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The Power of StoryArc™: Deriving Authenticity from Adversity

November 15, 2016 • History Factory

Encoded within your corporate heritage are tangled strands of stories waiting to be unfurled, accessed and retold in ways that connect, inform and inspire. Conventional wisdom says that the most inspiring stories about groundbreaking accomplishments and breakthrough products should form the centerpiece of your corporate narrative. However, it’s often the tales of adversity that resonate more.

Crisis, conflict and resolution form the classic story structure, and the basis for our StoryARC™ methodology. One of the great benefits of this methodology is its innate ability to help organizations analyze and accept crisis points in their history. Ignoring or, worse yet, whitewashing the most difficult aspects of your corporate heritage is the fastest way to obliterate your company’s credibility.

Our longstanding work with Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company illustrates how taking the time to work through a previous crisis can act as a hedge against future ones.

This is the logo for the Fireman's Fund Insurance Company's 125th company anniversary.

When the 1906 earthquake hit San Francisco, Fireman’s Fund almost crumbled along with the city. With the unwavering support of its agents and policyholders, the company miraculously pulled through and steadily grew throughout the 20th century.

In the 1980s, we built an archive for Fireman’s Fund and began weaving together some interesting stories from its history, including unique findings about the company’s efforts during the 1906 quake.

CEO, Jay Brown, who would have made a great historian, was keenly interested in these stories. Whenever he was in D.C. on business, he would spend a few hours in the archive stacks looking though boxes. By 1989, he had a strong enough command of the materials that he ordered the creation of a comprehensive disaster communications plan.

This is a black-and-white photograph of the effort to rebuild the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Rebuilding the upper deck of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The wisdom of this decision can’t be overstated. Just a few months later, the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit northern California, collapsing the upper deck of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and unleashing untold chaos throughout the area.

Brown knew immediately what to do. He remembered the stories about what company leaders did back in 1906.

They had dispatched a telegram to all the company’s branches, agents and business associates. It read, “All hands safe and well. Fire now entirely extinguished. Unable to ascertain liabilities until vaults are opened. The Fireman’s Fund flag is still flying and nailed to the mast.”

The next morning, in accordance with the disaster communications plan, Fireman’s Fund beamed via satellite an advertisement that ran in all the major newspapers. It read simply, “Fireman’s Fund’s flag is still flying and nailed to the mast.”

The statement gave Fireman’s Fund employees something few other companies could match: a sense of self-esteem and pride. It reinforced the idea that they had risen to meet a similar challenge in 1906 and would do the same in 1989.

And Fireman’s Fund did just that, helping San Francisco rise from the rubble by paying out all its claims with speed, grace and dedication.

Companies that edit out the dangerous moments from their past are missing the opportunity to inspire others by sharing the tales of how everyday individuals were able to overcome challenges. Great corporate storytelling encompasses both soaring peaks and deep abysses from your experiences. Organizations learn from their mistakes and consequently grow stronger, let us help you embrace them.


The above is a passage was adapted from Start with the Future and Work Back: A Heritage Management Manifesto. The book offers a unique look at how leading global organizations are leveraging their heritage assets to drive real business advantage.
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