To Control the Narrative — Or Not

To control the narrative is to control how people think about you.

You don’t leave it up to them to form their own opinion. Rather, you interpret the facts for them.

Everybody is doing it — governments, businesses, and public figures. To hold power is synonymous with shaping the narrative as you see fit.

But should you?

Learn which tactics you can employ, how being in control of the narrative will affect your own life, and why you might want to opt out of it.

What Does Controlling the Narrative Mean?

When you control the narrative, you actively shape how a story is being told about a certain fact, usually relating back to you.

Let’s say you got arrested for hitting somebody in the street. Yet, depending on the story you tell, the consequences will be very different:

  • “This person looked like someone who used to stalk my girlfriend.”
  • “This person was hyperventilating, and I was trying to snap them out of it.”
  • “This person was attacking a child, and I intervened.”

One event, three different stories. Depending on what narrative prevails, you might go to jail, get off with a warning, or get a pat on the back.

There are two motivations for controlling the narrative:

  1. Defending your power, i.e., you want to secure what you got
  2. Extending your power, i.e., you want to add to what you have

Note: “Power” can refer to anything from political power to your sexual sway over somebody.

Large, powerful organizations are usually more concerned with option 1 — defending their power.

Somewhat powerless individuals — you and me — are much more likely to engage in option 2 — extending their power.

The Narrative Tool Kit

There are three methods to control the narrative:

  1. You can counterbalance the known facts with alternative information
  2. You can drag out the process of establishing the facts (drip strategy)
  3. You can suppress the facts from coming out in the first place

Let’s say you own a company that manufactures action figures for children. These action figures get cheaply produced overseas.

Now a newspaper has approached you about a story they are going to publish. As it turns out, a factory in Bangladesh has employed child workers to produce your children’s toys.

The story will be shortly published nationwide and obviously, the effect on your reputation will be disastrous. At the very least, your revenue will take a hit. Worst-case scenario, this might destroy your business completely.

1. Counterbalancing

Here, instead of letting events unfold, you decide to actively control the narrative. You will shape the story about what happened in Bangladesh.

Possible measures include:

  • Set up interviews with different media outlets to do penance.
  • Visit the affected families in Bangladesh with a media team in tow.
  • Put measures in place to prevent this from happening again and talk about it.
  • Publicly donate a large sum of money to an NGO fighting child labor.
  • Do a fundraising event to increase awareness and improve your own profile.

2. The Drip Strategy

Another option is to employ a drip strategy. Instead of counterbalancing the facts, you draw out the process of establishing them. There are several stages to this.

Stage 1

At first, you deflect.

“We hardly worked with this factory, their contribution to our overall output was less than 5 percent.”

Stage 2

Then you raise doubts about the credibility of the other side.

“Do you know that the journalist in question has been wrong about other stories before?”

Stage 3

When you absolutely must, you admit a little bit more but redirect the blame.

“There might have been some child labor going on temporarily, but this was due to a corrupt shift manager.”

Stage 4

Shortly after, you backpaddle to sow confusion.

“After further investigation, we have concluded there was no child labor going on whatsoever.”

Results

This constant back-and-forth takes away attention from the actual issue and turns the incident into a soap opera. Did you hear? Who is right? Whose side are you on?

Also, by dragging out this process, the public perception grows dull. “So what, a few brown kids put a few toys together?” We get used to the despicable.

3. Suppression

Sticking with our example, you could also try to not let the story come out in the first place, e.g., by buying off the journalist or even by threatening them.

While this is obviously not the ethical thing to do, many powerful institutions employ this tactic every day and get away with it. It’s a high-risk move though — if this comes out, you are most likely finished.

Who Should Be Concerned With Controlling the Narrative?

Controlling the narrative pertains to power. So, it comes as no surprise that large organizations with lots of power are highly interested in controlling the narrative.

Examples include:

  • Governments
  • The media
  • Religious institutions
  • Large corporations
  • NGOs

These are the true power players and controlling the narrative is their bread and butter. A large percentage of their efforts goes towards that.

Then there are powerful individuals. They, too, have an interest in shaping the stories being told about them. Their influence and their income depend on it.

Examples include:

  • Politicians
  • Movie stars
  • Famous musicians
  • High-profile athletes
  • Social media influencers

However, controlling the narrative is not only for those “higher-ups.”

Even as relatively powerless individuals, we are all trying to control the narrative. The two prime examples are dating and job hunting.

