If everything is messaging, limited narrative offers options – both from imaginative possibilities uncovered within the audience, and the sharp defensive counters to misinterpretation. When looking to control the story told, there is value in deniability.
Previously I wrote about how everything is messaging, which is true. Like it or not, what isn’t said tells a story similarly as what is. Both are open to interpretation, both can be misconstrued. Earlier I looked to make the case for pre-emptive messaging. Deniability is the counter.
Limited narratives have advantage in conflict often unrecognised outside groups like public affairs whose livelihoods depend on it. Unlike the current fashion of creating a brand, requiring one to push a narrative for acceptance and further credibility, limited narratives are reserved for those already in an established position where messaging is expected, if not required. If an unheard-of group or individual keeps quiet and to themselves, they aren’t really limiting the narrative, as there is no audience. It’s why people push themselves out to others in creating a brand. Why I entice you to read this blog.
After a brand is created and established for some time, part of your reputational due diligence is maintaining awareness of what messages have been addressed. Perhaps the need is to keep clients believing you are secure, progressive, altruistic, or the best value. However, the more well-established you are, you find at a certain point there is a limited return on investment for putting out messages. For example, established banks have a good bit of money, wanting to be seen as a safe and reliable space to hold the means for conducting transactions. As larger institutional pillars they often don’t need to push much of a narrative, though they often have to defend e.g. lower than expected profit margins, regulatory missteps, employee misbehaviour reflecting poorly on culture, cyber incidents etc. Limited narrative is such a defence.
Essentially with a limited narrative, you control the conversation as the opponent must find ways to prove against a negative (very different than proving a negative, which is another post entirely). The narrative void gives a definitive argument – ‘I didn’t say that.’ Without finding sufficient evidence to the contrary, the statement creates a challenging environment – as the one with the limited narrative only offers small bits for others to work with. By saying little, they essentially tell a short story with the hope one has little room for misinterpretation. The opponent’s frustration compounds as they look to grasp smoke.
Taking it a step further, there is further advantage found in limited narratives whilst creating a brand. The less said – if resonant – allows others to interpret within their own worldviews. Just as Warhol left much of his art without context, leaving space in the narrative allows others to fill it, with ‘I didn’t say that’ options built in.
When dealing with cyber security, the less said leaves the less open for later uncovering leading to questions. If few clients (or internal business components) know what systems are used, the questioning of a systems breach (SolarWinds, anyone?) is closer to ‘Do you use this, did it affect you?’ rather than ‘What version are you running and how much impact did it have?’.
Reasonable questions, certainly. Trouble is, when those questions are asked, many organisations are scrambling to figure out answers for themselves (unless the product isn’t used, then it’s an easy answer). When there is an incident involving the organisation directly, such as a breach, then the interroga…inquiries are even worse. Not only is the organisation dealing with the breach, but also with every client who has gotten wind of it. From a reputational standpoint, they had better hope the client heard from them rather than the press. The fewer messages relayed will certainly cause frustration for the clients, but will also keep them from misinterpreting what is thought versus what is known. Least desirable is to give a thought or estimation of timeline or impact, only to retract or exceed the expected delivery. Limited narrative limits expectation. In these circumstances, less is more.