Ethical Storytelling: A Case Study


Good marketing tugs at the heart. It appeals to the emotional, sometimes irrational side of our decision-making process. Good marketing is, essentially, good story-telling. To sell your idea, or your product, you have to tell an effective, remarkable story to compel your audience to take action.

Story-telling is good marketing. But intentionally inaccurate story-telling borders on unethical.

In early January, the Shoreline School District in suburban Seattle made the difficult decision to recommend two schools for closure. Student population in the district has been shrinking in recent years, so fewer schools are needed to handle the volume of students living within district boundaries. Closing schools is never fun, and never easy, and the reasons why the closure candidates were chosen isn’t specifically important here.

What I’m more concerned about is the questionable strategy, message, and story-telling being propagated by those who don’t want their specific school closed.

One of the schools slated for closure is Sunset Elementary. Sunset happens to be one of the “richest” schools in the district, meaning the median income of its families is among the highest in Shoreline. A parent group, understandably, is not happy with the prospect that their school may be closed at the end of this school year. So they’ve started a campaign with the title of “Save Shoreline Schools.” They’ve started a Web site and an aggressive PR campaign to keep their school open.

I can certainly empathize with their situation, but I’m less than excited about their tactics. They are not telling a clean story about their specific school being closed. Instead, the story being told is that all Shoreline schools and students are in jeopardy. But that’s far from true.

The “Save Shoreline Schools” organization has rallied local business leaders, radio stations, even real estate agents behind their cause. The organization has certainly tugged on heart-strings with their story. The problem is, their story is wrong. Real estate agents, radio stations and business leaders alike all believe that they are fighting to save all Shoreline schools, when in fact the entire effort is focused on ensuring that a single elementary school is taken off of the closure list (and replaced by another).

The Shoreline School District has made their intentions very clear – they need to close schools to better distribute their student population and get budgets in line.

Saving one elementary school to close another does nothing for Shoreline students overall.

But that’s not the story being told, is it? That’s not the story being aggressively promoted, and now pulling on heart-strings of radio listeners and local business customers throughout Seattle.

Sunset Elementary School parents are doing a great job marketing their cause. They’ve created some very compelling stories. But their stories are not true.

Imagine if you did this for your own business, or your own products. Imagine your customers were moved to action by an effective story, only to find out that the story was not true. Wouldn’t that have a significant impact on your reputation, and ultimately your results? Is the short-term gain ever worth the long-term impact?