Magical stories and how to find them

Post by Janette Wolf - Senior Internal Communications Manager at the Government Legal Department

Thursday 12 October 2017

Image of old fashioned typewriter

Scoops are the lifeblood of any media organisation. The stories that reporters have nurtured and chivvied into life, often from nothing more than a whisper or rumour, finally land on our front pages in a blaze of glory and no one talks about anything else for weeks on end.

Take the example of an anonymous whistleblower, who back in 2014 reached out to a reporter called Bastian Obermayer on the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung. Would Obermayer be interested in a cache of data, the unknown source asked. “How much data?” enquired Obermayer. “More than you have ever seen” came the reply. In this way the labyrinthine saga of the Panama Papers began to unfold, and went on to dominate the global news agenda for months.

Until I joined the Civil Service in March, I had worked on newspapers all my professional life as a writer and editor and had seen many of these monumental scoops from first hand. They are thrilling to work on. They can encourage everyone to go the extra mile and unite the whole enterprise with a renewed sense of purpose and shared achievement.

Well what of it, you might think. That’s what newspapers do. What has the Panama Papers saga got to do with change management or departmental intranets or any of the other elements that go to make up internal communications? Actually, lots, as it happens.

They both share something fundamental: they begin with a story that needs to be told. The magic occurs when the story finds a teller. And that’s where you and I come in.

Story telling is as much of a tool in the internal comms arsenal as town hall meetings, or surveys or lunch and learns. Because people connect with stories on a far more visceral level than something that comes with all its corporate bells and whistles tootling. A good story will deliver that engagement or buy-in far more quickly because people, by and large, care about other people. It’s human nature.

But where do you go to find these compelling human interest stories, the ones that are going to bring your people with you and raise your engagement stats? Where do you find the tales that will add zip to your intranet and put a joyful bounce into your newsletters? Here you are in the same position as Bastian Obermayer: you want people to bring their stories to you.

You might not think you need to be a journalist in internal comms, after all there are so many other strings to your bow. But if you want to find stories that are worth sharing then you must either convince people to come to you and tell them or go out looking and find them.

TOP TIPS

Find a context: your stories need a peg, a hook or a cause. It might be a corporate message that needs communicating or a successful outcome or a campaign. Stories are harder to come by and to use if they are wallowing in a vacuum.

Prime your internal channels: make sure everyone knows what you are interested in by regularly reminding them in your existing channels or cascades and make sure your contact details are easy to find internally.

Build relationships from the top down: everyone has a story to tell and these are just as likely to come from the security guards as they are the Board. Network like crazy.

Hone your persuasive skills: sometimes people DON’T want to tell you their story and you’ll have your work cut out trying to convince that really, honestly, it’s better out than in.

Go visiting: if your department has a regional office or a hub, don’t be shy. Very often people working away from the centre can feel marginalised and will be delighted by your interest if you turn up on their doorstep.

Cultivate your sources: some people love passing on news and probably gossip too. In fact, some might like this a bit too much. Stay in regular touch with them and make sure they keep you posted on anything that is happening in their manor that’s relevant. Just be sure you keep the spicy stuff off the record.

Janette Wolf is Senior Internal Communications Manager at the Government Legal Department. janette.wolf@governmentlegal.gov.uk