Gini Dietrich

Great Companies Have Great Stories to Tell

By: Gini Dietrich | October 1, 2013 | 

Great Companies Have Great Stories to Tell

By Gini Dietrich

Last year we worked with a company whose goal is to become one of the greatest companies of all time.

When you think about those that already hold that title, who comes to mind? Apple? GE? Starbucks?

Working with that client – which is a business-to-business organization so their vision becomes even more difficult – we looked at a lot of companies that already hold that title…or are well on their way.

What we found is one thing they had in common: They all are great companies, from their culture, their business practices, their ethics, and their storytelling.

Walmart is Becoming a Better Company

While I don’t necessarily think Walmart is one of the greatest companies of all time, Leslie Dach – the former executive vice president of corporate affairs for the organization – posed an interesting idea in the October issue of Harvard Business Review.

He tells the story of how, when Hurricane Katrina hit, Walmart…

…mobilized to provide meals, emergency supplies, and cash. No internal debate was needed—those were obvious right things to do. But the experience opened our eyes to the broader opportunity to make a difference.

Two months later, then-CEO Lee Scott gave a landmark speech in which he asked, “What would it take for Walmart to be at our best all the time? What if we used our size and resources to make this country and this earth an even better place for all of us? And what if we could do that and build a stronger business at the same time?”

The company set goals around sustainability, waste reduction, and the empowerment of women and, today, the goals of every employee includes getting to that new vision.

Storytelling is Easy with Great Companies

What is the one thing the greatest companies of all time have in common?

They are better companies because of what they do for their communities and for the world.

Because of that, the story – from a PR perspective – becomes easy to tell. They don’t have a coach molesting team members and everyone avoiding their eyes so as not to have to be the ones to tattle tell. They haven’t decided to defund a woman’s organization because they don’t believe in their politics. They certainly don’t hire PR firms to whisper lies about their competitors.

They truly set out to do the best thing – not just for their shareholders – but for their customers, their communities, and the world.

If your organization has a crisis, it’s a lot easier to manage if everything else you do is on the up-and-up. I get teased a lot because I’m ethical to a fault, but I truly believe to become a great company, you have to act like one.

Great companies don’t lie. They don’t steal. They don’t cheat their employees. They don’t become greedy. They don’t allow people to behave badly just because that person generates a lot of revenue.

Great companies stop and listen to criticism, they commit to getting better, they set goals and a vision larger than themselves, and they truly behave better.

When all of that happens, the storytelling is easy.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • debbieleven

    ginidietrich SpinSucks Yes, like this. About being genuine.

    • ginidietrich

      debbieleven We do a lot of crisis work and it always comes down to this: If you behave well, people forgive you SpinSucks

      • debbieleven

        ginidietrich SpinSucks Absolutely + for those type of biz when PR crisis hits, they put people at the heart + want to do right thing.

  • ginidietrich

    MarkOrlan Thanks, Mark!

  • @ginidietrich with everything happening today with the government shutdown, I feel like, maybe, you should send this post to some political friends and they should start treating the U.S. in a way to make it one of the greatest companies of all time, one that doesn’t lie or steal or cheat, one that is not greedy and puts people first. As always thanks for the insights. (sorry to be political so early in the morning, I haven’t had any tea yet… i’ll mellow out in about 15)

    • briantudor I had a dream last night that the market crashed and Mr. D hadn’t sold our stocks and we lost a ton of money. Of course, none of that is true, but as soon as I woke up, I asked him if we should sell the stocks we do have. So I’m with you…I need to chill, too.

  • This is intriguing. If a company’s goal is to become one of the “best of all time,” but it doesn’t meet some of those criteria–like giving back to its community–how do you as the PR firm still help it to meet its goal? Or is that goal not really attainable? What if the company doesn’t have such a great story to tell? Is that a point where your ethical standards and perhaps theirs don’t line up and you just don’t take them on as a client? Sorry for all the questions!

    • Word Ninja With this particular client I mention early in the post, we knew that was their vision – and they already behave like a great company – so it was easy to show them what some of the companies they admire are doing. We pulled case studies and examples to give them ideas to improve what they’re already doing. Right now, they don’t have a great story to tell, but they’re working on it. We’re no longer working with them because, while they wanted to be ready, they’re not quite there yet.

      • ginidietrich Thanks, Gini. I want to sit and yak with you for hours about this stuff, instead of type in these little boxes. 🙁

        • Word Ninja We need to do that. Sixteen more days until I see you!

