New Year, New Slogan – “Control the Narrative” by Kelly Barner

Posted on January 13, 2014


In the wake of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the political idea of managing one’s ‘optics’ spilled over into the corporate world. The pesky but popular buzzword captured an increased focus on how everything looks to observers from timing to backdrops to the tone of a statement or presentation. It is a topic I took on in an October Procurement Insights Post, ‘Managing Procurement’s Optics’.

My conclusion at the time was that we all have optics, whether we are actively managing them or not. The people and organizations we come into contact with in high stakes situations take cues from otherwise innocuous things like running late for a meeting, bringing a second person into a discussion or inquiring into the reasons behind a request. Despite the potential for establishing authority or creating negative impressions, optics are a passive element. They communicate clear meaning from the background.

Again taking direction from the political sphere, 2014 promises to be the year of executives and corporations ‘controlling the narrative’. In other words, whether the news of the moment is good or bad, how will you explain (positive) or spin (negative) your circumstances. Unlike optics, controlling your narrative is an active process, made more complex by the need to get the message out right, first, and using the most advantageous channels.

At the end of December, a USA Today business writer took a political story – the YouTube video where Chiara De Blasio explained her struggle with depression and substance abuse – and applied it to the corporate world (De Blasios Tell their Story Their Way, Michael Wolff). Drawing such comparisons between different spheres is one of my favorite approaches, and I appreciated that he took a political image management tactic and applied it to the corporate world, especially in today’s social-media heavy environment.

Controlling your narrative is important, but is only effective when you are the first to tell your story and when the tale you tell endears you to your audience. As Wolff stated, “In every significant corporation in the nation, controlling the narrative has become one of those feely-feely things that unemotive CEOs and CFOs, with a growing amount of anxiety, understand they really don’t comprehend and about which they need outside consultants to hold their hands.”

Narrative Post Image

While those “unemotive CEOs and CFOs” may or may not naturally induce our sympathy, it is easy for procurement professionals to draw the short line to the CPO and realize that he or she is in the exact same boat – and procurement needs to control their internal and external narratives simultaneously. Procurement is one of the few functions that regularly has contact with internal stakeholders, executive leadership and members of the first and second tiers of the supply chain. Like pervasive optics, we need to control our narrative in all of these interactions as well.

Why is spending being reduced? Why is a contract or category being renegotiated? The answers to these questions will be different when procurement is addressing an internal stakeholder versus fielding questions from current or prospective suppliers.

The most important commonality in all procurement narratives is resisting the urge to sound like a victim or like a function at the mercy of larger organizational and market-driven forces. In both cases, the message will resonate differently when delivered as a proactive statement rather than as a response to a question. Getting in front of a message is the best way to control it – especially through narrative.

There is no point in controlling your narrative unless you have something you are trying to accomplish. De Blasio was looking to address a sensitive topic that might otherwise have been a detraction from his campaign to become the next mayor of New York City. Procurement organizations may be looking to establish their authority internally or maximize negotiating leverage externally.

Regardless of the goal, it is critical to remember that narratives present an opportunity to create bonds and build relationships. Keeping an eye to the potential for collective benefit, or pointing out shared struggles not only furthers the cause in the short term, but improves working relationships. Oh yes, and it also improves procurement’s optics by making the function look more open, transparent, and approachable.


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