Social Media – Storytelling or Propaganda?

This is a fairly shocking theatre piece which premiered as part of Death by PowerPoint, a play I wrote and directed which played in the UK and Canada 2007-2009. It explores the alarming closeness of propaganda to advertising. It’s an ideal piece for exploring values in PR, Marketing and Advertising. It also sounds a warning to those who claim that social media in the corporate world is all about “stories”.

Read the scene. Then read on…

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The Book – A Theatre Scene

A scene set in a company, between a senior executive and a trainee

(Enter Dan and Jill. Dan is holding an old book)

Dan: Yes, it is quite an old book and all I have done is replace some of the more old fashioned words with more modern ones.

Jill: I see and you think this is relevant to our new change programme?

Dan: Well, you decide. You know I think we need to look at our underlying values as part of this change programme so I have been doing some background reading. How about this:

(reading): “Every change campaign will first have to divide the programme into two large groups: supporters and members. “Advertising has the key function of attracting interest and support, the function of organisation is to get buy-in.”

Jill: That’s neatly put.

Dan: “A supporter of a campaign is one who declares himself to be in agreement with its aims, but buy-in only occurs when someone actually commits.”

Jill: True.

Dan: “The supporter is made most amenable to the change campaign by advertising – “selling the change”, if you like. The member is induced by the organisation to participate personally in attracting new supporters, from whom in turn more buy-in can be developed.”

Jill: Just like our network marketing strategy. It kind of spreads itself.

Dan: Exactly

Jill: Interesting. It rests on loyalty.

Dan: Yes it does. Complete Loyalty. “Since being a supporter requires only a passive recognition of an idea, while getting loyal buy-in requires active advocacy and defence, to ten supporters there will at most be one or two members.”

Jill: Yes, advocacy and defence!

Dan: There’s more. Listen: “Being a supporter is rooted only in understanding, membership in the courage personally to advocate and disseminate what has been understood.”

Jill: Taking ownership.

Dan: Yes, Now – get this bit: “Understanding in its passive form corresponds to the majority of mankind which is lazy and cowardly. Membership requires an activistic frame of mind and thus corresponds only to the minority of people..”

Jill: Lazy and cowardly. That’s a bit harsh isn’t it?

Dan: Well, yes. But we rely on it don’t we. Our advertising often plays on the fears of external customers. Insurance polices for example.. “Can you afford not to…” “What happens if the worst happens…?” blah blah blah.

Jill: Yes, and with our I.T, we do try to make it very easy for people to buy our stuff. They don’t even need to get out of their arm chairs really…

Dan: “Leaders will have to see that an idea wins supporters, while the organisation must take the greatest care only to make the most valuable elements among the supporters into members…while the organisation must carefully gather from the mass of these elements those which really make possible the ultimate success of the change campaign.”

(Dan puts the book down)

Jill: Well I like this stuff. It makes a lot of marketing sense even if it IS from an old book.

Dan: Yes, I can see you are impressed.

Jill: They should republish it. Who wrote it? What’s the title?

Dan: The title is: Mein Kampf. The author: Adolf Hitler.

(Jill is shocked)

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Scary Discussion

You’ll find stories in the roots of every culture in the world. Stories hold a special place in the daily lives of many families. We tell stories to our children before sleep. We tell stories to each other around the dinner table (at least some of us do). Fairy stories have recently come in for a hammering by the likes of Richard Dawkins. He has a particular issue with fairy stories. Ironically, Dawkins takes fairy tales to task for the “fairy” qualities many of them have – grooming children for a world where magic is real, only to be disappointment by the “real” story, rooted in a scientific world view, atheist in its foundations.

For Dawkins, stories need to be true. Some stories are, indeed, true – they are accurate accounts of events. I could tell you the story of my day today, recounting the events as they occurred, in order. I could also “spin” that story, embellishing it, adding a bit of colour here or there to “spice up” what might otherwise be a story lacking excitement or interest.

We do that all the time. As soon as we exaggerate for effect, we are spinning a story. Late in the evening at a party, I tell the story of how I got lost in a far flung city and thought I was going to be kidnapped. All eyes are upon me. I turn the story into drama, string out certain events, make others appear more dramatic than perhaps they were. I distort the truth in order to make the story more powerful.

Some people, as they tell stories, simply can’t do that. Others won’t do it; they refuse to, in the name of authenticity, accuracy and truth.

