How to humanise your PR stories

If you want to engage the media, and your audience, you need to find a good story and tell it well. Here PR professionals offer advice and give top tips for telling real people’s stories.

Put your audience first. Kelly McDaid, head of content partnerships at voucher website vouchercloud, says: “I think tone of the biggest traps for new PR professionals is writing stories that clients or businesses want to be told instead of ones that audiences want to hear and engage with. Experience means balancing these requirements and still delivering a quality product. Ultimately, PR is about connecting with audiences. If you can’t connect with the subject of the piece you’re writing, engaging is going to be that much harder.”

Find real people’s stories. Sian Gaskell, managing director of PR agency CubanEight, says: “Telling a story from a personal point of view is always important, maybe even more so in the world of B2B than B2C. Ultimately, no matter how amazing the technology, or service, what people really care about is the impact is has on real people.

“We always take a hearts and minds approach – if we are working with a B2B brand it’s about focusing on the customer pain points and benefits so that it resonates with the audience. Case studies bring stories to life – we worked with an energy company rolling out smart meters and used examples of real people to tell the story about why this was a good thing (transparency of usage, accurate billing) and bring it to life. Real people talking about real benefits resonated with the media, and we would always see a spike in enquiries when a case study ran in the press.“

See the highlighted panel below for tips for finding, and telling, the stories of real people.

Make sure it is ‘real’ news. Peter Davenport, former senior journalist with The Times and consultant at PR agency Definition, says: “What makes news is a perennial question and one made more complex in an age of social media and the proliferation of news outlets.

“Real news is made up of the events and happenings that impact our lives, whether in politics, crime, health, society, environmental or business. This is real news created by an established process. However, it can also be the unexpected, such as natural disasters or a terrorist incident or, on a lighter note, an unusual twist to a routine event.

“On the other hand, ‘fake news’, ‘celebrity news,’ slanted opinions and meaningless surveys are designed to create an aura of importance or relevance but which, in reality, are artificial. Busy journalists won’t appreciate being ‘sold’ anything which falls into the categories above. However, creating stories about real people with real meaning, which illustrate and humanise current issues or trends is a good way to generate coverage.”

Capture imaginations. Jo Willey, former Daily Express Health Editor, director of Jo Willey Media and media maestro at virtual healthcare agency The Difference Collective, says: “I’ve spent decades working in national newspaper newsrooms so my nose for a story is highly tuned. I am constantly asking clients ‘What's the story?’. ‘So what?’. ‘Who cares?’. ‘Why is that interesting?’.

“Because, let's face it. We human beings are all storytellers. It is, in a large part, what makes us human. Stories are how we communicate with each other and form relationships. They are how society formed, how communities are created and how they continue to thrive.

“A great story is one which captures the reader’s imagination in some way. Be it unusual, surprising, heart-warming, shocking, the media thrives on extremes and EVERY story you read or hear has a human element.

“Brands all have a story to tell. Failing to grasp that and work out what that story is and how best to tell it to engage with their customers is a recipe for disengagement and eventual doom.”

Learn from gossip. Simon Harrison, senior director, corporate at communications agency MSL Group, says: “News is a break in the status quo. It is something that is happening today that was not happening yesterday. All news is information, but very little information is news. All that is also true of gossip.

“A story that is worthy of gossip is one that resonates with an audience and drives a human response. Successful gossip tells us something we didn’t know before and – crucially – that others may not know.

“Storytelling should keep the notion of gossip at its core. Too many corporate narratives keep everyone happy and no-one interested. Gossip could never do that because it would fail. It has to reveal something new. The test of a good story is often whether the reader wants to share it. If we think about the narratives we like to pass on ourselves we’ll get back to the core.

“We need to give people something to gossip about.”

Be authentic. Gaby White, senior account executive at agency Carrington Communications, says: “Transparency and authenticity has never been more important for business. Sharing stories which reveal something about the people behind a brand, or the customers they serve, will ultimately get you that coverage too.”

Get under your company’s skin.
Andy Williams, co-MD at agency Cohesive Communications, says: “The human instinct to make and tell stories is as strong as that to walk on two legs – and even more unique. There are genes for it, that passed the test of natural selection at least 30,000 years ago. They allowed Sapiens – you and I – the crushing advantage of sharing ‘a meeting of minds’. In a world that requires us to connect, collaborate and cut-through at an accelerating pace, that’s maybe more relevant today than ever.

