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How Great Storytelling Can Help Your Organization Outlive COVID-19

May 12, 2020 • Caelin Niehoff

Organizations are a lot like people. Probably because they’re built and run by people. Governments and health institutions are asking people and businesses alike to limit their physical interactions. And just as people are flocking online to share stories about their new lives, businesses need to evaluate their own coronavirus stories—how they have been affected by the virus and what they are doing to respond.

The stories we tell during the pandemic will inevitably outlive the virus. Businesses need to tell stories that honor the present moment while also considering how those stories will inform people’s perceptions of their organization in a post-pandemic world. Here is a look at some organizations that are using current content to shape their future.

The Metropolitan Opera, an institution that relies on large gatherings, began showing past performances online, democratizing its content and ultimately bringing its music to a much wider audience than it had before the pandemic. Groups that might otherwise have limited access to or interest in the Met have gotten a taste of what it’s like to attend the opera. The Met’s decision to share widely and freely with viewers is an important turning point in the organization’s institutional narrative, illustrating how it shows up in new and unexpected ways for its audiences. The decision will likely help the Met sustain the interests of  loyal opera-goers and perhaps foster a new generation of opera supporters.

This is a screenshot of an article on the Metropolitan Opera website that shows viewers the upcoming lineup of productions for that week.
The Metropolitan Opera offers guides to the weekly lineup of productions for its virtual audience members.

Stories help organizations establish transparency and connect with audiences because they tell employees and customers where your mind is at right now. Stories also stand out as memorable, which is essential at a time when people are inundated with information: news alerts, reports on scientific studies, emails announcing closures and cancellations, and social media posts about discounts and free deliveries.

Tell relevant stories, but don’t distract your audience

Posting stories about the coronavirus may make your content feel relevant to current events, but be careful. You don’t want to distract your audiences from your institution’s purpose. New Balance is a great example of a brand that has responded to the crisis and remained true to its purpose. The well-respected brand of fitness and athletic gear recently began producing masks out of tennis shoe materials. New Balance’s social media posts illustrate how the company has responded in its own way to the coronavirus while reinforcing one of the brand’s core values: innovation.

What if your organization doesn’t have factory floors capable of producing essential medical supplies? Should you switch gears? Certainly not. (Although pizza maker Dimo’s in Chicago is getting creative by using its ovens to make face shields.) But you still need to think about your organization’s response during this period of dramatic change and how your narrative captures that response.

Coronavirus is new, but your organization’s ability to respond to change isn’t. Your great grandmother wasn’t the only one to live through the Great Depression or the polio epidemic. Businesses that are more than 100 years old have weathered past pandemics. Even younger organizations have weathered economic recessions and 9/11. Businesses have an untapped wealth of institutional knowledge at their disposal when it comes to thinking through the coronavirus: their history.

Organizations can showcase stories of resilience to instill confidence among their employees and customers. Financial institutions, in particular, can point to historical examples of the market’s ability to recover from a downturn. Even if your organization hasn’t had an obvious success story that it can connect to a public health crisis, you can share the evolution (and resilience) of your products or services through the lens of history.

Flatten the curve, not your content

COVID-19 has revealed organizations’ shortcomings when it comes to creating content—and creating it quickly. Many are realizing that they simply don’t have the bandwidth to produce crisis communication and maintain existing programs. Chief communicators need to prioritize resources. At the top of their list should be stories about what’s happening right now and what they’ve done to manage crises in the past.

The virus dies. The digital world doesn’t. As we look to flatline the number of COVID-19 cases around the world, organizations should anticipate how their content will trail the course of the bell curve. These stories will continue to live online and in our minds long after a vaccine becomes available. We can’t lose sight of the stories, how they’re shared and why they matter. If we do, our messages will get buried deep beneath the growing piles of spam, notifications and Zoom calendar invites. By finding meaning in organizational history, we can make memorable content that’s built to last.


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