      • ginidietrich Word Ninja Sometimes behaving like a great company when you are not  quite there yet comes with lack of humility or the willingness to listen to criticism . They think they are great and hence can’t do wrong. Do you find that more often than not? The examples you gave this client –  were those ideas to improve what they were already doing right or to also correct what they were doing wrong (and did they have the humility to listen?) I love the part about when everything else happens correctly the storytelling is easy – makes so much sense.

        • LSSocialEngage Word Ninja In their case, they are doing many, many things right. The only real advice we had was to become more human, which they’re still not quite willing to do. But we’ve never worked with an organization that doesn’t have some negative criticism online. Their former employees and clients love them. They’re doing many things right.
          That said, it’s pretty easy to tell a company’s culture and what they’ll be when they grow up by taking a hard look at how they treat employees. We do that before we work with new clients…it’s a way to qualify for us.

        • ginidietrich Word Ninja Excellent points. Thank you. Become more human- I think that one sounds a lot easier than it is.

  • When I read this more companies that don’t fit the bill came to mind than those that do. I guess that’s why the ones that do stand out so much.  I think it all begins with leadership. It is so important to qualify clients because they are a reflection of our work. Thank you for including all of the great examples with this, too. They are reminders of what not to do.

    • jolynndeal You’re absolutely right. It’s disappointing business leaders would rather resort to astroturfing and whisper campaigns than do things the right way.

    • jolynndeal “Important to qualify clients”, yes. Great post topic.

  • I had a dream that I told all my clients to go suck on rocks because I was tired of working and didn’t like my coworkers and the best part was they all had to pay me while I pouted. And then just when I thought it couldn’t get any better I realized they couldn’t fire me.
    That is the kind of story you just can’t make up and sadly you don’t need to worry about crisis communications to help you through that storm.
    Meanwhile back in the real world while I am thinking about starting a new campaign using Marie Antoinette telling everyone they can eat cake.
    Now if only I really was part of the government it would all be true,
    A good story goes an awfully long way to helping a company make inroads with prospective clients.

  • The best thing? If you have employees, you should have more terrific stories to tell than you can ever possibly use. People are the best story of all.

    • ClayMorgan I tell a story when I speak of a company in Omaha that only hires blind people. When I was working with them during a workshop last year, I learned one of their employees climbed Mt. Hood unassisted and another is the number three gospel singer in the world. I nearly yelled at the CEO, “WHY AREN’T YOU TELLING THESE STORIES?!?!” He promised me they’d do exactly that.

    • ClayMorgan “People are the best story of all.” I love that line. // Have you noticed the proliferation of businesses that yell “Welcome to [name of business]” when you walk in the door? Down here, it seems to have started with Moe’s (fast/casual Mexican) but now it seems like I can’t walk across a biz door without a perfunctory “welcome.” I swear that business’s story is often told in the tone of voice of that welcome. I don’t know if Moe’s deserves the pedestal I just put it on; I do know that many “welcomers” at other businesses sound like they know they get a demerit or something if they don’t say it. I want to know their stories because I’m not feeling like their stories and their organization’s stories are always at the same intersection!

  • Hooray for storytelling!
    From a sustainability perspective, Walmart is the gold standard by which all other sustainability storytelling efforts are measured. (Their Green Room blog — from the design to the content — is really well done.) And they have an entire social presence tied to their “green” efforts. It’s really well done.
    Sustainability communications person, or not, you would do well to follow their lead.

    • bradmarley That was the big emphasis of the HBR article Dach wrote. Apparently it all started right after Katrina.

  • The path to becoming a great company is so easy, yet it’s so hard to accomplish at the same time because people, politics, culture and money get in the way. Becoming a great company requires great leadership and that’s what’s lacking in a lot of companies. 
    With great companies, the stories tell themselves. They are a lot less likely the ones to need PR help to tell their story!

    • lauraclick And, when they make a mistake, people are more forgiving because they do so many things right.

    • lauraclick you left out shareholders though. Things get muddled when you go public and share price and profits drive your income (and other’s incomes). Many ‘good businesses with great stories’ go off the rails when they get too big or ‘sell out’
      That is a real challenge in my opinion. I think most businesses are money-profit centric vs social-employee centric.

      • Howie Goldfarb True. I think that goes right along with the “money” category!

  • Notice Mr Scott left out ‘Why don’t we raise wages and offer healthcare’. Walmart is just getting better with their story telling while not changing who they are. And I think people have more resources to smell the BS.

