How To Survive the Narrative Rip Current

Copyright 2011


Noun: A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

Narrative. So powerful. But what if it’s working against you? A narrative like the  'Birther'  issue that has haunted President Obama through his first term. I have worked in public relations for many years and have had to manage narratives that ran counter to my client’s interests many times.  It always felt to me at first like getting caught in a rip current at the beach. No matter how hard you fight it, it just seems like it is going to carry you out to sea.

The solution to a counter flowing narrative is, in fact, much like the advice given to those caught in an actual rip current: remain calm, get your feet down on something solid, get help and be patient. More on this later.

What brought the power of the counter narrative back to my consciousness was a column by Toronto Globe and Mail writer Margaret Wente: “Can you handle the truth?  Forget the narrative of catastrophe. The Gulf of Mexico is nearly back to normal.” Her story picks up on an AP report  that basically says that, while not completely back to pre-Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill state, it’s not the disaster we might think it is. What’s instructive here is how this powerful narrative is playing out. After 100 days of almost around the clock coverage and a narrative of environmental disaster, reinforced to this day, that story sticks with many of us. I’m as influenced by it as anyone. The surprising “truth”, says the AP report, is that it is not as bad as we might think. However, for the seafood industry, the tourism industry, the oil and gas industry and BP in particular, they are still fighting the rip current fed by the narrative of destruction that is running against them.

Wente draws an interesting conclusion about why the “narrative of catastrophe” remains, in spite of the facts.

“I think it’s because we saw the spill as a giant morality tale: evil versus good, rapacious oil interests versus the environment, greedy consumers (that’s us) versus oil-soaked pelicans and the unspoiled natural world. The visuals were devastating, and the coverage was relentless. The media took turns hyping the disaster. They had a lot invested in this storyline and, when it took an unexpected happy turn, they couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t even see it.”

So, how do we go about keeping our heads above water and surviving the power of the narrative rip current?

Keep Calm: High emotion and panic lead to bad decisions. Swimming against a rip current often leads to exhaustion and drowning. Use your head. If a narrative is running against you, don’t start thinking like a victim. That’s emotional. Think like the receiver of the narrative. Will they pay attention to it? Will it makes sense to them? How much exposure to repetitions will they get?  How much credibility do you have with the receivers versus the storytellers or protagonists? Plan all actions and communications with the answers to these questions in mind. Be deliberate. Don’t flail about.

Get a Solid Base: If you are caught in a rip current, you’ll find that the water has more power than a swimmer. So – as they say and I have experienced – get your feet on the bottom and walk out if you can. Point is that the solid ground gives you powerful traction to counter the force of the current. Facts and logical arguments will be necessary to counter a strong narrative that is running against you. Obama has come out with the definitive proof of birth in Hawaii that confirms he is a citizen (not for everyone – there are doubters who will never be convinced and there are those with agendas that don’t want to be convinced). Many hope that this action kills the “birther” narrative that has taken up so much space in the public affairs geography. Without the proof, this story had no chance of dying.

If a narrative comes down to their opinion versus yours, you may never win. A formerUSMarine General was reported to have told a group: “My opinion versus yours, mine wins. Your facts versus my opinion, you have a chance of convincing me.” Another element is that people can accept things they don’t like, but only if they understand them. So, while a strong narrative may initially hold sway, planting the seed of doubt with facts and arguments that undermine the narrative can be the beginning of the end. Caveat: the facts and argument have to make sense to the receiver. Too often counter arguments are made that make sense to the party feeling victimized by the narrative, but these arguments don’t make sense to the receivers. An example would be an oil company saying that a spill wasn’t their fault – because they believed it was a subcontractor’s or nature’s fault. The receiver, on the other hand, thinks: “Your well, your oil, your instructions, your oversight, your responsibility, your liability.” Pushing against this is like trying to swim directly against the rip current.

Part of the solid base is context. It can be beneficially powerful. But like most powerful tools, it can also be dangerous, if used improperly. Here’s an example as cited in Wente’s column:  “Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO, was reviled for saying that the amount of oil leaked was ‘tiny’ compared with the ‘very big ocean.’ But he turned out to be right.”  So, good piece of context but delivered too early. In the face of 24 hour video coverage of the oil spewing from the fractured underwater well and the huge slick on the surface and the dead fish and oil covered wildlife, marshes and beaches, Hayward’s offering did nothing more than further damage his credibility. He needed to be calm and patient. Minimizing the problem comes across as defensive and callous. In fact, it is seen as supportive of the negative narrative.

Get HelpIf you get caught in a rip current, get help. A boat might be needed, if you can’t walk out. Also, the experience and credibility of someone like a lifeguard might be what you need to successfully counter the current. In the case of a narrative, other credible voices that are prepared to put forward facts and arguments that counter the narrative may become the only credible voices. Yours may be discounted, like Mr. Hayward’s.

Be PatientWalking out of a rip current can be slow and very difficult. Waiting for a rescue boat can seem an eternity. Be calm and patient. Certainly this is very true when the current is a strong narrative. A national survey checking on attitudes of consumers found that 71% are still concerned about the safety of Gulf seafood, even though fishing is not allowed until the species is deemed safe following testing. It’s going to take time to change the narrative. With both the fishing industry’s  and the government’s self-interest an issue, the credible third parties that are having some traction on the narrative are chefs who are vouching for the safety and quality of the seafood by serving it in their restaurants. This one will be a word of mouth change to the narrative. Set against 100 days of 24 hours of pictures at 1,000 words a picture – well, it’s going to have to be a slow and steady turnaround.

So, given all of the above, and given that he had the definitive proof in hand, why would Obama have let the birther narrative build for almost four years? This might be one of those cases where the credibility of the narrators took a hit with every telling, because the narrative wasn’t of interest or didn’t make sense to most of the receivers. I get the sense that on April 27th, 2011, when the document was finally released, Obama just calmly and deliberately walked through the current and out of the water. Just sayin’!