While PR practice has changed dramatically over the last few decades, storytelling remains at the heart of what we do.
Humans have always used stories to make sense of the world. We are drawn to narratives because they help us understand concepts and ideas, making the abstract more concrete. Importantly, a story reaches us on an emotional level. And this is the key factor for PR, where connecting with your audience is crucial.
Many books and academic studies have been written on the topic of storytelling. I will just consider a few of the basic elements of a good story and how you can weave these into your PR strategy. Doing so could make your brand more memorable and help you to engage on a more meaningful level with the people you want to reach.
Stories are sometimes defined as having the four Ps: people, place, plot and purpose. To demonstrate their relevance to PR, I have tweaked them slightly: people, plot, platform and purpose.
1. People: Find your heroes
Every novel, magazine or news article, film, short story or TV series has something in common. Whether dealing with fact or fiction, they’re always about people. Humans are social animals and we evolved to live in groups. That means we are predisposed to take a great interest in what everyone else is doing.
It is stories about people, rather than facts and figures, that stick in our minds. In the event of a disaster, rightly or wrongly, hearing about the plight of one person has a greater emotional impact on most of us than statistics of fatalities.
Who could bring your brand, product and messages to life?
Over the last two decades, I’ve been fortunate to interview people from all walks of life to get their stories out to a local, national or global audience. From actors to astrophysicists, CEOs to cheesemakers, farmers to financial advisors, they have all had something in common: an absolute passion for what they do. Telling their story has been a privilege.
Who are the heroes that could star in your PR strategy? They could be your employees, or perhaps clients or customers.
For example, DCA created and ran a PR campaign for rural insurer Cornish Mutual, called Real Food Heroes. This campaign focused not on Cornish Mutual’s excellent offering, but on the people running the farms and rural businesses it insures. Through a series of short videos and feature articles, accompanied by photography, the campaign brought their stories to life in a way that resonated with potential new customers.
Calendar events, such as International Women’s Day, provide a good opportunity to put the spotlight on your own people. More personal pieces, such as staff Q&As, can help existing and potential customers to feel closer to you. A good example of this is a series we produced for our client Coodes Solicitors to tie in with the national First 100 Years campaign, which celebrated female lawyers.
Finding your heroes – whether they are your staff, clients or customers – and empowering them to tell their stories can be a brilliant way of reaching audiences on a completely new level.
2. Plot: what’s your narrative?
Communications teams are often asked to promote their organisation’s USPs. In reality, very little is unique. However good your product or service, it is highly likely that others are offering something very similar or even identical… or at least claiming to.
Your business or organisation’s history is unique though. And, if told in the right way, it can convey your values and qualities far better than any boilerplate or strapline.
When we choose to buy something our decision is often based – at least partly – on how we feel about who’s selling it.
The origins story
An origins story, which takes your audience on a journey through your past, is especially powerful if you have triumphed against adversity. Lego is a great example. Now probably the best known and loved toy brand in the world, Lego started as a small family business run by a hardworking Danish carpenter. The founders faced a number of setbacks along the way, including factory fires and personal tragedy. The company’s story perfectly reflects the company’s family values, resilience and enduring commitment to quality. In 2012, Lego released a short film telling its story to celebrate its 80th anniversary.
You can use a number of platforms to tell your story: a corporate video, a timeline on your website or a glossy brochure. Anniversaries can provide a great opportunity to tell your story because they give you a reason for reflecting on and celebrating your own unique history. These events can also be a good time to reveal some of your future plans.
3. Platform: getting your story out there
One of the exciting things about the digital age is that we can tell stories in new ways.
Traditionally, PR activity was mainly limited to finding stories that met the very specific needs of the media. If you have a story that is topical, has strong human interest, ideally an element of conflict or is downright bizarre, then the news media might be interested.
However, many great stories do not meet these requirements. Which other platforms can you use to share your story with the world?
Your own website may well be the best place to start, with the story then promoted on your social media channels. You could then explore opportunities to adapt it for the media. Partners or stakeholders, such as trade organisations, may also be interested in running your story on their platforms. Though often competitive, specialist trade titles and consumer media are also worth exploring.
What format will it take?
How will you tell your story? Will it be a first person blog article, a news piece or a Q&A interview? Should it appear in written form or a video? And how will you illustrate it? Many of us are visual thinkers, so high quality photography or illustrations can often be just as important as words.
4. Purpose: how can storytelling support your PR strategy?
While storytelling is an art, rather than a science, it still needs to have purpose. Be clear on why you want to tell a particular story and how it could support your communications strategy. Your objective might be:
- To promote a particular product or service as part of your marketing strategy.
- To regain trust in your brand after a crisis or setback.
- To increase brand awareness among a new group of people.
- To change perceptions about your brand or product.
Once you are clear on your objective, you will need to think about:
- Whether the story will resonate with your target audience.
- The values, qualities and key messages you want to convey to achieve your objective.
- Which platforms and format (e.g. video, written piece, infographic) will best help you meet your goals.
The way we communicate and market our products and services is changing rapidly. We have access to more platforms than ever before but increased competition makes it harder than ever to cut through.
Having great content is crucial and that must include stories. While much has changed about the way we communicate, storytelling remains a basic human need.