    But you are right. And I am shocked at how many businesses have GREAT stories but are really bad at telling them. I think that often is due to insecurity or shyness. People don’t like tooting their own horn even if it leads to riches. Usually best in class business have a showman and an operations genius paired together. Think Apple (Jobs + Cook). 
    A business I would love as client only has Fair Trade/Organic coffee. I asked why they don’t empathize that more. They said ‘to be honest no one cares, it doesn’t affect our sales, but it is important to us because of who we are’. See perfect story going untold other than a blurb on their website.

    • Howie Goldfarb Some people may not care about Fair Trade coffee, but they might care that the company cares about SOMETHING right and noble. Fair Trade may not be my thing, but I can admire a company for being aware, for looking outside itself, and for trying to help in some way. Sales could be affected, not by the Fair Trade issue itself, but by customers connecting with the company because of the “who we are” part. They should still tell the story.

  • rdopping

    Anyone that rolls back as much as they do has something going on in the back room. I know a few peeps who worked at Wally-Mart and Wally has some splainin’ to do.
    They did a good thing by helping people, they are doing better things by being efficient and they are doing even better things to be cognizant of the environment yet there has to be some give to do it all. You have to wonder what’s behind the curtain at times. 
    In my humble opinion, Wal-Mart sells low grade crap that gets tossed into landfill quicker than you can say yee-haw. Not too environmental. They also sell, again in my opinion, sub-standard food products which, if you think about it, pushes the industries they pillage to lower their standards to get the sale. Factory farming is BAD for everyone. Why promote that by promoting the Wal-Mart’s of the world?
    Regardless of what they have done I have no respect for them at all. Maybe ask the thousands of small businesses they have crushed in their wake. Hence why people in Leslieville in Toronto have lobbied hard to keep them away.
    I love and agree that the idea of a good story that demonstrates value. Just not from Wallyville. Sorry.

    • rdopping So what’d you think of the rest of my blog post? LOL!

      • rdopping

        Loved it.

  • So I asked on rdopping ‘s behalf when Leslie will tell us the story that Walmart supports a living wage and healthcare for all workers, equal pay for men and women, embrace unions, and will allow women to include contraception in their health plans. Hopefully she has one for us!
    I just felt the piece was 100% spin. Like a black hat placement in the HBR to give it credence.

    • Howie Goldfarb rdopping That’s why I said I’m not convinced they’re a great company, but I do like the point he (Leslie is male – I had to look it up) made about having to do great things to have great stories.

  • Read that post, thought it was a great headline on a so-so ‘story’ that was nothing more than a puff piece for Walmart. And that’s all well and good, I was just irked that it ran in HBR. I mean almost every brand ‘gives back’ and has positive stories (sometimes to divert attention from other issues)… and guess I’m just a little jaded and skeptical. – MMV. 
    That said – I totally agree about great stories beginning w/ great companies. 
    I’ve been writing on a certain meme now, reaction to some PR leads I’ve been getting, along the lines of : ‘No Don’t fix your FB page, fix [insert brand/company name]!!’ Oy. It’s not the negative reviews you want to ‘fix’ – it’s the mistakes and issues that brought about said reviews. Again, ITA it starts w/ the right attitude, the right leadership; it starts from within and empowering employees; it’s about more than the bottom line and appearing to be social and good — it’s about actually listening, thinking, living, breathing, being better. Then the good stories to tell, they kinda write themselves. FWIW.

    • 3HatsComm I thought the same about the article, as a whole. I wanted it to be juicier. But it got me this blog post so I’m not going to complain too much.

      • ginidietrich sigh.. once again, schooled on what I woulda, coulda, shoulda done – a blog post!! Have to rework my schedule so that when those moments hit, I can seize the day so I too can get a post out it. 🙂

  • ginidietrich

    cmmitchell4 Some of the comments on the post are beginning to change my mind, too. I’m willing to change it!

    • cmmitchell4

      ginidietrich I’m obviously biased but I think we have great stories. We just need to challenge ourselves to be better storytellers.

      • ginidietrich

        cmmitchell4 I think we all do!

  • hanwagsPR

    SpinSucks it’s true, it’s so important to work with a company who has a vision you believe in!

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  • Wil Martindale

    Being ethical IS a great story these days, it’s so rare, but HOW you tell that story without being “all full of yourself” is the great challenge. Obviously one way is to let someone else do it for you, but in social media the transparency there allows you to “lead by example” in this department.
    I didn’t see the article as “shameless WalMart spin”. Actually, I thought it was a good example of a company discovering it’s better half, and a good story within the story.

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