On a dating app like Tinder, you will try to look as good as possible. You will choose the absolute best pictures of yourself, e.g., when you had just come off a diet.

You will also choose pictures that make you look cooler than you actually are. According to most people’s Tinder profiles, they are constantly on vacation, jumping out of airplanes, or partying in the VIP section.

The masquerade continues when you go on a date.

If you are a woman, you put on make-up and a push-up bra to increase your physical attractiveness. If you are a guy, you try to act more confident and funny than your usual self. And regardless of gender, everybody is trying to appear smarter than they actually are.

With job hunting, things get even phonier. The pictures we paint of ourselves in our CVs are, let’s say, imaginative. According to these narratives, we are constantly innovating, furthering diversity, learning new skills, and being amazing team players.

Does that sound anything like your workday?

We are all trying to control the narrative. The only difference is that the already powerful have more to lose, while you, the powerless individual, have more to gain.

The Morality of It All

Controlling the narrative is not just something the powerful do — we all do it.

However, we are prone to apply double standards. When a politician is telling a cooked-up story, we get outraged. But when we lie at a job interview, that is considered putting our best foot forward.

There is more than one hypocrisy at work here.

First, we consider our own alterations of the narrative inconsequential. Individuals lie about their level of education or their income. Organizations lie about corruption or destroying the environment.

But that doesn’t make us better people. The only reason that our narratives are less harmful is that we have less power to start with. We can’t abuse what we don’t have.

Second, we have naïve notions about how the game is being played.

We think that governments should act justly, that businesses should be concerned with sustainability, and that the media should report the truth.

It just goes to show that we never held any power. Because as soon as you do, you realize that you are constantly competing over resources. And if you don’t seize them, others will.

Third, we don’t want to deal with complex, morally ambiguous situations. We want to think of the world in terms of black and white. The power players are providing these easy answers — and we gobble them up.

Fourth, we don’t consider putting on makeup or curating our Instagram feed lying because everybody is doing it. “If everybody is whitewashing the facts, then it can’t be wrong.” We are not so much concerned with the truth as with social convention.

For all of these reasons, I would be careful to throw around moral judgments. The reality is that whenever people come together, stories are going to be told.

If you partake in society, controlling the narrative is simply part of the deal. Instead of acting outraged, plan for it. Learn everything you can about mass psychology and marketing.

Alternatively, you can distance yourself from the herd. You can become a hermit. Disconnected from everybody, there is no need to control any narratives. But few people are willing to be utterly alone, just to be utterly true.

Controlling the Narrative in Business

As a business owner, controlling the narrative comes with the job. These are the three areas you should be concerned with:

  1. Reputation management
  2. Marketing
  3. Company culture

1. Reputation Management

Reputation management is about cleaning up after yourself, once things have gone south.

Examples include:

  • Pushing down negative search results on Google.
  • Getting rid of negative reviews on Amazon.
  • Dealing with attacks on your business in the media.
  • Removing embarrassing pictures of your CEO online.
  • Changing critical Wikipedia entries.

Let’s get something straight — if you are concerned with reputation management, chances are, something is fundamentally wrong with your organization.

Maybe it’s your product development. If you keep putting out half-baked solutions, all the reputation management in the world is not going to take care of the bad reviews you will get.

Or maybe your customer support is lacking. You can’t just outsource all your complaints to a call center in India and expect your customers to be happy.

So, take a critical look at yourself. Invest some time into building better systems that will make most of your reputation management efforts obsolete. For most businesses, that is the solution.

But, if CNN is already camping outside your house, do the smart thing, and hire an outsider. Since it’s your existence on the line, there is no way you will keep your calm. You will get emotional and overreact.

Also, you are dealing with hardened journalists who are smelling blood. These people destroy lives for a living. You need someone in your corner who is as well-versed in the game as they are.

Even in less dramatic instances, like removing bad reviews online, get external help. You lack the technical skills to do this properly. Pay someone who knows what they are doing.

2. Marketing

Marketing is all about controlling the narrative. You actively shape your customer’s perception of your products.

To tell the absolute best story, you must do three things:

  1. You must forgo quick wins
  2. You must choose your battleground
  3. You must overcome your ego

a) Forgo Quick Wins

The biggest problem with most companies — especially B2B companies — is that they have no marketing strategy. That’s because they are greedy — they are just thinking about sales.

If you want to control the narrative in your industry, you must overcome that shortsightedness and start to think long-term.

