When Jessica Curry took her daughter Parker to the National Portrait Gallery to see the recently installed portrait of Michelle Obama, a fellow museumgoer was struck by the little girl’s expression. Ben Hines snapped a photo with his cell phone and later posted the photo on Facebook. Twenty-four later, the family’s story was a media sensation.

The viral photo touched off a whirlwind of media engagements and even a personal meeting with Mrs. Obama. But the family’s fame was not sought. It was thrust upon them.

While Parker’s delight at the portrait has been inspiring and uplifting to so many people, it is a good reminder that our stories are not our own and can easily be appropriated by others for good or for harm.  As I read in The Washington Post about how the Currys even had to hire a publicist, it prodded some of my longtime concerns about the ethics of storytelling.

In the communications world, professionals from Fortune 500 executives to reps of local community organizations cite the power of storytelling, as if it’s a new thing, as if we humans haven’t been doing this for thousands of years.  Don’t get me wrong—I love a good story and know how effective it can be in getting an idea across.  But in our rush to tell our stories, we forget about the needs and wants of the other characters who are part of our stories.

In the process of writing my most recent book about communications, I want to share anecdotes about experiences I’ve had.  But just because these stories serve me, they may not serve the clients or friends and family who were part of these tales.  So how do you tell stories in an ethical way, especially when our stories don’t necessarily stay put on our own Facebook or Twitter feeds? Here are a few tips.

  • Stop before you tell. Consider whether the others in your story want to be in a social media feed for others to see.  After my mother died, I wanted to post a tribute on my Facebook page. Even though she was no longer here, I didn’t do it because I knew how much it would have bothered her.  She had many concerns about social media and its impact on discourse.  She also was a very private person.   “You put in on Facebook—get me off,” would have been her response.  So out of respect for her memory, I reserved my tribute for her funeral.
  • Ask for permission. It’s just the respectful and courteous thing to do.  These five words, “May I share our story?” go a long way. And if someone says no, ask if you might share the story without using their name or other identifiers.
  • Recognize power dynamics. This is especially true with nonprofit organizations.  For example, telling the story of how you helped someone move from homelessness to homeownership is powerful.  But maybe that individual wouldn’t want those in his/her new community to know about past struggles.  A recipient of your agency’s assistance might feel indebted and reluctantly say yes.  Even if you aren’t pressuring, the individual may feel obligated.
  • Show how you will share the story. Let the other person or people who are part of the story know how, where and when you plan to share the story.  If you are posting on social media, make sure they understand that this could take on a life beyond the initial post.

Communications and marketing experts spend a lot of time talking about how to tell stories and less about the ethics of doing so.  Like anything else, it starts with respect for people—who all must be regarded as more than just characters for our very fine stories.

Not sure how or if you should tell a story?  Contact us at Wainger Group, [email protected],  for help in finding and sharing your stories to connect and convince others.  And check out our website for more tips on how you can be an effective communicator.