Hobbits rule. Or, it’s not all PR, people


Companies that weight their communications budgets towards PR are ignoring their most important audience and free PR - their employees. Turn them into advocates and storytellers.


The head of PR is the Gandalf of the corporate communications team - the wise media whisperer who can dispel a bad headline with one phone call and who can magic a positive one out of the ether.

Leaders consider these wizards to be the apotheosis of all things comms. Most comms budgets, in terms of salaries, agency funds and expenses, are weighted towards PR. And all focus on gaining the attention of a dwindling number of journalists.

Media companies are under pressure: cutting their staff and going for clickbait in their attempts to retain eyeballs. In this environment, there is no way to control their attention. Media attention is gained either through luck (good or bad) or a highly charismatic CEO (we’re talking Steve Jobs or Satja Nadella levels of charisma).

It is possible to manage the media - to a degree. Most heads of PR do so via personal contacts. However, if their mate in Tier 1 Publication X needs a salacious headline to ensure they keep their job, they might pick up the phone when the wizard calls, but the person who pays their salary makes the final decision. 

The other challenge for your PR team is that borders between internal and external are porous. Nothing can detonate a well-laid PR plan faster than a disgruntled employee. 

Gandalf; not so wise.

So if you can’t rely on the media to tell your stories, who can you rely on?

The answer is simple: your employees. You need to turn your employees into storytellers, advocates, followers and fans. The bad news is this demands leadership commitment and follow-through. The good news is there is a team to help you.

First, here are the steps:

1. Have a credible strategy that everyone in your company understands and can repeat

Professors and practitioners have documented myriad ways to create a business strategy. For it to land with your employees, it needs to be simple, credible and repeatable - not a five or a ten-page document. You should be able to wake any employee up in the middle of the night, ask them what the strategy is (please don’t actually do this) and they should be able to tell you, while still asleep. That simple.

2. Build context, meaning and alignment 

For your company strategy to become a movement with advocates, followers and fans, you need to build context, meaning and alignment. 

Alignment: there are various tools (OKR, V2MOM), but just ensure that your alignment process is not top-down. Employees need to be part of the alignment journey and their feedback is critical.

Context: Simon Sinek asks what is your why? There is an erk in that construction that rubs my inner grammar nerd the wrong way, but he is right. You need to understand your why and then repeat it. Many leaders get rapidly bored repeating themselves but consistency is critical. Don’t keep changing it up. Your why is important today as the day you started your business. 

Meaning: Employees need to create their own why. This is the part that is often ignored. Every employee needs to understand how their role contributes to the strategy, and every manager is responsible for helping them get there. If people are doing redundant work, believe me, they know it. These are people you have already lost.

3. Build a story

Stories make us human. We recognise the ancient art of telling stories as it was practised around the fire centuries ago instinctively and in our bones. There is something both deeply comforting (we tell our children stories before they go to sleep) and profoundly ritualistic (think of wedding speeches or funeral elegies) about storytelling. Stories unify us. They create common understanding. They remind us of our humanity. They inspire empathy for others. They help us understand the why - not cognitively, but intuitively.

To turn your employees into advocates of your story, you need to embody it and tell it often. It is the foundation for an employee advocacy programme based on case studies, customer stories and moments that matter in your company journey.

Who can help you achieve this?

The touchstone for a strategy that is backed up by meaning, context and alignment, and fired by a great common narrative is your employee communications team. They are the beating heart of this movement - as both communications experts AND employees, they are an acid test for all the steps. Please listen to them. Hobbits might be small, but they are wise, fearless fighters and they get stuff done. They will build your employee advocacy programme, arm employees with stories and proof points, and teach them how to use them. 

Once you have an employee base of 500 or 5,000 or 50,000 behind you, who understand the company narrative, can articulate their role in it and tell a powerful common story, your earned and owned impact will be unstoppable.

Stats that support my fine hypothesis

According to the LinkedIn Guide to Employee Advocacy, people are three times more likely to trust company information shared by an employee than that shared by a CEO. And the click-through rate on a piece of content is twice as high when shared by an employee rather than when shared by the company itself.

(With thanks to Mike Klein who runs #WeLeadComms on LinkedIn, and who featured this blog post on 13 July 2022.)