Produce content that is extremely helpful to your customers. Do so at a high frequency, and in 5 to 10 years from now, you will be the undisputed thought leader in your industry.

b) Choose Your Battleground

Those companies who do marketing are usually all over the place. They post on LinkedIn, they have a company blog, they run a YouTube channel, they publish on Instagram, etc.

But because they are dividing their resources over so many channels, they never reach critical mass anywhere.

It is much better to pick one platform and dominate there, instead of being everywhere and dominating nowhere.

c) Overcome Your Ego

Most companies are fixated on features. But no one cares about how many bells and whistles your product has. The only thing your customer cares about is the emotional benefit to them.

In some cases, that benefit is obvious. If you are Harley-Davidson, you are selling male power. If you are Disney World, you are selling a visit to your childhood.

In other cases, that emotional benefit is less obvious. But it’s still there.

It could be how your business software is automating a tedious task for your customer, and the relief they get from that.

It could be how your more affordable materials are making the commodity manager look good in the eyes of their boss.

Or maybe it’s the personal relationship you have with your customer, how you flirt with them and make them feel good about themselves.

Always give your customer what they emotionally desire — you will have their business forever.

3. Company Culture

Another important aspect of controlling the narrative is company culture.

To succeed with your business, you must attract the best talent. It is your employees who create your product, deliver it, and provide support. Without them you are nothing.

So, how do you attract these super employees? By telling a great story. A few examples:

  • As a manufacturer of arms, your story might be about patriotism. “We are supplying our brave soldiers with the absolute best weaponry out there. This way, they can keep defending our American values.”
  • As a virtual reality startup, your story might be about connection. “Because of our VR goggles, humans all across the globe will soon be able to communicate with each other as if they were standing next to each other.”
  • As an insurance company, your story might be about compassion. “We are helping cancer patients to pay for their expensive medical treatments. This way, they will get to spend many more years with their loved ones.”

When you get your story straight, this will not only help with attracting the best talent, it will also help with retaining it. Training new people until they become effective is both time-intensive and cost-intensive. The longer your employees stay with you, the better.

Finally, controlling the narrative will help you to keep costs down. Yes, people like a large salary. But what they like even more is purpose. If your narrative is providing that purpose, your employees will work for you even if you pay less.

How To Apply It

Controlling the narrative is not just some abstract concept. It is a skill that can be learned. Here is a step-by-step guide.

1. Choose Your Method

As mentioned earlier, whenever you are trying to shape the narrative, you have three methods at your disposal:

  1. You can counterbalance negative facts with positive information
  2. You can drag out the process of establishing the facts (drip strategy)
  3. You can prevent the facts from coming out in the first place

In terms of damage control, option 3 is the most effective solution. If no one ever learns that your company was dumping chemical waste into the local river, there is no problem.

Option 1 is the least effective solution. If you apologize after the fact, there will be a backlash.

However, in terms of risk, option 3 is the most dangerous one. If it ever comes out that you were trying to cover your tracks, your business is probably done.

Option 1 is the least dangerous one; if you apologize, there is a good chance it will blow over.

The third aspect you must consider is what level of lying you’re comfortable with. Ultimately, all of these options are attempting to bend the truth. But there are differences.

Counterbalancing the facts is a rather mild way of twisting the truth. With many observers, it won’t even register as lying.

But for dragging out the process Trump-style or suppressing the facts Putin-style, you must be without scruple.

Ask yourself if you are capable of seeing these more radical options through. If not, choose a course of action that you can actually pull off.

2. Assess Your Audience

What you can get away with and what not also depends on your audience.

If you are a right-wing populist catering to the masses, you can take much greater liberties with the truth than if you were trying to win over a group of academics.

To get this right, ask yourself:

  • What’s my audience’s ability to think critically?
  • What are their proclivities (political views, sexual orientation, etc.)?
  • How do they want to be spoken to? Do you need to appear bold or feign modesty?
  • What is their attention span? For example, in a fast-paced industry like finance, scandals are soon forgotten.

3. Be Realistic

Some people will balk at the choices presented here. They will rebuff anything that smells of manipulation.

But as we saw earlier, we all constantly try to manipulate each other, be it in sales, dating, or job hunting.

Closing your eyes to the power games all around us won’t make them go away.

Also, if you categorically refuse these choices, understand that you will always remain under the rule of those who are less morally handicapped.

The world we live in is closer to an episode of “House of Cards,” than it is to an episode of “Oprah.”

