Facebook Friends, Romans, Countrymen… Lend Me Your Oscar!

A few posts back, I used toys to illustrate internally consistent corporate positioning and how it can affect customer engagement. Corporate communicators are often challenged to bridge the connections between a client’s positioning and their executive spokesperson. A CEO may stand behind the essential brand concepts in principal, but have difficulty speaking about them in concrete, personal terms. They and their PR team may be so focused on talking about the company, they overlook the need to tell a story in order to appeal to readers, journalists or bloggers. A compelling story is more than just an assortment of facts an announcements. It has characters, plot and consequences. For more effective (social) media engagement, a client must too. That means talking about a company in personal, not just corporate, terms. To help clients and their PR teams do that, I draft what I call an “executive vision.”

It is a very brief document (roughly 1500 words) created specifically to blend core elements of a client’s corporate positioning with biographical details from its CEO’s personal life. I based it on the unlikely genre of the hagiography, a format adopted in the early Church to write about the lives of the saints. In hagiography, the focus isn’t to produce an academic career history about what a person has done, or to set them up as a praiseworthy hero. Rather it presents evidence of their interior struggle as their vision was being realized. This approach helps me look for intersections between the essential attributes of the company’s brand and the elemental moments in the founder’s life. Rather than a typical corporate bio, safe and solid and radiating confidence, the result is a kind of “moral biography” of the company: a go-to source of personal reflections, childhood memories, visions of the future, hopes and  learnings, all carefully chosen and arranged to reinforce the company’s brand. It shows the individual’s struggle and growth behind the corporate milestones, and the personal vision behind a business model, as if there may actually be something human at stake in the process of building a company.

More often than not, the client is a bit uncomfortable the first few times they read it. Nothing in MBA culture prepares them to see their inner life and public career united in plain sight with the public brand they are building. I encourage them to sit with it, because that is precisely the point. The connection between the human and the corporate is typically found nowhere else, and that connection is needed to rally the troops. The implication is that a company is what it is because its leaders are who they are. It is not a public-facing document, or a marketing brief, or any other kind of collateral they want it to become. Simply put, an executive vision gives a PR team the human dimension they need to make their client part of a story.

On my flight home from a recent business trip to the East Coast, I was about to pop open my laptop and draft an executive vision for a client when my airline decided to show “The Social Network,” the Facebook movie written by the West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin.

I’d been pushing it down my Netflix list for a while, but now it presented a vaguely work-related opportunity to procrastinate ruminate, so I decided to check it out. What I found was a condescending little movie, but one full of outstanding performers working on a razor-tight script. I was hooked, despite myself. Yet, the more I watched, the more I kept thinking of the task at hand. There I was trying to interpret the value of a company through the values of its leadership, when along comes this film like a perverse funhouse reflection of that whole endeavor. Instead, it was working overtime to paint a caricature of Mark Zuckerberg in the colors of each viewer’s feelings about Facebook! What a strange story to tell.

As a film, The Social Network becomes the ultimate Rorschach Test. You see in the main character onscreen whatever you feel about his company in life, whether that portrayal is accurate or not. If you buy into the Facebook identity, Jesse Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as a driven iconoclast, striking down inequities in social class distinction, replacing old money with the new currency of social capital. If, on the other hand, you question the maturity and restraint of Facebook’s governance, especially in its many fumbles of user privacy expectations, you see a sociopath ruthlessly beguiling more and more people into the web of his own influence, churning out a platform that enriches him while reducing an entire culture to one big sophomore year of college. Most people, falling somewhere in between, experience both, which is what makes it a great performance.

But that is all it is. The truth is, this is film, not business or journalism. It gets to cast judgment in the name of drama, but in the end, that is precisely what bothered me most about it. With Rashida Jones’ character of the deposition attorney a kid of Greek chorus, The Social Network simply refused to let me make up my own mind. “You’re not an asshole, Mark,” she says unconvincingly. “You’re just trying so hard to be one.”

I don’t know if he is or not. [By all accounts, he’s quite affable.] The truth is, I don’t care. That shouldn’t be the point.

This was no hagiography. Certainly the timing of his $100 million donation to schools in Newark, New Jersey on the very day the film opened sent a signal that it was the kind of publicity headache the company did not need. No, this was more like a biography of the Caesars, praising some and burying the memory of others for posterity. It simply could not make up its mind about its subject, but insisted paradoxically that the audience do so ourselves. That rendered it, in my eyes, a brilliantly acted, $40 million commercial, albeit one by a hostile ad agency.

After the Oscars last night, many aspiring writers wish they had Aaron Sorkin‘s job. But hey, if this whole screenwriting thing doesn’t pan out, he can always take a stab at mine.

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010 – 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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