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Why we must tell the stories consumers long to hear


A long, long time ago, when I was living in South Africa, our family was acquainted with a man who used to throw all of his nickels and dimes on the ground.

When asked why, he replied: “When others look down at their feet to catch them, I look ahead and make millions.”

The story came back to me recently when I looked at my social media feed on industry news. Many of the initiatives and the questions that preoccupy our business at present are the “nickels and dimes,” not the go-and-get-the-million subjects.

While preparing a lecture for a group of university teachers in Southeast Asia, I carried out some trend-spotting. One striking fact came to my attention: So many of the companies that sell analytics and forecasts are agreeing on the assumption that the future will be focused on values.

  • London-based futurist Anne Lise Kjaer  speaks of the “emotional consumer” — an individual who has discovered that money can buy fulfillment and who is looking for, and prepared to pay for, experiences.

  • Danish futurist Rolf Jensen (@rolfjensen_dk), director of The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, one of the world’s most important future-oriented think tanks, has pointed out that we are moving toward the “dream society” — a place where corporations that base themselves on notions like “care,” “identity,” “safety,” and “ethics” will thrive.

    In his new book (not yet translated into English), Jensen takes this reasoning one step further and claims that, in this context, storytelling will become increasingly important: “The dream society is the theory, storytelling is the tool.”

Now, how does all this connect to the media industry and our reality?

To guide you to where I am going, I will have to bring you back to my last post, “Content strategies must balance good and bad news.” In that post, I  explored the connection between brand and content strategy, the necessity of seeing the output as part of the brand experience, and the need to make staff members, no matter where in the organisation they work, passionate brand ambassadors.

If the futurists are right in their predictions, legacy media have great opportunities ahead. Hey, we are in the storytelling business!

The sobering question we must pose to ourselves is this: Does the current storytelling actually fulfill the new individualists’ craving for meaning? Or are we merely scratching the content surface when we should be digging deep into what actually matters to people?

Let’s go back to the “dreams” quoted above and match them against current business practices.

  • Care. Well, we do treat this subject when highlighting injustice in society. But what kind of brand ambassador is the reporter in the midst of a squatter camp with children — just getting the story and not actually helping?

  • Safety. Within this domain, we tend to tell stories that create the opposite: insecurity. Our short-term click hunt risks turning into long-term brand damage.

  • Ethics. Oh, here we believe we are the masters, the ones who distinguish between good and bad. Our editors decide who should be run through the mud and who should get off the hook. But how moral is a media organisation that criticises how taxpayers’ money is wasted on lavish dinner parties when newsroom staff participate?

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a concept that’s been hyped for some decades now. But it must never remain just an expression. Social responsibility must be anchored into every corner of the organisation. Any other scenario will backfire.

The “emotional consumer” will be harsh in judgment when the “green company” CEO drives away from headquarters in a monster SUV.

The “emotional consumer” will eventually turn away from the company that claims, “We let you choose,” but then sells integrity-sensitive user data without prior client approval.

If we don’t clean up our own act, and fast, it is just a matter of time before we have a “pants on fire” initiative that lists, instead of politicians, journalists and media executives.

So what am I saying? I am saying you need to put the customers/readers/users before yourselves. Serve them. Give up double standards (and along with them, some of your privileges). 

Yes, it will hurt. But you will also feel better. Because you will be doing good.

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