The Best Storytelling Posts from the First Half of 2014 (Part I)

I’m tardy in capturing the best business storytelling posts during the first half of 2014.

As always, figuring out the “best” combines popularity (number of views) and what rated high on my personal amusement scale.

Here goes:

It turns out you can (and we do). Simply breaking down your coverage by news-driven vs. non-news coverage can be revealing.

With Mother’s Day as the backdrop, I peppered Ruth Hoffman with questions about the PR profession. To bastardize a Bill Cosby line, “Moms say the darndest things.” Check out the interview in this 90-second video:


I thought this headline nailed it. When the transaction was first announced, I questioned how the transaction would benefit clients. It turned out they couldn’t even figure out how to make the deal work for shareholders. This post re-enacts the squabble between the CEOs on deciding who would be the acquirer and who would be the acquiree.

I loved this example. The same folks who publish “the molecule of the week” broke down the chemical composition of Sriracha in a video that garnered mainstream media attention. Levity in storytelling does make for a potent formula.

Communication professionals can learn a ton about storytelling from their advertising brothers. When you’re shelling out $4 million and change for a single ad, it has a way of tuning one’s senses. This Budweiser ad that ran during the Super Bowl shows how the classic story arc can be teased out in 60 seconds. In short, bad stuff happens in good storytelling.

Budweiser pully ad Storytelling

On Monday, I’ll publish the rest of the list which comes with a heavy emphasis on visual storytelling.



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Bad News Should Not Come Packaged as a 1,111-word Letter to Employees

Stephen Elop  Microsoft letter to employees

Unfortunately, that’s how Stephen Elop, EVP over Microsoft’s Devices & Services business unit, communicated  the company’s decision to reduce its workforce by 12,500 people (or 18,000, depending on who we believe).

I don’t expect Mr. Elop to be a skilled communicator, much less command writing expertise. And I appreciate that a letter such as this one must go through the virtual meat grinder known as legal approval.

But c’mon, out all of those Microsoft employees who still have jobs, there must be someone who could bring a steady editing hand and common sense to the narrative.

A few areas of bad business writing that immediately jump out:

  • The start “Hello there.” I suppose he’s trying to sound folksy, but it comes off as more of a “Hello out there … anyone home?” Should have played it straight with a simple “Hello.”
  • Not only is the letter bloated, but the reader must wade through 855 words to get to real the point, that the company is eliminating 12,500 jobs.
  • Want to trigger a negative reaction from the proletariat? Use the phrase “right-size” which he does.
  • Word gamesmanship like “must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope” belongs in the quarterly earnings calls.
  • Cut the adjectives. Not even your employee base believes you’re selling “iconic tablets.”

No mulligans on this “golf course.”

Still, I thought it was worthy exercise in the spirit of “education” to melt down the original letter into something that reflects common sense (using much of the original language).



A decision to reduce our workforce is never an easy one.

Still, winning in the mobile phone market depends on our ability to rethink and restructure our organization on an ongoing basis.

With this in mind, we plan to eliminate roughly 12,500 jobs over the next year. I recognize it doesn’t make up for the job loss, but we’ve put together a severance package for the departing employees to help them land on their feet.

What exactly led to this decision?

In short, we need to be more focused, concentrating on the segments that play to our strengths.

It’s one thing to run a hardware business like Nokia where the end game is to sell phones and another to sell devices which play off of our portfolio of products. At the risk of stating the obvious, we also need this business to be profitable.

That’s why we’ll be concentrating on the affordable smartphone segments with the Windows Phone bringing out more lower-cost Lumia devices. Along this line, we’ll be shifting future Nokia X designs and products to Windows Phone devices. We also have some changes in mind to better attack the high end of the market.

All these changes will take place within one phone business unit responsible for all of our phone efforts led by Jo Harlow.

We will provide as much clarity and information as possible in the coming weeks. Leaders across the organization will hold town halls, host information-sharing sessions and provide more details on the intranet.

As difficult as some changes are today, this direction aligns with the cross-company efforts that Satya has described in his recent emails.

