How to get attention in a visual age by Wolfstar’s Jon Priestley

We have a rich history of literature in the UK, with the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens and the Brontes swelling bookshelves across the world and giving us an unparalleled literary history. But the times they are a-changing, as the lyric goes. As a society that once seemed to value the written word over all other forms of storytelling, we've changed our habits considerably in recent years. Why is this happening and does it spell the end of the dominance of the written word in our communications.

This fundamental shift has been no more observed and analysed than in the field of PR, with the traditional press release being sidelined in favour of visual stimulus. Infographics now seem to be the darling of comms strategies for brands and organisations wanting to communicate in modern ways. But does this mean the press release is old news? And why?

Social media has had a huge impact on the methods behind how we communicate, and just a cursory glance at the popularity of Pinterest, Vine and Instagram will demonstrate how important it is for us to communicate through visuals. Visual assets vastly increase the engagement and sharing prospects of social content too.

The rise in social media has also been accompanied by a corresponding rise in data. The growth of the social web, citizen journalism and the big data movement means we have so much more to share and in reality, more data than we reasonably know what to do with. Step forward, the infographic.

Infographics are merely a reflection of the need to communicate larger tranches of data than we previously had access to. We can now illustrate all the facts in one visual, as opposed to explaining them in 3,000 words or more, which makes the infographic so much more of an obvious communications choice than a press release, so long as it lands with a “thud” in some poor journalist’s inbox.

Pictures paint a thousand words, so we have been told, and while I don’t totally agree, there is an element of truth when applied to the field of PR; in our data-fuelled communications ecosystem, visualising data is the quickest way of communicating it – and that has massive benefits for brands, organisations and individuals who need to disseminate messages quickly, efficiently and across multiple channels.

So, what will become of the written word? Will we abandon the press release altogether? I don’t think so, but the shift towards visual storytelling means that PR agencies need to wield the power of language in a far more discerning way. We have to maximise the benefits of tools such as op-eds, comment pieces and press releases when considering strategy for our clients, whilst recognising that the written word is no longer our default setting.

Both forms of communication offer different storytelling styles. Writing lends itself to a more sequential manner; we tend to read from the start to the finish because as consumers, PROs and journalists we need to read content in the correct order to understand what is going on. Not so with the visual storytelling online: you can skip from image to image and not necessarily be led directly through a story. 

In short, the written word is here to stay, but it is no longer the predominant means of communication that it used to be. We should still be able to use language to great effect, but we should also know which medium is most appropriate for which story and that means providing our clients with far broader approaches and strategies in terms of the content we create and share on their behalf.

Jon Priestley, head of PR consultancy Wolfstar

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