There’s a great story in every person you meet. The more you listen, the more you’ll learn.” The power of story, of course, is its ability to contextualize the narrative. Stories give deeper meaning to the narrative, about an unwieldly complex problem, such as homelessness, or climate change, or war. Here at home, I still think The Theatre Lab in Washington, DC does this brand of storytelling best: Several years ago, they launched a program called Life Stories that teaches young people and adults to create original dramatic works using their own life experiences, empowering individuals to think creatively, communicate effectively, and envision new futures. As Deb Gottesman, Theatre Lab’s co-founder, says, “Life Stories provides people a chance to reflect on their past and their present, and then, to change the future.” Their process has been proven to increase self-esteem, reduce feelings of isolation, and improve communication and critical-thinking skills. Not by controlling the narrative, but by disrupting it. It seems we could use a little more of the Life Stories concept in today’s media coverage, and maybe we’ll soon get just that. I was thrilled to see journalist David Greene launch a new podcast series this week called Ukraine Stories, based on the simple but heartbreaking question: “Where were you when Russian troops invaded Ukraine?” Instead of a headline, they promise to bring a new first-hand story every day. “There’s a great story in every person you meet. The more you listen, the more you’ll learn.” So today, listen to someone’s story. On the new Ukraine Stories podcast, or in your community. Set aside the narrative and hear first-hand from a person about their experiences. I guarantee you’ll feel more informed about the narrative, and you’ll learn something, too.At best, controlling the narrative is a basic public relations skill designed to manage reputational risk. It’s honest, and good-natured. But at worst, it’s a device used to modify or even dictate how we understand an issue, the context that supports our understanding, and the stories we’re fed. Controlling the narrative can be a device to mediate and manage public opinion. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of power tied up in which narratives become mainstream.
This is week 14 of the Finding The Words column, a series published every Wednesday that delivers a dose of communication insights direct to your inbox. If you like what you read, we hope you’ll subscribe to ensure you receive this each week.