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Communications: a fairytale

Originally published on LinkedIn on November 8, 2020

One of the rituals of parenthood is reading more fairytales than you’d ever wish. Cinderella, Frozen, Aladdin, Peter Pan... If, like me, you feel that they all start blurring into each other, as though basically the same story, well, you’d be right. And it’s not just down to parental fatigue:

Child grows up deprived, often having lost a parent. She doesn't fit in and doesn't know why. She experiences an unexpected challenge, enters a dark, frightening place, undergoes trials and encounters mysterious forces. Stressed, she experiences a breakthrough, discovering new powers or knowledge that resolves and revives her life. Happily ever after.

Sound familiar? This storied pattern is found all over the world, across all times and cultures. It was discovered by mythologist Joseph Campbell, who called it The Monomyth. Campbell presented the pattern as a play in three acts: Departure (from the known world), Initiation (into the unknown), Return (to the known, now seen through new eyes). He broke this into more detailed steps, called the Hero's Journey.

It’s such a compelling structure that it's literally been the template for many of the world’s most famous movies, from Star Wars to Frozen. Beyond Hollywood, it’s also the structure behind the stories of many Myths: Jason (of the Argonauts), Xuanzang (Journey to the West), King Arthur. Great religious leaders: Moses, Jesus, the Buddha. Even great real-life stories: Muhammed Ali, Malala, Nelson Mandela. Stories that are cut down before they complete the pattern become epic tragedy: Socrates, Martin Luther King, JFK.

So resonant and adaptable is the pattern, it's also used widely in marketing, like in this example from Coca-Cola. See if you can spot the steps of Hero's Journey (clue: the hero is the second character, the runner). As in that example, ultimately the hero's journey is psychological, an inner struggle to find one’s path, connect with one's inner self and make a unique contribution. That struggle isn’t limited to individuals. It can also apply to groups. In recent years, a number of writers and business leaders have extended the concept to organisations. The common theme is striving towards a shift to a new stage of consciousness, responding to a longing among consumers and employees for more soulful, authentic and purposeful organisations.

At Manulife, we set out on our own call to adventure a few years ago, following the arrival of a new CEO. In 2017 we gave it a name: Our Bold Ambition, aiming to transform Manulife into a digital, customer-centric market leader. During my time with the company, I’ve felt first-hand the emergence of a healthier, more human culture driven by purpose and service. Encouragingly, this is now starting to shine through our customer and employee satisfaction scores. Yet it’s fair to say the transformation has been more prominent in some functions, say operations and analytics, than others, say (and I select quite randomly here) communications.

Communications has traditionally lagged behind many other functions in terms of priority and influence, too often operating on a “speak when spoken to” basis. That picture is changing fast. Gatehouse’s State of the Sector 2020 report stated that what was once seen as a “glorified internal post office” has changed into a function where “leaders and communicators are now on the same wavelength and working towards the same goals”. And that was before Covid-19, since when communications (particularly internal comms) has come to the fore, definitively shrugging off its reputation as the cinderella function.

Along with colleagues across the region, I recently took part in our annual Asia Communications Conference, where we focused on how to raise our game by embarking on our own call to adventure. We discussed how, along with fellow comms professionals across the world, we stand at the threshold of our own transformation. All we need to do is to step forward and find the path to our own unique cave of riches - the largely untapped pool of customer and employee stories.

Are we ready to answer the call? Time will tell. But, looking at my teammates’ faces at the end of our conference, I have reason to believe in happy endings. And that’s no fairytale.

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