Jim Olson '91 sees storytelling as a ‘timeless currency’

by Matthew Gutierrez

November 19, 2018

The chief communications officer for Steward Health Care says there are some elements of corporate communications that never change

Jim Olson '91, chief communications officer at Steward Health Care, spoke at the Newhouse School Nov. 12 Photo by Kai Nguyen

In January 2016, a message popped up on Jim Olson’s phone: “Starbucks targeted by ISIS.” Olson, a communications officer whose client was Starbucks, froze.

There had been an ISIS attack that affected a Starbucks in Jakarta, Indonesia. Olson, with his colleagues and Starbucks executives—including CEO Howard Schultz—flew to Jakarta to handle the issue.

“We met with the police chief. We had initial statements, but we had to get the facts,” Olson said. “The worst thing you can do is put out the wrong information. You don't want people scared of going to your stores because they're the target of a terrorist attack. That's not a crisis. That's life and death. Before you put out statements, gather the facts.”

Olson, a Newhouse public relations alumnus who is now chief communications officer for Steward Health Care, spoke at the Newhouse School Nov. 12. Before the talk, we sat down with him to learn more about his work and his perspectives on crisis communications.  

How has technology changed corporate communications?

The internet was blossoming when I entered the field. Social media and the web have democratized communications. I think the best metaphor is that prior to the internet, corporate communications was like a single radio station back in the day. You sent out the message and everybody received it. That's it: one channel, one signal, one message. Now it's much more community-based. There are more stakeholders. That's the biggest shift, from a command-and-control environment—a message from the CEO pushed out—to a more holistic communication world.

But storytelling is still the same?

Storytelling is a timeless currency. It's just how stories are told. They're more important now because of how complex the world is. They help us simplify and humanize the complicated world. We're seeing the power of storytelling. It's more authentic.

What's the key to an effective corporate apology?

Apologies and empathy  are important, but action speaks louder than words. Take the recent tragedies [involving mass] shootings. A great example is Dicks Sporting Goods' CEO Ed Stack, who said thoughts and prayers are great, but they don't do anything. He said [Dicks will] actually raise minimum age to 21 to buy guns. We're going to get rid of assault rifle sales. That's a key lesson. It's fine to be apologetic and words matter, but if you don't have the actions to back them up, they're going to ring hollow. Whether you're apologizing to a single person or addressing an entire community, you've got to have the right words and actions. You need both.

Is an action-over-words approach effective for crisis communications as well?

You don't want to overreact. With a crisis, you have to get the facts and breathe. Don't let others force your hand. Most of the time, the initial information you get about a crisis or issue is wrong. If [you] react based on that, it can have huge a reputational impact on your company. Get the facts, then act.

I think of Wells Fargo's fake accounts PR disaster.

Exactly. Silence is hard. When I do media training with executives, I tell them not to be afraid of silence. Use silence as your friend. People on social media may criticize you, but I'd rather get hit for being quiet or subtle initially to ensure you get all of the facts. Silence is awkward and painful. But it's the best course over time. You just can't be silent too long.

What’s your favorite part of your work?

I get to learn so much. A lot of people stay in the same company their whole career. I've worked for different companies in different cities. I'm a very curious person by nature, so the great thing about my job is I get to unlock that curiosity and meet interesting, amazing people. I've been to six continents, all but Antarctica (still on my list). Seeing societies, cultures, from Africa to China to Europe—it has allowed me to see the world.

Matthew Gutierrez is a senior dual major in newspaper and online journalism at the Newhouse School and finance at the Whitman School of Management.