Let’s be adults about this.

4. Mirror Yourself

To control the narrative, you must learn to see yourself as others do — the way you carry yourself, the way you sound.

The goal is to elicit whatever emotional response you want in your audience — excitement, agitation, resolve, etc.

There are two ways to accomplish this.

Method one is getting feedback. Ask people about how you come across. If you are a business owner, survey your customers.

Strive for the hard truth. Interview people who don’t like you. Set up anonymous surveys so customers will give it to you straight.

The second method is to record yourself. Take a video of the speech you will give at that conference. Record your daily morning meetings. Tape your next cold call.

These recordings will revolutionize your understanding of yourself. For the first time, you will notice all your annoying mannerisms, the “Ehms,” the nervous tics, your bad posture, etc.

The more you do this, the easier it will become to spot these behaviors while they occur. New, better behaviors will emerge. You will learn to charm, convince, or excite people at will. Such is the power of recording yourself.

5. Build a Media Network

Many organizations make the mistake of only reaching out to members of the press once things have gone south. But nobody is interested in becoming friends with you when you are already down in the mud.

The trick is to establish contacts before you need them. For example, regularly pitch stories to journalists using a tool like HARO. It is not so much about getting a particular story published as it is about creating that personal connection.

Be useful to your new journalist friends. Provide value. Once you have these contacts in place, you are less likely to get screwed. Journalists you are friends with will be more hesitant to go after you. They might even do you a favor, like giving you a heads-up or influencing other journalists on your behalf.

6. Get the Help of an Outsider

I’ll say it again — when things go sour, get the help of an outsider. Since you are emotionally involved, you are the worst person to do damage control.

Also, you have no experience in this type of warfare. You are up against hardened journalists who do this for a living. You cannot hang with them.

7. Look at the Level of Noise

Noise can work against you, and it can work for you.

For example, if the established media is picking you to pieces and you can’t get a word in, you must shift tactics. You must find a different platform, one that is less biased. Trump did this with Twitter in the early days.

On the other hand, sometimes you can make noise work for you. If you sit things out for long enough, some new outrage will come along. There might be a pandemic. There might be a war. Someone might slip a nipple at the Super Bowl.

This new noise will mask whatever previous noise you had caused. You will soon be forgotten.

8. Avoid the Middle Ground

Be rational or be crazy. Be hilarious or be somber. Be sexy or be conservative. But at all costs, avoid the middle ground.

Barack Obama was fantastic at controlling the narrative because he hardly ever slipped. He was always eloquent, calm, and appropriate to the situation.

Donald Trump was just as successful at controlling the narrative but went about it differently. He was flamboyant and outrageous. Everything he said was meant to antagonize. There was no pause button.

Both strategies worked perfectly well because both of them stayed the course.

The danger is in the middle. That’s the death zone. The rational, self-possessed leader stops being attractive when they suddenly turn whiny.

Likewise, the irrational megalomaniac can’t be too reasonable. If you start saying things that actually make sense, the hardliners in your camp will denounce you.

Pick whatever role suits you — but then stick with it. No falling out of character. To control the narrative, you must please the masses. And the masses hate nuance.

9. Reinvent Yourself

Sometimes, the damage is done. There is no way you can recover from a certain misstep, no matter how crafty of a narrator you are.

If that happens to you, you must cut your losses. Accept that this particular narrative cannot be recovered, and come up with a new one.

One way to go is a Saulus-to-Paulus story. If you can paint yourself as the rueful sinner — reformed, humble, ready to make things better — your misstep will soon be forgiven.

A great example of this is Robert Downey Jr. For a while, he was the lost cause of Hollywood. Addiction, rehab, guns, arrests — he kept screwing up.

But he eventually got sober, worked his way up again, and reinvented himself as Iron Man. Now he is one of the most successful actors in Hollywood, as well as a reformed family man.

It’s the stark contrast that makes this narrative so appealing. The worse your downfall, the greater your rise from the ashes.

Or you can go the opposite way.

Martha Stewart is a great example of this. In her early days, she presented herself as the All-American housewife and TV personality. Then she got imprisoned for stock fraud. Everybody thought she was done.

She, too, reinvented herself. But unlike Downey, she embraced her new outlaw image. Her collaborations with Snoop Dogg and her cannabis-related business ventures cemented her image as a shrewd businesswoman with street cred.

