Next Practices: Story-Telling Wins Out

It’s a bit of a paradox. 

Carla Rudder Dissertation Florida State University .

If you don’t get the sense that we’re standing at an amazing moment in the development of the profession of public relations — truly in the midst of a communications revolution – than you probably aren’t reading these words right now. 

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But if you have read this far you are at least an interested passer-by in the blogosphere and the evolution of “participatory media.” (Even if the word “blog” soon will seem “so 2006”  it won’t spell the end to the sea change in the communications dynamic.)

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see url Or perhaps you’ve bought the whole “new media revolution” hook, line and sinker. You’ve thrown out your paper Rollodex wheel with all your journo contacts. Who needs to talk through the annoying filter of the news media mostly populated by cynics who aren’t very impressed with your product? Who needs ‘em! We can talk directly to our customers like we’ve always dreamed.


Well, not exactly … Mass media relations are still critically important but the advent of the “new media” is clearly having an impact.


Last week, I moderated a conference call for Best Practices in Corporate Communications (a resource for more than 50 Fortune 500 companies in sharing non-competitive best practices in communications), titled “Next Practices: The Future of Corporate Communications.” It was ambitious to say the least to try to tackle a topic of such scope in a session lasting just over an hour.


The panel consisted of three impressive PR pros: Mike Cherenson, EVP of Success Communications Group – Cherenson; Matt Shaw, VP of the Council of Public Relations Firms; and Jennifer McClure, founder and exec director of the Society for New Communications Research.


In a whirlwind tour of the future of our profession, a number of common perspectives emerged:


  • Upholding the credibility of the public relations profession is our biggest challenge – credibility both with senior operations management and with the public.
  • Simply having a “seat at the table” is not enough. You must have the backbone to say “no” to an ill-advised idea in a senior-level meeting. Mike called it the “no factor.” We must each elevate our game to earn the respect of a company’s leadership and the acid test is when you have to disagree.
  • Credibility with the public is all about trust. Truthfulness and transparency will be the hallmarks of successful PR practitioners. Those who are less-than-truthful spinners will be quickly found out. The incredible speed of a misstep to watchdog groups and critics (and then to the public at large) makes a cover-up all but impossible.


The art of successful “new media” relations will also help us succeed with traditional mass media. Jennifer described the transformation as “an end to spin and a beginning of story-telling.”


If you can quickly take a dry set of facts and weave it into a compelling story, you probably have always done well in generating positive coverage for your company’s products. The rise of participatory media makes story-telling even more important. Whether on a blog or in the New York Times, isn’t every story a “human interest story” – if a story doesn’t interest humans, what is the point?


How do we apply the notion of story-telling when we are “media-training” a client?


Look for potential spokespeople who are more than merely willing to be interviewed, Mike said, but, rather, eager to tell their story. They will be confident, engaging and ultimately more persuasive in any interview situation.


“We’ve been over-trained in sticking with a script,” Jennifer added. “It’s important to know your key points and to make sure they come across. But it’s bad advice to ignore a question and just stick to your three key messages.”


There’s an art to telling a story and those who do it well have no difficulty being heard in any medium.


- Jon Harmon


  1. Mihaela Lica says:

    This is a very good entry, Jon! We certainly need more blogs like yours. It is really difficult to “tell a story”, and the Web makes it even more difficult for those who are not properly “trained”. The role of PR is changing and the way we do PR changes as well. Of course it is our responsibility as PR officers to teach our clients how to convey a message in the best format to reach the targeted audience. I wrote an article about the new social media press release (SMPR) that might be of use for your readers as well, but this is just one piece of the puzzle. There’s more to be done in terms of online and offline PR.

  2. I’ve just been recommended to this post and your blog – and enjoyed very much. I’m looking at corporate stories in some depth with a few thoughts going on at present and agree with you about their importance. This helps us also think about the integrity of passing along a narrative and also the human aspect, particularly of dialogue – so we don’t think of “audiences” as people to talk at, but with.
    Great 3 perspectives you noted too – I would add the importance of respect for others as part of trust. We have to be less about trying to control and manipulate through force of power or skill and more about listening to the often valid viewpoints of others with whom our organisations are connected, whether they like it or not.

  3. Shannon McNicholas says:

    Many people have “thrown out their Rollodex wheels” and are full on the new media revolution. What about the people that are still cynical of the new media tactics? How do you get their buy into the credibility of blogs when they are used to the normal standards of traditional mediums?

  4. Jon Harmon says:

    I hope no one really has thrown out their Rolodex filled with their journalist contacts (unless you moved them onto your computer first)! Mass media relations are still the most important part of our jobs. But we do need to augment that work with an increasing dedication to social media relations. Here’s why — the people who blog (or read blogs) about your product, brand or industry are your most important customers. Some are your advocates and some are your strong detractors. But they are all important. A blog may reach only a few hundred people a week — a tiny percentage of the readers of your local newspaper. But the blog readers are a highly selective group where the majority of the newspaper’s readers likely have no particular interest in your product or brand. (And just because you placed an article in that paper doesn’t mean you’ve successfully reached the paper’s entire circulation — unless yours is the lead story on page one above the fold with a 64-point headline, chances are that some subset of the total circulation actually read that particular article).
    Mass media relations are most concerned with building awareness (and building some level of favorablility) among a large group of potential consumers. Micro media relations are most concerned with driving actionable favorability and/or overcoming objections to a product or brand. Micro media relations can, for example, target “in-market” customers leading to purchase decisions, or overcome strong objections that left to fester might rise to crisis level (e.g., a boycott). Develop and maintain a strong competency in both mass media and micro media relations and include each in your PR strategy.

  5. Tyson Mathews says:

    The art of story-telling is one area in which public relations practitioners could learn a lot from their counterparts in the journalism world. Journalism schools have long taught the value of building a story around something interesting rather than simply reporting the facts. Good reporters grab the attention of the audience and deliver the facts through a strong narrative.
    Good public relations professionals also understand the importance of drawing in both the public and the media with compelling stories. Sure, through new avenues such as company websites, the opportunity exists more than ever for corporations to communicate directly with the public. But what good are those websites if they offer nothing interesting to that public?
    Storytelling is clearly just as important as ever – if not more important – in today’s changing world of communications.

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