Stories will save us: PR’s responsibility to the world

Brandon Wolf, survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting and press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, spoke at PR Daily’s Media Relations Conference.

Brandon Wolf speaks at PR Daily's Media Relations Conference in Washington, D.C.

Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero were in love.

“They were that obnoxious couple that, when they’re in a room full of 100 people, it’s like they don’t even know anybody else exists,” said Brandon Wolf, national press secretary for the  Human Rights Campaign —  and Drew’s best friend.

“We were the three musketeers who traveled together, we loved New Year’s Eve, twirling under a disco ball, making promises to each other.”

It was the kind of life that Wolf never thought that people like him — Black, gay, from a rural Oregon town — could experience.

And once he had it, it was a life and a love Wolf thought he would experience forever, with his best friend and his soon-to-be-fiancé. It felt like a life out of a storybook.

Then on June 12, 2016, a man opened fire at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and murdered 49 people. Almost all of the victims were LGBTQ+ people of color.

Wolf, who was washing his hands in the bathroom when the shooting began, survived. Drew and Juan, who had been in each other’s arms in the club, were killed.

That’s when Wolf’s storybook life turned into a very different kind of tale —  but one he knew he had to tell.

“I started sharing my story because I wanted Drew and Juan to matter,” Wolf said to a silent, intent crowd at PR Daily’s Media Relations Conference in Washington, D.C. “Not just because of how they died, but because of how they lived.”

As he began relating that story in speeches and through his bestselling book, “A Place for Us,” he found that it resonated, even with people who did not look like him or love like him.



“We are in a pivotal moment that demands we tell bold, authentic stories, that we step out and do the courageous thing,” Wolf said. “We have AI algorithms that are forcing us into social media ecosystems that simply tell us, over and over again, we’re the smartest person on earth and anyone who disagrees with us is wrong. We have distrust in traditional media institutions at sky-high levels, feeding disinformation behind the epidemic of loneliness, that is driving people to political ruptures.”

It is, Wolf said, through telling stories and sharing our authentic selves that we can even begin to heal the deep fissures between us — not only as a nation and a global community, but as human beings.

“We as professionals have a responsibility to help others understand that everyone has a story to tell, that everyone has value that they’re bringing to the table,” Wolf said. “We have a responsibility to tell people’s stories holistically.”

Carrying Drew’s casket at his funeral, Wolf made a vow to his best friend that he would build a world his best friend would be proud of. A world where everyone’s life, and everyone’s story, matters.

And as a PR professional himself, Wolf understands the unique role the profession has in creating that world. It’s through the power of storytelling that we can build empathy instead of hatred, connection instead of isolation, understanding instead of fear.

“The easy thing to do in society today is to give in to fear and isolation and sensationalism,” Wolf said. “It’s to tell the same old regurgitated stories over and over again, to pigeonhole people into their buckets. The courageous thing to do is to tell the comeback story. The courageous thing to do is to tell the whole story. The courageous thing to do is to pull at people’s natural desire for resilience and hope and optimism.”

Allison Carter is editor-in-chief of PR Daily. Follow her on or LinkedIn.



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