Startup Management » The Importance of Owning Your Narrative – Lessons from Carlos Ghosn

There’s a common expression in the marketing jargon – “owning your own narrative”.

Owning your narrative means that you make sure what is told about you matches the way you’d like it to be told, i.e. without distortions, mis-interpretations, half-truths or false perceptions. 

I was reminded of the importance of owning your own narrative, as I watched the press conference recently organized by Carlos Ghosn, after he was able to freely speak his mind and set the record straight pertaining to the circumstances surrounding his sudden arrest in Japan in late 2018. Carlos Ghosn’s press conference was a great example for how you can own (or his case re-gain) your narrative.

During the event that was organized by his PR team, and in the presence of 120 global media correspondents, Carlos Ghosn gradually started reclaiming ownership of his own narrative, and he did that like a pro. For him, it was an important first step in clearing his name and refuting the allegations behind his detention. Sadly, for the 14 months prior to January 8 2020, he was not able to communicate his own side of the story, whereas the Japanese media and prosecutors were allowed to control his narrative freely without checks.

From a process point of view, his staged counter-attack consisted of three parts:

  1. A solo presentation lasting one hour, where he laid out his facts; immediately followed by…
  2. An hour of Q&A with invited media, where he answered or rebutted claims disguised as questions; immediately followed by…
  3. Private 1:1 interviews with a handful of selected media from around the world, such as CNN, CNBC, France Inter, France24 and others. 

There are some lessons we can draw from the Ghosn process. 

Plan your event with your own rules. 

It is your message, so make sure it is “your” event. Plan it to your advantage. The location and agenda were chosen by Carlos Ghosn’s team.

Screen who you choose to communicate with

You can favor those that are fair with you, and you can avoid the media that you think doesn’t cover you objectively. 

In the case of Carlos Ghosn, his team screened the media that would be allowed into the room, and they declined those that were biased. 

That strategy clearly came to light during a Q&A interchange with one of the Japanese media as the person was “surprised that few Japanese media were here as others weren’t selected”. The person ended the question by “were you angry at them?” Ghosn responded “I have nothing against Japanese media, and I know many of them are outside, but frankly if you were selected, you were part of the few that were being objective while others were mouthpieces for the prosecutors. Introducing people that are relays to the prosecutors views in this room is not beneficial to me. I prefer to talk to those that can analyze the facts for themselves and can report accordingly. That doesn’t mean I’m running away from them. I will go and speak with them later. But you all have a responsibility to be factual, and I’m counting on you to carry the message.” 

There is a big and important lesson here. If you know that some media is biased against you, leave them alone initially. Work with the media who is friendly or at least neutral/unbiased and let their reporting rub off on the other ones.

Correct statements that are not true

Don’t let statements remain unanswered or un-rebutted. A couple of times during the Q&A, Carlos Ghosn objected to questions that seemed to be prefaced by a wrong assumption. Paraphrasing, he would say: “I’m sorry but you didn’t accurately understand what I was trying to say. What I was saying is …”

When you read something that’s not accurate about you, or when a development has a chance to take a negative turn, you need to come out early and refute it immediately. In the case of Carlos Ghosn, when reports came out that his wife masterminded his escape, he immediately came out and asserted that he acted alone in orchestrating his own escape, without any help from his family because he didn’t want to endanger them. Therefore, he distanced his family’s culpability from him. When he was summoned by the Lebanese judiciary in light of his Interpol warrant for his arrest, his lawyers immediately came out publicly saying that he was “very comfortable” with the judicial path in Lebanon, therefore removing negative doubts about this development.

Take-aways for Startups and New Projects

As the size of your audience grows, it becomes commensurably important to own and retain complete control of your narrative, and not be passive about it.

In the blockchain space, Ethereum gets critiqued for having lost control of the Ethereum narrative because when dissident voices banter around their own definitions (or limitations) of Ethereum, their claims often go unchecked. Unfortunately, the Ethereum Foundation has been notorious for not responding to attacks or media characterizations that aren’t so accurate, as they do not prioritize communicating their key messages to the public in non-technical terms.

Another example of company/project whose narrative has been somewhat taken away from them is Kik/Kin. Due to the pending SEC lawsuit and the ensuing media attention it has received, Kin’s own narrative has been weakened. Every positive discussion about their amazing progress ends-up being muddied by the story of the SEC’s cloud hanging over their head.

Luckily, for both of the above examples, the organizations are aware of the situation, and there is ongoing work to regain ownership of their narrative. I am involved with both cases in helping them, via my active/leading role in the newly formed Ethereum Marketing DAO (for Ethereum), and via my board position on the Kin Foundation (for Kin). Stay tuned on both fronts.

How do you own control of your narrative and why is it so important? 

It is counter-productive to not own control your narrative, because you have to work extra hard to regain it, after you’ve lost it.

The best way to keep owning your narrative is not let it slip away from you. But sometimes, things go wrong (SEC lawsuit for Kik), or you face a crisis (Carlos Ghosn was arrested), and your narrative slips away, because the “bad” story takes over the “good” story. 

Of course, Carlos Ghosn had the advantage of being well known. Given his many existing media relationships and high profile case, he could command immediate global attention, which isn’t as easy for others.

To regain or claim your narrative, you need to carefully craft your messages, paint a credible story and regularly chip away at narrating it and communicating them relentlessly, while rebutting inaccurate characterizations as soon as they arise. (I have written extensively about Messaging and Positioning).

When you are successful, others will write about you, and your stories start to reverberate throughout the world, directly via media coverage, and indirectly via social media amplification.

Owning your narrative is not just storytelling. It’s telling the whole thing: how you want to be perceived, and how you expect others to play back your position and messages in the most accurate and beneficial manner possible. 

When someone (or events) steal your narrative from you, you want to bring it back as soon as you possibly can, and you need to do it professionally and methodically, just like Carlos Ghosn is doing.





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