Ultimately, they put our mobile phone business in a position for future success.




290 words.

It’s a common sense approach that cuts out the fat.

It also recognizes that you can’t spin this type of communications to employees. They know.

And yes, changing the “Hello there” to “Hello” did save a word.

P.S. Others have addressed this topic. One of the better posts came from Zachary Lukasiewicz, “Microsoft lays off 18,000 with ridiculous letter.” If you’re interested in the original employee letter, I’ve included it below.

Stephen Elop’s email to employees

July 17, 2014

Hello there,

Microsoft’s strategy is focused on productivity and our desire to help people “do more.” As the Microsoft Devices Group, our role is to light up this strategy for people. We are the team creating the hardware that showcases the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, and we will be the confluence of the best of Microsoft’s applications, operating systems and cloud services.

To align with Microsoft’s strategy, we plan to focus our efforts. Given the wide range of device experiences, we must concentrate on the areas where we can add the most value. The roots of this company and our future are in productivity and helping people get things done. Our fundamental focus – for phones, Surface, for meetings with devices like PPI, Xbox hardware and new areas of innovation — is to build on that strength. While our direction in the majority of our teams is largely unchanging, we have had an opportunity to plan carefully about the alignment of phones within Microsoft as the transferring Nokia team continues with its integration process.

It is particularly important to recognize that the role of phones within Microsoft is different than it was within Nokia. Whereas the hardware business of phones within Nokia was an end unto itself, within Microsoft all our devices are intended to embody the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, while accruing value to Microsoft’s overall strategy. Our device strategy must reflect Microsoft’s strategy and must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope. Therefore, we plan to make some changes.

We will be particularly focused on making the market for Windows Phone. In the near term, we plan to drive Windows Phone volume by targeting the more affordable smartphone segments, which are the fastest growing segments of the market, with Lumia. In addition to the portfolio already planned, we plan to deliver additional lower-cost Lumia devices by shifting select future Nokia X designs and products to Windows Phone devices. We expect to make this shift immediately while continuing to sell and support existing Nokia X products.

To win in the higher price segments, we will focus on delivering great breakthrough products in alignment with major milestones ahead from both the Windows team and the Applications and Services Group. We will ensure that the very best experiences and scenarios from across the company will be showcased on our products. We plan to take advantage of innovation from the Windows team, like Universal Windows Apps, to continue to enrich the Windows application ecosystem. And in the very lowest price ranges, we plan to run our first phones business for maximum efficiency with a smaller team.

We expect these changes to have an impact to our team structure. With our focus, we plan to consolidate the former Smart Devices and Mobile Phones business units into one phone business unit that is responsible for all of our phone efforts. Under the plan, the phone business unit will be led by Jo Harlow with key members from both the Smart Devices and Mobile Phones teams in the management team. This team will be responsible for the success of our Lumia products, the transition of select future Nokia X products to Lumia and for the ongoing operation of the first phone business.

As part of the effort, we plan to select the appropriate business model approach for our sales markets while continuing to offer our products in all markets with a strong focus on maintaining business continuity. We will determine each market approach based on local market dynamics, our ability to profitably deliver local variants, current Lumia momentum and the strategic importance of the market to Microsoft. This will all be balanced with our overall capability to invest.

Our phone engineering efforts are expected to be concentrated in Salo, Finland (for future, high-end Lumia products) and Tampere, Finland (for more affordable devices). We plan to develop the supporting technologies in both locations. We plan to ramp down engineering work in Oulu. While we plan to reduce the engineering in Beijing and San Diego, both sites will continue to have supporting roles, including affordable devices in Beijing and supporting specific US requirements in San Diego. Espoo and Lund are planned to continue to be focused on application software development.

We plan to right-size our manufacturing operations to align to the new strategy and take advantage of integration opportunities. We expect to focus phone production mainly in Hanoi, with some production to continue in Beijing and Dongguan. We plan to shift other Microsoft manufacturing and repair operations to Manaus and Reynosa respectively, and start a phased exit from Komaron, Hungary.