Both Robert Downey Jr. and Martha Stewart understood when it was time to let the old narrative go and come up with a new one. You must be as flexible as them.

Should You Control the Narrative?

So far, we have only talked about why it might be useful to control the narrative.

But what if you stopped caring about the narrative? That, too, is a choice that you can make. And it comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages

When you stop pulling strings, you will experience these benefits.

More Freedom

Being confined to a certain role can grow old. You are limited to the same few behaviors, words, and ideas. Other aspects of your personality can never show, lest they destroy your public persona.

When you stop controlling the narrative, that changes. You can be whoever you want to be. You are no longer living for others but for yourself.

More Mental Bandwidth

Controlling the narrative takes up a lot of mental RAM. You always have to remember what lie you told to what person; otherwise your house of cards will come crashing down.

If you ignore the narrative, you have none of those problems. At any given moment, you simply state the facts as you perceive them. That reduces your cognitive load.

More Deep Connections

When you stop controlling the narrative, you start showing yourself to the world as you are. If you subscribe to a certain worldview, you don’t hold back. If you are into a particular sexual practice, you say so. No holding back.

This will create controversy. Some people will no longer want to associate with you.

But it will also attract kindred spirits. By broadcasting yourself as you are, you will end up with those who see the world as you do.

Disadvantages

There are also disadvantages to ignoring the narrative.

Less Success

There are three roles to choose from in life:

  1. You can be a follower
  2. You can be a leader
  3. You can be an observer

If you choose option 3, you won’t be subject to the usual manipulations and power games. Sitting on your mountain top, it will be wonderfully quiet.

But it also means you will have less success.

Fame, money, status — all of these require an audience. The herd is rewarding those who play them right. Remove yourself, and the spoils will pass you by.

Less Bustle

When you stop telling stories, fewer people will pay attention to you. You might attract more of the right people, but overall, the social bustle will subside. Not everyone can deal with that.

More Headwind

The more you want to control the narrative, the more you must emphasize commonalities. You must become as mass compatible as possible.

But when you dare to be different, the herd will disapprove. Your individualism will be perceived as an affront.

That is why Beyoncé is celebrated, but Bauhaus is suspect. It is why Tony Robbins dominates the personal development industry, while Sam Harris must defend himself. It is why Bill Clinton got elected president, whereas Harry Browne never stood a chance.

Which One Is Better?

So, should you control the narrative or not?

There is no easy answer here. It all depends on what is most important to you.

If you prefer recognition over autonomy, you must perfect your ability to control the narrative. It is a fascinating skill to have — to be able to make people like you, fall in love with you, buy from you, vote for you, etc.

But if you prefer autonomy over recognition, there are other benefits to be had — freedom from social expectations, deeper connections with like-minded people, being able to speak the truth, etc.

Also, this doesn’t have to be an either-or decision. You can mix and match.

Bauhaus might never have played stadiums like Beyoncé, but they still made some great records and had some loyal fans. Harry Brown might never have been president, but he was still an influential voice in the libertarian party.

The choice is not just between becoming a mass manipulator or Nietzsche’s hermit on a hill. You can play with controlling the narrative as much as you feel comfortable doing so.

My best advice is to try both for a while — learn to influence others and learn to be alone. Once you have acquired these skills, you will have a better feel of where you fit on the spectrum.

3 thoughts on “To Control the Narrative — Or Not”

  1. Hi Niels, thanks for writing this brilliant post on Narratives.
    .
    In particular, I found the images you inserted throughout the article ingenious.
    .
    What books or documents did you read to acquire your understanding of narratives, and the media in general please?
    .
    Without any presumptions, I look forward to your reply.
    .
    Kindest regards,
    .
    Tom

    Reply
    • Hi Tom,

      Thank you for reaching out. A lot of my ideas about controlling the narrative stem from my job (I work in marketing). Here are a couple of classics you might find interesting:

      – “Breakthrough Advertising” by Eugene Schwartz
      – “Making Ads Sell” by John Caples
      – “How to Write a Good Advertisement” by Victor Schwab
      – “The Ultimate Sales Letter” by Dan Kennedy
      – “The Boron Letters” by Gary Halbert

      These books offer great hands-on advice for controlling the narrative.

      If you are more interested in the theoretical side of things, I recommend these three books:

      – “The Revolt of the Masses” by José Ortega y Gasset
      – “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” by Sigmund Freud
      – “Crowds and Power” by Elias Canetti

      Hope you will enjoy some of these!

      Reply

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