Framing the narrative


In all of my past roles working in communications and campaigning I’ve faced the challenge of communicating through multiple channels and platforms to reach diverse audiences.

I’ve always worked internationally, so added to that has been the challenge to communicate cross-culturally.

This post shares a few thoughts culled from a presentation which I used to give to a political candidates’ training course in a bygone age! This is another of my tidying up exercises – “filing” stuff on this blog site before I lose them.

The content is not political, but more corporate in thinking, and explores ways to “Frame the story” or I suppose as people tend to say these days – Frame the Narrative. This was at a time when the vogue was for the world of politics to copy from the corporate world of communications, whereas now it seems to be a trade the other way around.

The illustrations here are from a couple of my corporate roles, but which could be applied to any or all big organisations.

The founder of the agency I now work for,Harold Burson, was one of the first people in the public relations business to understand the importance of a powerful narrative. In the early days of our business he said this:

“If you don’t get out and tell your story, someone else will and you won’t like the way they tell it.”

I remember hearing Harold tell us this at the inaugral meeting of McDonald’s Global Communications Council in Chicago in 2001 (I think). It is the essence of the challenge for people working in PR. We have the opportunity to lead or to follow a story. To set or be trapped by a news agenda.

I have a question … Do you know what the most important question is about communications in general, and storytelling in particular?

My answer is it’s … “why?”

The starting point for all communication is to ask “why?”

Actually, it’s not a bad starting point for everything in life, but particularly when thinking about communication.

It always surprises me how many people decide they need to communicate something to somebody without first understanding their objective in communicating. Apart from anything else, it’s impossible to tell if we’ve succeeded if we do identify a goal.

If we were running a business, a charity (or a political campaign) the first thought we should have is to ask why we need to communicate at all.

My top five reasons to communicate (in general – not politics) – are:

We either want people to make a purchase, to donate their time and money,

We want them to hire us, or in politics …

We want them to vote for our candidate,

or we want them to support our argument, cause or campaign.

To get to that result, this is what we do in the business of communications – we set out to change or to reaffirm opinion and behaviour to create an action.

We do that through influence and persuasion.

If I had to choose one word to describe what communicators do, it would be to influence.

Which ideally has a result in creating profit, being able to give charity, getting a job, winning power or bringing about change. Or to put it another way, with terminology most often used in communications, it’s input, output, and outcome.

And finally, when we’ve identified change as a result of our influence on opinion and actions, we can measure our success. We measure our success by measuring change.

After “why”, the next most important question is …


Communication is a “people business”. It’s a corny old phrase. It’s often heard when we ask people what they want to do for a job, and they reply “I want to work with people”.

That is the answer in all kinds of work – but it’s definitely the right answer for a career in communications. We are in the influence business and our business is to influence people.

The next question to ask having identified our objectives and goals therefore is who are the people we need to influence?

Here’s an example from McDonald’s to illustrate the challenge in identifying, understanding, and appropriately communicating with different types of people.

McDonald’s needs to communicate with Customers, Employees, Investors, NGOs, and Government and Regulators.

These are not necessarily exclusive groups – a government regulator can be a customer who has been an employee – but even then they will be ‘wearing different hats’ when McDonald’s communicates with them.

The channels used to communicate could be advertising and promotional, traditional media, social media, and even old fashioned face-to-face meetings.

Then we overlay the different considerations which can be applied to each of these groups including age, gender and education; culture, nationality and ethnicity; familiarity and favourability, channels and platforms best to communicate with each, and perhaps most importantly – understanding what do they want to know?

A key failure in communication is often that we try to tell people what we want to say, not what they want to hear.

Sometimes it’s that we try to tell them too much at the same time without appreciating that different audiences want to know different things.

And so a third most important question is


The answer is about the framing of our story to be relevant and appropriate to different audiences.

As an example I’ll draw on a case study from my years at McDonald’s.

One of the biggest changes, and the first in a series of changes brought forward, was when we decided to switch egg production from “battery farming” to “free range.” The audiences I just identified had quite different views on this issue.