In short, we will focus on driving Lumia volume in the areas where we are already successful today in order to make the market for Windows Phone. With more speed, we will build on our success in the affordable smartphone space with new products offering more differentiation. We’ll focus on acquiring new customers in the markets where Microsoft’s services and products are most concentrated. And, we’ll continue building momentum around applications.

We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 factory direct and professional employees over the next year. These decisions are difficult for the team, and we plan to support departing team members with severance benefits.

More broadly across the Devices team, we will continue our efforts to bring iconic tablets to market in ways that complement our OEM partners, power the next generation of meetings & collaboration devices and thoughtfully expand Windows with new interaction models. With a set of changes already implemented earlier this year in these teams, this means there will be limited change for the Surface, Xbox hardware, PPI/meetings or next generation teams.

We recognize these planned changes are broad and have very difficult implications for many of our team members. We will work to provide as much clarity and information as possible. Today and over the coming weeks leaders across the organization will hold town halls, host information sharing sessions and provide more details on the intranet.

The team transferring from Nokia and the teams that have been part of Microsoft have each experienced a number of remarkable changes these last few years. We operate in a competitive industry that moves rapidly, and change is necessary. As difficult as some of our changes are today, this direction deliberately aligns our work with the cross company efforts that Satya has described in his recent emails. Collectively, the clarity, focus and alignment across the company, and the opportunity to deliver the results of that work into the hands of people, will allow us to increase our success in the future.





Strong Storytelling in McDonald’s Supplier Videos … But Do They Work?

More to the point, do they fortify the McDonald’s brand?

I can understand McDonald’s quest to associate with suppliers who take a certain “hand-crafted” approach to their products. The message serves as a counterbalance to the perception that McDonald’s is all about volume production.

Stepping back for a moment, the execution of this campaign is pretty darn good.

Click on “Lettuce,” and farmer Dirk Giannini appears with the sound of sprinklers and the periodic bird chirp in the background.

McDonalds Supplier storytelling

Moving to the video, the savvy storytelling from McDonald’s puts Dirk in the hero’s boots.

Too often companies insist since they’re footing the bill, they get the hero’s billing.

And it’s not easy duty to make lettuce interesting. While no one is going to springboard from this narrative to a potential blockbuster called “Return of Iceberg Lettuce,” it’s still a high-quality video.

But back to the big picture –

Does the supplier campaign bring “goodness” to the McDonald’s brand?

As much as I like the execution, the answer is no.

Branding efforts often include an aspirational spoke, a noble cause. Yet, if the gap between the reality of the brand and the aspiration becomes too great, the work loses credibility. In short, the audience doesn’t believe it.

That’s the flaw in the McDonald’s campaign. The reality of the brand, whether it be the dollar menu or interiors that affirm the prophecy in The Graduate — “I just want to say one word to you … plastics,” is congruent with the aspiration.

When Dirk the farmer utters the phrase “field to fork” in the video, what was already strained credibility becomes nonsense.

Bad branding.

As a sanity check, when I guest lectured at the USC Annenberg School of Communications, I played the lettuce video and asked the class for their reaction. Every student thought it was BS (baloney stuff).

While not exactly scientific research, I think it’s safe to say that McDonald’s should not be channeling Alice Waters.


Lebron James News Broke Here, Contrast and Visual Storytelling to Guide Bathroom Behavior

I invented the grab bag post as a forum to share three vignettes on business storytelling that otherwise couldn’t stand on their own.

And here’s the latest …

Serendipitous Nature of Social Media Breaks LeBron James News on My Twitter Feed

On Friday LeBron James officially announced that he is taking his talents back to Cleveland.

But my Twitter followers who have put up with my bad puns and periodic snark were rewarded on Thursday when Bud Shaw, sports journalist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, passed the following tweet my way.

Bud Shaw Tweet on  LeBron James

That’s right.

Leaving nothing to interpretation — unless you think Lyndon Johnson’s grave is headed to Cleveland — we knew LeBron’s decision on Thursday.

