By Stuart Maister, Chief Storyteller, Strategic Narrative

When you arrived at the KGB prison in Vilnius the capital of Lithuania, you’d be held in the isolation cell in the picture above for 3 hours or more. This was relative luxury – when the cell was first built, it did not have a seat and so you’d be standing while you waited to be ‘interviewed’ by the KGB. Or, before that, the German SS.

While the Soviet Union ran Lithuania, only one narrative was allowed, and it was written by the Communist Party. Those who whispered any variations on this could expect to visit this prison or one like it.

I’ve been reflecting on the power of narrative to be both bad as well as good. Which is challenging if, like me, your role in life is to help leaders be clear about their story. It’s all very well helping people have strategic focus and a well understood vision. But what if that leads to evil, not good?

This was brought home to me by my recent visit to Vilnius. I was there to lead a workshop for the Leadership Institute of the IABC. With a lovely group of open, intelligent people we had a great discussion about the power of storytelling, how to build a narrative and the importance of enabling your people and customers to riff on the storylines you create.

And then I visited this place. It’s actually called the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. But it’s known locally as the KGB Museum. It tells the dark story of how Lithuania was occupied by first the Soviets, then the Germans during the war, and then the Soviets again for nearly 50 years.

I will skip over the intense story outlined in the museum but recommend a visit. I want to focus on one area, the offices where the KGB listened intently to conversations by locals and monitored dissidents. It looks like the centre of the propaganda operation there, complete with period piece headsets and Soviet-era guides about what is and is not acceptable.

Fake news, c. 1944

What I found chilling was a description of the tactics the KGB used when it first got back in control of the country. They began a campaign of disinformation, spreading rumours and counter-rumours about everyone and everything, building suspicion and fear. Suddenly no-one knew what was true or who to trust.

Alongside this there was a brutal regime of killing partisans and displaying their bodies. They imprisoned and exiled to gulags anyone who had been prominent in Lithuanian society, cementing their control of the country.

But they cemented control of peoples’ minds with this campaign of what we would now call fake news. It’s as if everyone in Lithuania was in a virtual version of one of these isolation cells – alone, fearful and not knowing when the knock on the door would come and who would do the knocking.

Sound familiar? The Soviet Union is dead, but its successor is run by a former KGB agent who understands these tried and tested techniques very well. Instead of agents sitting in an office on the second floor of this building, listening through ancient headsets, they are now able to sit on keyboards anywhere and use social media to divide, isolate and propagandise. Where once this was amplified locally by a fearful population whispering to each other, the poison is now spread globally by those whose prejudices are fed. We all know where this leads.

Command and control

I hesitate to draw conclusions from this for businesses. It’s too serious an issue. However, I could not but reflect on what this does tell us.

Remember when companies sought to ‘control the message’? Leaders would panic when and if something emerged which wasn’t ‘on message’, and employees could be disciplined for not towing the official line. When social media emerged it was banned in offices. No-one could watch YouTube. PR was focused on spewing corporate sound bites which were word perfect.

To me that now sounds Soviet-era. Now sensible organisations want employees and customers to engage in open conversations, digitally or otherwise. Social advocacy is the right way to go, leaders aren’t scared of being vulnerable. Conversation and dialogue is the preferred form of engagement. Business is jazz, not classical.

But: you have to have a tune for people to riff on – otherwise it becomes noise. That’s when disinformation can make it discordant. It’s true for your business. It’s true for society. Liberal democrats need to have a clear story about what good looks like, why – despite its faults – the open capitalist system provides the most freedom and the best way of life. Why tolerance is better for everyone. Why there is right and there is wrong – not everything is simply a matter of opinion. There are facts and there are fake facts – known as lies.

A strong, clear narrative based on truths is the way to fight disinformation and noise.

Lithuania knows this better than most. They live next to the biggest country in the world which uses lies and propaganda as an expression of its insecurity, and they remember only too clearly what that’s like. That’s why they are enthusiastic members of NATO and the EU, desperately keen to remain a safe part of the western club that the rest of us sometimes take for granted.

The revolution is complete. The latest campaign for Vilnius describes it as ‘the G-Spot of Europe’. I don’t think the Soviets would have allowed that!