Storytelling is one of PR’s key goals.
We don’t sell news bites. We don’t peddle one-time advertising hits. We don’t aim for hit-and run-media opportunities. We look at things in the long-term and aim to tell a cohesive story that sticks.
When we think of storytelling, we recall the fairy tales of old. They’re the classic sagas from childhood, the narratives that spun dragons, princesses, and world-spanning adventures into young minds.
These storytelling traditions have not been confined to any one culture or continent. The Brothers Grimm, storytellers from 19th century Germany, created some of the most famous and familiar stories (“Cinderella,” “The Frog Prince,” “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel.”) Chinese tales such as “Journey to the West” and “Water Margin” continue to capture imaginations, spawning modern day adaptations 500 years later. In India, ancient (and sacred) texts such as the Mahabharata still inspire modern literature and Bollywood films.
What was so ingenious about these stories from centuries past? What gave them such staying power in the popular imagination?
Most important, what can PR storytellers learn from them?
There are a few elements that mark irresistibly memorable stories:
Stories are often distinguished by the characters that populate them rather than technical writing techniques.
When we remember the tales that captured our imaginations as children, the setting, the language, and the exact details of the narrative often fall away, leaving the swashbuckling, heroic captain, or the brave orphan girl, or the evil queen. We recall the characters with such strong, visceral reactions because the strength of their characterization triggered in us feelings of familiarity and identification or revulsion and disassociation.
In PR terms, these strong characters are the personalities and faces who represent organizations. It may be a good business, the product may be interesting, and the organization may have a great founding story. However, there must be a human face to all of it.
Audiences and customers are human beings who rely on the same mechanisms of recognition, identification and, to a great degree, emotional association, to either feel drawn to, repulsed by, or indifferent to a company and its products. Identifying strong characters and personalities that do well to tell the essential story of the company can go a long way in providing that point of personal identification that audiences so readily latch onto and remember.
That said, PR professionals should also be wary of being overly reliant on any one person. The cult of personality is a highly effective technique of influence, but when so much of an organization’s story is affixed to a single figure, continuity becomes an issue. One only has to look at the example of Steve Jobs and Apple to see that a company overtly linked to one person faces a confidence gap when that person departs.
Conflict, climax and story structure
There is a formula to storytelling in the traditional tales, and there is still something undeniably valuable in that narrative structure.
The traditional story structure makes use of stages of conflict, taking the audience to points where they know to hold their breath, when to breathe a sigh of relief, and when to applaud for the hero as the story culminates. Alternating the pace is a sophisticated technique to wield when employed in corporate storytelling.
In PR, this narrative technique manifests in the judicious choosing of media opportunities. When do you allow the company’s media coverage profile to peak? When should you focus on consistent media coverage? When should you aim for front-page news? Any PR professional knows that effective PR is rarely about bombarding the media with news about your company, but rather, selective and strategic placement of media coverage.
When do you begin the story, when does this hit a climax, and perhaps the most overlooked strategy of all in story-telling, when do you choose to hold back?
Getting to the moral
There are often clear morals or messages that accompany the best-remembered stories. Generally, good triumphs over evil and honesty saves the day. The simplicity and understandability of the message is something that strikes readers and lives on in their memories.
Corporate messages should be just as succinct and memorable as the morals from fairy tales. Crafting a core message that forms a common thread that runs through all media opportunities is a key aspect of telling a lasting story. Though the story has its highs and lows, the key message is made clear by the end.
In the Internet age, where content constantly competes for the precious attention of an audience, the ability of ancient stories to remain relevant despite their antiquity is something that we would do well to harness. Adapting the techniques of these tales to suit a modern audience is part of the challenge.
Shawn Balakrishnan is general manager of The Hoffman Agency, Singapore.