“If you are a leader or marketer of a business and you don’t harness this latent capability, then you are likely to fail. The world has a growing attention deficit. Sharing bland information, trumpeting claims and counterclaims – none of that cuts through. But your story can.

“Understand the real purpose of your business. What does it exist to do? Why is it so gifted at doing it? What strengths, talents, beliefs and ethics are you harnessing? Create THAT story, keep it honest, and tell it well. Figure out your company’s brand myth, nourish it and invest in it. Do it right, and it will be your greatest natural asset.”

Use technology wisely. Adnan Bashir, a corp comms professional based in Toronto, says: “As far as technology goes, brands and agencies need to start using analytics to inform their storytelling and communications strategy. Data analytics and insights can help them uncover perception gaps, as well as what audiences are saying and where. It’s all very well to have a positive and compelling story, but if you’re pushing it out on, for example, a social network that has little to no traction with your target demographic, it means nothing. In short, compelling and honest narratives, driven by the smart use of technology, will enable you to win in the competition for share of voice.”  

Think of the bigger picture. Kristina Lazarevic, PR and content executive at marketing agency Builtvisible, says: “Even when your piece is led by someone’s story, it is essential to back it up by broader data and trends because journalists are always keen to explore the bigger picture.”

Pitch it well. Lazarevic ends on the importance of pitching the story well, or it will never get told: “Although making sure that the story is worth telling is the number one priority, don’t underestimate the power of a good pitch. Being clear and concise about how the story is relevant to the journalist as well as explaining why that particular topic matters now is crucial to have your story considered and landing coverage.”

Top tips for telling people’s stories

Use your reporter skills, says vouchercloud’s Kelly McDaid: “Finding stories from people takes a little bit of journalistic skill. My preferred method is the standard interview format – just disguised as a friendly chat. A conversation on a topic, while pressing on the right points, can lead to a personable discussion and a range of stories to hone in on for the future.

“When you’re engaging with real people, being able to tell an emotive story is a great way of connecting. The key is to discuss and ideally address a current need within their life. Brands don’t necessarily fail to engage due to being impersonal – I’d say it’s a combination of things. Firstly, not being motivated to pull out these stories due to KPI-only incentivisation. Secondly, it’s a lack of real understanding of what they’re looking to promote.

Take a natural approach says Shaun Ezlati, director of integrated strategies at communications agency TVC Group: “See how real people can fit into your story strategy without it seeming forced or ill placed – see how those case studies can bring your overarching messaging to life through their own experiences – if there are not any case studies who are deemed “friends of the brand” don’t be afraid to harness the power of social media to search for the right people to be part of the campaign.”

Make sure the story is worth it says TVC’s Ezlati: “Identify the story and put the story through a testing funnel with testing parameters such as; will people care about this story? What is our unique point of view on the topic? How will it be different from other stories pitched to the media? Can the brand credibly join this conversation?

“Think about all the ‘real’ and emotive story hooks that will make the story connect with audiences.”

Dig deep says Carrington’s Gaby White: “Finding the human face of a story can be really hard, especially when it’s a niche subject. But it’s our job to find it. A personal story makes for the best release. It helps brands become more personable and tell better stories that people actually care about. Clients might not always recognise the great stories they have at their disposal. t’s our job to dig and question until we find the hook.

“Who is impacted by this news? How? Why? And who can we speak to to find out more? If you’re promoting a bank, find out what the teller gets up to away from the office. Were they a session musician in a previous life? You have to look beyond the basic facts if you want to write a story that captures your audience. Add depth and bring it to life.”

Follow the four Cs of storytelling says media coach Mike Sergeant and author of PR for Humans: “These are:

  1. Character – stories need characters. The characters need definition. We need to know where they’ve come from, where they’re going and what they believe in.
  2. Challenge – characters can’t have an easy journey to the summit. That’s too boring. To identify with you, we want to see mistakes, difficulty and personal growth
  3. Conflict – you might like to pick a battle with someone. That’ll usually create a headline. But better to identify inanimate opponents: like bureaucracy or excessive fees. Something to position yourself against.
  4. Conquest – you don’t have to show that you’ve taken over the world. But, if you want an audience to listen to you, you do need to demonstrate success. That you’ve conquered something.”

The importance of good storylelling in PR is neatly summed up by our last contributor Mike Sergeant, when he says: “There’s no PR strategy without an authentic story”.