Some stories distort over time, their essence preserved in the telling, but the details are spun and change. Our real experiences become morphed into the myths and legends of our lives. In a cynical age, we tend to assume anything out of the ordinary is a myth. Legends can’t be true. There was no holy grail, just a cup. There was no elixir of youth, just a myth. There was no Cyclops, just a story told to keep people away from an island.

Do stories lose their value if they are not true? Are there not deeper truths at a more archetypal level? Does a story need to be factually or historically accurate if it contains valuable lessons or just pure entertainment value?

I believe it all comes down to the motive and ethics of the teller of the story. What is your intention in telling it in a particular way? If the aim of the “spin” is to deceive, to create a behavioural response that, without the deception, would not happen, then you are entering the realms of propaganda and manipulation.

If the aim of the story is to cover something up, to reduce the freedom of others to act, to deliberately confuse, then you are using stories for immoral purpose. The storyteller on ghost tale night might spin the tale to delight the audience, who have come to be delighted, to enjoy a bit of fear and wonder. The storyteller who spins a tale in order to deceive someone into buying a product, is nothing more than a propaganda merchant, misusing our love of story, for hidden and selfish purposes.

So, what are social media stories? What is our “brand” story? It can also be either an honest one or a deceptive one. It can be engaging and authentic narrative, or it can be lying spin and manipulation. Too many social media stories spin their tales in order to deceive, for example:

– to make a company appear more caring or socially responsible

– to make a product look as if it performs more effectively than it actually does

– to make the listener feel inadequate and to “comply” by conforming to exaggeration messages about behaviour hidden in the story

– to be impressed by the company brand for reasons undeserved or not backed up by real evidence

– to distract or take attention away from something the company doesn’t want too much attention on

Here the motive for the brand or corporate story becomes one of deception and manipulation of the audience for the story. Social media “stories” then become fake narratives. it is about “getting away with the story”, about trying to created predictable and always favourable reactions in the audience.

This isn’t real storytelling. This is manipulation and control. Stories are put to the service of hidden motives.

Many people (though not all) pick up on this lack of authenticity and sense something isn’t right. Ultimately enough people become tuned into the deception, trusting their deeper intuition. Many humans have a natural sense of truth or lies. A tipping point is reached where the social media story is assumed to be spin or exaggeration. The company has cried wolf once too long, plundered superlatives too often. No one buys it any more.

Some companies have recognised this and simply tried to flee into fake subtlety, locating themselves in a more simplified directness. They pretend to be haters of the very spin they have been practising. Simple stories, more direct and honest narratives, plain speaking. But the motive hasn’t changed and the stories still are rooted in propganda and the wish to “get people to” react in commercially targeted ways. So, many social media storytellers simply can’t help themselves. Truth telling simply becomes another deceptive strategy.

What is to be done? It requires a turnaround in behaviour and the practice of conscious business principles. Stories are not delivered “to” audiences, but allowed to emerge in more responsive ways, rooted in unfolding evidence. Our stories become formed out of the stories we are hearing from our communities – our suppliers, customers, service users, partners. Our stories become rooted in being transparent with our motives, honest with our ethics. We ground ourselves more in the needs of our audience. Essentially, our default is active listening and speechlessness – we are silent and out of a genuinely respectful silence arises the story that needs to be told.

Some truly eloquent and entertaining adverts have been created by creative teams clearly (at least party) rooted in a motive to entertain, stimulate and inspire authentically. Others see the audience as “targets”, where hitting the target involves tricking those audiences into a particular behaviour favourable to the enterprise. Yet the best storytellers always remember that stories can heal, help resolve, empower, warn, delight, and even set free. The scope here is huge. It enables the story of the company’s values to be shared and told with passion and openness. It allows product and services to be articulated in ways that genuinely serve the needs of informed and awake customers. Stories here can become valuable in themselves. They are told with enthusiasm not hidden expectation. I believe that Generation Z respond to authenticity and are growing up very clued up to fakery. This post-banking-crisis generation doesn’t buy clunky storytelling and, when they are manipulated, it of often a conscious choice. They will more and more ally themselves to suppliers of products and services they intuitively feel are transparent and hold their freedom in high regards. In this emerging context, social media storytelling is going to have to become more adaptive and honest, more able to grasp the skills of entertainment and stimulation but to set them skilfully apart from truth-telling, informing, educating and persuading.

Social media storytelling is going to have to change its own story, from the roots to the tips of the branches.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on September 5, 2014, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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