Animal rights groups had campaigned for the change and influenced politicians who as planning authorities were objecting to applications for new restaurants to be opened. We also had consumer research showing this as one of the barriers to new customers trying McDonald’s. But on the negative side, research with existing customers showed they feared prices would rise to pay for it and they resented a change they hadn’t asked for.

Also, research of media opinion revealed they were suspicious of our motives and saw the story as McDonald’s being defeated by activists. We thought about each of these positions, and framed the story for each in the most relevant way.

Instead of talking about the issue as a political and activist concern, we focused on the consumer, and framed the story primarily as if it were consumer choice. The strapline “How Do You Like Your Eggs,” here shown on the side of a McDonald’s truck, communicated the strong message that we were listening. This was what YOU like. That “you” was of course different… each audience could see how this related to them.

On a single issue, the same narrative but with different framing for audience relevance.

Animal welfare groups: Where we lead others follow – endorsing us helps change the whole industry.

Government: We waited to announce the change until we could buy 100% from UK farms.

Franchisees: Investment in your brand for building new business.

Suppliers: We protected your business by investing in the change.

Employees: Feel proud to be serving the best – you work for caring business.

New customers: Take another look – we’re changing.

Existing customers: Don’t panic! No price increase!

Outside UK: Don’t worry it’s just us Brits.

When I left McDonald’s and went to work for Microsoft, this is what I faced on Day One…

I was responsible for 138 countries and more than 20 different business groups, each operating in most of those markets. Each had different new products and services which my teams were trying to communicate about.

Every one of these represents a story to be told through the year ahead. Each communicated by a specialist team to a specialist set of media – some traditional, some online, some very “techie”, some not so. A mix of consumer and business stories. All under the Microsoft brand, but all trying to say something different to different people.

My task was to take all of this and find a way to get great media coverage beyond the niche specialists, with business and even news journalists. So, in my first few weeks we made the rounds of the key titles and people. We asked them what they thought of the stories we gave them…

These are just four examples of the kind of things those journalists told us:

“PR people don’t bring stories to us; they bring us products .”

“Most of the stuff we get is unintelligible. Too often we don’t know what the company is saying. But some heroic journalists do figure it out.”

 “Writing for business publications is just about writing good stories. These aren’t things I want to write about – they’re what you want to tell me!”

“Do you know what? You people just give me a headache!”

We had a big problem. One of the world’s best known brands, with the best known boss, and in “Windows” probably the best known product. But almost total confusion and bewilderment as to what we were trying to say. We didn’t have too few stories. We had too many. And really, well – just “stuff”. Not a coherent narrative.

So this is the (or to be more accurate one of a series of) Master Narratives we developed to tell a One Microsoft story to business and news journalists. Again, like the McDonald’s example this was a framework to capture the top line thoughts which would shape our story in the most relevant way.

In the circles are the three most important things we wanted to say – and to see in print said about us – an product innovator, a local contributor and a future business. At the time – ten years ago now – “seamless connection” was a radical idea. We set three themes shown at the base of each column and had two Master Narratives (in green boxes) one focusing on the rational business message and the other on a more emotional connection through what MS calls “citizenship” and we would now probably frame as Shared Value.

One of the big challenges we always have in communicating effectively is to fit the story to the audience. To that I recommend a more a more zen-like attitude and approach than is often the case.

Whenever thinking about how best to tell our story. Stop. Take a step back. Have a deep breath. And remember to ask yourself three essential questions – Why are we communicating, Who are we communicating with, and How is the best way to connect with those audiences.

The key focus should always be on identifying relevance.


Many, many, years ago the British comedians Eric Morecombe & Ernie Wise had a very famous sketch with the conductor Andre Previn.

I know this is an old reference but bear with me, I think it illustrates my message to you perfectly.

In this sketch, Eric & Ernie play Grieg’s Piano Concerto – really, really, badly. It just sounds terrible.

Andre Previn stops them and complains  You are playing all the wrong notes!

To which Eric (in the front there) replies I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.”

So in thinking about our story, my final thought is – if you think of our stories as pieces of music and our data and messages as the notes and the instruments, we can have the best story in the world – but it can fail just like their music did if we don’t pay attention not just to what it is, but who the audience are, and how best to communicate it to them in the most relevant  way.

Playing all the right notes and in the right order.


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