Contrast as a Storytelling Technique

Journalists, the masters of business storytelling, depend on contrast as a staple in their writing.

Communicators would be wise to follow suit. No question, contrast is one of my favorite storytelling techniques.

Here’s one quick example from The Wall Street Journal and its coverage of the Mexico/The Netherlands World Cup match.

The contrast — simply put, more orange than green — tells a story of Dutch control.

The Wall Street Journal and its coverage of the Mexico/The Netherlands World Cup match visual storytelling

Now, take a look at the graphic with only data on The Netherlands.

The Wall Street Journal and its coverage of the Mexico/The Netherlands World Cup match visual storytelling

The storytelling disappears.

Contrast by definition must contain a frame, communicating the difference between point A and point B.

Most companies want to jump right to point B, especially if point A depicts any semblance of a negative light.

Visual Storytelling Meant to Guide Bathroom Behavior

Most of us in business communications come by way of words.

We recognize the increasing importance of visual storytelling, but making the shift can feel like asking Dairy Queen to offer healthy alternatives. Anyone up for a kale blizzard? Not exactly a natural transition.

The head of our Beijing office, Lucia Liu, passed on this example of visual storytelling posted on a Sina weibo account (Chinese micro blogging platform).

You don’t need to read Chinese to get the gist of these visuals or the levity.

Chinese Weibo visual storytelling

Chinese Weibo visual storytelling

Chinese Weibo visual storytelling

I particularly liked the first image discouraging people from standing in the trash can while dropping the paper towel on the floor. I can see how that might be a problem.




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The Walmart/New York Times Spat Reveals a Bigger PR Trend

There’s no question that the rise of owned media has both emboldened companies and shaped more of a peer-to-peer relationship with journalists.

In the old days, if a company took issue with a critical article, it might write a letter to editor, contact the publication’s ombudsman or cajole a correction out of the journalist’s boss. These actions seem downright quaint in today’s world in which companies can use owned media to blast away and deliver their point of view directly to the target audience.

In some cases, a company’s digital properties command a larger following than the publications that report on it.

While that’s the not the case in the Walmart-NYT “disagreement,” this situation provides another indicator of the evolving balance of power between the media and the companies it covers. The humble servant-master relationship is quickly becoming a relic of the past.

Playing the role of your seventh-grade English teacher with red pen in hand, Walmart’s David Tovar wrote a post that literally marked up the NYT article for what he considered to be shoddy treatment.


Walmart corporate blog post correcting NYT article Corporate Daddy

We’d expect Elon Musk to do battle with the NYT for a perceived slight.

I didn’t think Walmart had the chutzpah to counter punch one of the most influential papers in the country.

Still, it makes sense.

In an environment where anyone can step onto a digital pulpit, why wouldn’t Walmart aggressively insert its voice into the NYT story and try to diffuse the negative? And if it can be done with a bit of cleverness, all the better.

There’s virtually no downside.

Walmart certainly isn’t counting on NYT journalist Timothy Egan to make the pilgrimage to Bentonville for a détente. Would the NYT as a publication now treat Walmart more harshly? Unlikely. If anything, its various editors will be more sensitive about ensuring that Walmart gets a fair shake.

Obviously, I don’t have access to the analytics for the Walmart corporate blog, but the 300+ comments indicate the post reached a sizable audience. Perhaps more revealing, the social shares for the post tallied 4,774, including 39 journalists.

MuckRack Walmart corporate blog post correcting NYT article Corporate Daddy

My only quibble is that the post would have been even stronger if someone outside the communications function bylined it.

Still, I think it’s fair to say that the post turned into brand-building action and one that we’ll be seeing more of in the future.

Side note: Ari Rabin-Havt offers a different perspective, writing “Wal-mart flunks its fact-check: The truth behind its sarcastic response to the Times” for Salon. If this was a debate class, Ari definitely earned an “A.” But he misses the bigger picture. There is a sizable audience (not already sympathetic to the Wal-mart cause) who believe the company showed guts in standing up to the New York Times.

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