7 PR storytelling sins

PR pros looking to tell their clients’ stories can look to classic tales full of conflict, drama, and excitement as a template.

Most of the stories that PR and marketing professionals tell on behalf of the brands they represent fall into one of the classic story categories. Christopher Booker’s “Seven Basic Plots,” which has been adapted by major advertising creative directors such as TBWA’s Rob Schwartz, outlines some of the most common. They range from the ever-powerful David vs Goliath archetype to the rags-to-riches myth and variations on the classic hero’s journey.

The obstacle—and the opportunity—for many public relations professionals is that we’ve spent years with an “earned media” mindset. We’re trained to identify, shape, and pitch the story, but for a long time, we’ve relied on traditional journalists to actually tell it. Now, with the rise of brand journalism and the soaring number of journalists entering PR and communications, we need to not only shape the stories, but tell them at a high level.

So, like the heroes of myth, we must rise to meet the challenge of a changing business. Here are some of the most common obstacles to great PR storytelling.

It ignores the customer. I’d contend that nearly every memorable marketing or PR story is a form of hero’s journey. This is a good thing, because the archetype is powerful and inclusive. The problem is, many PR pros feel obligated to make the brand the hero of the tale. This is risky. Sometimes the brand can be the hero, as in the case of the entrepreneur who sees a gap in a market and goes on to start a company that flourishes. This is the point where the hero’s journey morphs into a rags-to-riches story. That’s a perfect setup for a great story, because it’s both brand-centric and aspirational for the customer. But not every company fits that mold. When it doesn’t, the best thing communicators can do is to look outside the company for the story arc: to employees, community, and, of course, customers.

It lacks conflict or drama. Without conflict, striving, searching, or suspense, there’s simply no compelling story to tell. Bolting on these elements doesn’t typically result in a great narrative, however. These ingredients need to feel organic to the situation. This is where the real research, in the form of interviews, history, and data analysis, comes in. Shaping a story about a beer brand that brings back a classic IPA is a nice story. But the tale of how the master brewer spent two years reverse-engineering a lost recipe based on historical documents, extensive taste-testing, and interviews with longtime fans and hobbyists is a better one.

It’s boring or facile. A story can also fall short not just because it lacks drama, but because it’s overly predictable or self-serving. An average guy can’t find a decent car insurance policy for his son until he discovers Geico/Progressive/fill-in-the-blank. Not so compelling, is it? But if the guy’s son suffers from a disability or challenge that makes learning to drive or obtaining coverage more difficult than the typical young driver, a story is born.

It’s safe. It’s tough to get larger brands to take small risks with storytelling because it can involve admitting that not every product, strategy, or corporate culture was ideal from the start. Yet the narrative will be far more relevant if it starts with a problem or need, and the company or hero customer/employee struggles to correct it, because that rings true. It’s also classic storytelling.

It’s not edited. I don’t mean line editing, although writing quality is a common issue in professional storytelling, and excellent writing should be a given. I’m talking about the sense that every fact or nuance is in the story because it needs to be there, because it offers valuable context or moves the narrative forward. If the brand’s history or the CEO’s background doesn’t tell the reader something new and valuable, it doesn’t belong in the narrative.

It’s overly commercial. We’ve all been there. But the good news is that brand marketers today are likely to be sophisticated about storytelling techniques and more willing to let branding take a back seat to the narrative flow, or to take risks with satire or humor. Look no further than the Old Spice campaign, and its many imitators and one-uppers.

It makes the reader/viewer work too hard. The story doesn’t have to be super-short or boast a sensational, link-bait headline, but it must reach out to the reader at the outset, pull him in, and make the journey worthwhile. Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications. She has been named one of the public relations industry’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week. A version of this story appeared on the Crenshaw Communications blog.


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