An Important Lesson In Strategic Communication From A Man Walking With Bears In The Woods

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When brands are searching to find just the right approach to tell their story, the answer is often a lot closer than they think. In the world of content marketing these days, there’s so much work going into strategic storytelling.

From research and development to personas, digital/social profiling, retargeting and measurement modeling, it can be lofty. All of the information gathered is helpful, third-party reconnaissance stuff, usually done from a distance. But relying on only these methods to develop your story can create a blind spot to an often overlooked, rich source of intelligence and storytelling: the employees of your brand.

In a decade of strategic corporate storytelling, on the heels of decades in television news, I’ve become a major advocate for this type of firsthand storytelling. It has a lot to do with what I learned from a famous bear researcher in the Northwoods of Minnesota.

Getting Closer To The Ground

Over my years in the news business, I profiled a black bear researcher a couple of times. He worked near the Canadian border and was one of the top bear researchers in the country. He was controversial, but I thought he was a mad genius.

He told me once that when he started researching black bears, he spent years doing it all by airplane, honing in on the pinging collars from up in the air. He told me how he used to believe “those black bears could be so dangerous.”


After a few years of working at a distance, seeing little evidence of great danger and generally gaining confidence, he got down on the ground. He’d get close enough to have a line of sight but always from somewhere safe, at a distance. As he got older -- and, he would say, wiser -- he started getting closer to the bears. So much so that by the time I hooked up with him, he was walking through the woods, feeding Oreos to the bears by hand.

I spent time with him in the dead of a Minnesota winter, outfitting a bear den with infrared cameras and infrared lights. I’m here to tell you that guy was as close to his story as he could possibly be. “All those years,” he once told me, “I was studying this environment and these creatures from afar. And over time, I realized I could learn so much more … if I could just get a little closer.”

That’s how I look at the value of internal brand storytelling.

Applying It To Your Brand

Whatever else you’re doing with your brand storytelling, remember to stop from time to time and consider the people working in the middle of it day-to-day -- the people who represent the brand.

There are several reasons why:

1. People can be incredibly insightful about what they do for a living and why.

2. These people have seen things themselves. They have places to point you. They have stories to share.

3. Communicating these stories -- even ones that are focused on internal audiences -- can have tremendous power. I’ve seen it happen.

Sure, great consumer-centric stories can be a wonderful thing. And sometimes they are unequivocally the best way to tell a consumer story. But sometimes it’s the intermediary. It’s the employee’s story that provides great insight and clarity about what the brand is doing and the value it provides. And that kind of internal personal story can humanize the most impersonal behemoths among brands.

Over the years, our firm, which primarily focuses on B2B audience intelligence and marketing, has always spent at least some of our time on purposeful internal storytelling featuring employees. To unite large employee populations around mission and vision. To celebrate great success. To elevate the values of the brand.

We’ve had internal storytelling that’s been repurposed for investors and for broad external audiences, as well. We’ve seen instances where these deeply personal internal stories ultimately moved external audiences in ways that some of the best customer-centric stories never could. This happens through authentic storytelling.

To achieve this goal, find writers who are trained to uncover stories, intelligent enough to understand and comply with brand standards, and who understand the audience, what moves them and what matters. Just as important, these people should be wise enough to understand that these things are not mutually exclusive.

We have found well-trained journalists to be among the best in this regard. But that term -- journalist -- is used so loosely these days, the label itself doesn't help you get there. (There are a ton of agencies hiring journalists and turning them into mouthpieces; it doesn't work.) You know a good story when you see one. They're generally simple and often emotional, credible and compelling -- and they have a point.

Why do we, as a growth-focused marketing/communications team, “veer off” into the business of employee communications? Because it’s a rich and relevant space on so many levels. And we have found -- a lot like that bear researcher in the woods -- the closer we get, the better the story.

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