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Is Storytelling Part of Your Internal Communication Efforts?

PepsiCo Director of Communications Rod Thorn makes his case that creating a storytelling culture can help companies overcome obstacles, take advantage of opportunities, launch new products, and meet numerous other challenges

These days, corporate communicators are faced with the challenge of creating effective messages that drive engagement to a workforce that has been through large scale changes ranging from economic impact and cutbacks to business transformation and organizational milestones. Leveraging available technologies while structuring the right content to the right audience through various channels will drive organizational unity and build solid culture. Rod Thorn, Director of Communications at PepsiCo and a speaker at the recent Marcus Evans Internal Communications and Situational Messaging Conference, discusses the strategies and insights needed to reach and engage diverse internal populations within the enterprise.

ESM: Can you describe some of the challenges of communicating with different employee age/interest groups?” Do employee demographics play a role in your communications efforts? 

Thorn: One big challenge is that storytelling is no longer one message delivered from on high to audiences who are waiting passively to receive it. Now, thanks to the demands on peoples’ time, the proliferation of connected devices, workforces with a greater age span than ever and companies that have cultures within cultures within cultures, the need for co-creation of stories is paramount. A story told in a vacuum is worth nothing. But a multi-direction conversation in which all parties have a hand in the story’s creation is worth everything.

ESM: How do communication and engagement mesh? How are they different?

Thorn: The answer to the previous question applies here. Think of a parent telling his or her child to do their homework, pick up their clothes, etc, and the child is “yessing” them while playing on an iPhone – communication is happening, but not engagement.

ESM: Can you briefly describe your first encounter with the term ‘engagement’?

Thorn: The first time I heard of engagement was when my first play was produced. The director told me that a scene I had written was too busy “telling” the audience something instead of “engaging” them. That was in the late 1980s. In a business setting, it was probably the mid-1990s, when I was with IBM.

ESM: How has your perception of engagement changed since then?

Thorn: I’ve learned that it is more important than ever yet harder and harder to achieve. It’s ironic that the same things that should make it easier can at the same time also make it more difficult. But that won’t stop me from trying.

ESM: Why should organizations engage in cultural storytelling?

Thorn: Throughout the history of civilization, cultures all over the world have had individuals whose job it is to be the keeper of their cultures’ stories. In ancient times those individuals – called griots, shamans, seanachies or others – passed on the wisdom of where to hunt and gather, how to heal illnesses, with which tribes they should form alliances and why, and much more. Their survival depended on it.

Today, organizations are like tribes, except more numerous, far flung and disconnected. Their cultures are hard to identify and often consist of many cultures within one. Telling stories can be a common thread that knits the culture together. Not only for survival, but for overcoming obstacles, taking advantage of opportunities, launching new products, and many other challenges businesses face.

ESM: What is your thought process for determining which stories to tell?

Thorn: I first start with the business issue I’m trying to solve, and then figure out which story can best be used to address that issue. This should be a story from the company’s own history that tells the tale of how the company successfully addressed such an issue in the past.  If it’s the macro story or positioning for the entire company, I think about what’s going on in the world that this company, through the very things that make it unique, has to offer that gives it a compelling reason for being. Then I tell that story in various forms, over time, to help the message sink in.

ESM: How does one determine the correct time and delivery method for such stories?

Thorn: So much of that decision is based on authenticity: Is it right for the company or individual? Is it right for the audience? Is it right for that point in time? Is it right for the mission at hand?

ESM: What are some keys to developing cultural storytelling into a management technique?

Thorn: Look at everything a business does and the myriad situations in which a business can find itself. Then look for iconic and authentic stories that address those situations. The story is central. But after you’ve identified it you must then tell it in a variety of forms to a multitude of constituents and over a long period of time. You must not tire of it before your audiences have. Imagine if you’re an actor playing “Cats” for the one millionth time; you may be sick of it, but most of the people in your audience that night are seeing it for the very first time. The same is true in business. You should have a reservoir of stories available in five-minute chunks that you can call upon at any time. You should also live your life with the awareness that it is all fodder for a story. It’s a lot more fun that way!

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