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What is the role of storytelling in PR?

22nd November 2012

Facts on their own can be dull, but stories can make you laugh, cry and buy. Francis Ingham, PRCA director general, says there are just two words to explain how stories engage customers and shape brands, and those are “John Lewis”. Ingham says: “Its marketing work last Christmas wasn’t just original, It was also reputation-enhancing and defining. It reflected and built on its brand, which is absolutely the point of how a good story – fictional, corporate or otherwise – is vital to building a reputation. Because ultimately consumers don’t buy CEOs, or logos, or even products to some extent. They buy reputation.”

The art of brand storytelling, says Luke Mackay, associate director at PR firm Edelman, involves using messages that inspire conversation and sharing among target audiences: “PR is all about looking for the story that will bring a brand’s messages to life. Journalists are busy professionals, giving them a half-baked story isn’t an option. Similarly, if the story is playing out on social media, then audience attention is finite. Only quality, well thought-out stories will gain traction.”

However, Mackay says there is one danger with stories, and that is they can become bigger than the message. He offers this advice: “In many ways the stories created by communication professionals should be thought of as parables – vehicles to convey information. As with all parables, the stories only work if they are delivering a succinct and clear message that can be understood by the target audience.“

PRCA’s Ingham believes that story telling is also key for leaders: “In my view, far too much emphasis is placed on business plans delivered via Powerpoint. They might reinforce confidence, but they rarely create it. They are part of the process, not part of the inspiration.”

Ingham cites Richard Branson as an example of a leader whose personal story is very much part of his success: “Leadership is intrinsically linked to personal stories, because they in turn are linked to personal character. And personal character delivers loyalty. One caveat though – stories have to be authentic in order to deliver sustained value and loyalty. Two words serve to prove that: Jeffrey Archer.”

Kevin Murray, chairman of PR agency the Good Relations Group, is a strong believer in the power of stories, and says that “stories have always been at the centre of my thinking.“ From carrying out research for his book The Language of Leaders, Murray discovered how important storytelling is to those in power, and how one story can change a whole organisation and the way people think. Murray says: “Stories are like stealth fighters, they get messages straight to your heart.”

Like Ingham, Murray emphasises that stories are only effective if they are authentic, and he identifies other key elements of good storytelling: “They are more powerful when they are backed up with facts. They must have characters, conflict, tension and resolution. They must also appeal to all our senses by drawing on sights, colours, sounds and scents.” But storytelling always needs to have a clear purpose, concludes Murray: “I use stories to entertain people at dinner parties to amuse. But in business you need to tell stories that make a difference.”

The value of storytelling

Francesca Bennett, associate director at PR firm Fishburn Hedges:

“Crucially, storytelling is useful not just when presenting to clients or new business prospects. It can be used to define and inspire an organisation and help set its direction for the future. It can also be used to coach employees, galvanise them for a specific project or to help draw out their creative thinking. Storytelling is an exceptional tool to lead people and take them on a journey.”

Bryce Keane, founder and director of PR agency Albion Drive:

“Hero brands like Apple reinvent the concept of a brand narrative over any individual product. Although it wasn’t the first to take this approach, Apple has long since dominated the customer-centric narrative that revolves around ‘beautiful solutions’ to day-to-day problems, cleverly packaged up in a ‘unique identity’ approach for consumers who become fans.“

Tom Watson, professor of public relations at Bournemouth University:

“For brand communicators, the challenge is to create narratives that are deserving of trust by their target markets and sustainable over time. Already we have seen CSR abused as a marketing tool, which it isn’t, and PROs should avoid ‘brand narratives’ becoming another term for spin and hyperbole.”

Written by Daney Parker

Global Reputation Forum

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