The role of PR in brand storytelling

It is commonly believed, so it must be true, that storytelling is essential for building brands. As Tim Wade, managing partner of customer experience consultancy Smith+Co, says: "We now operate in a marketplace where every story inside a tweet/blog/video/release can seriously affect how outsiders view a brand. Storytelling is as crucial now as it was on the dawn of communications”. But Wade points out that telling tales that aren‘t true to the brand are a waste of time: “With digital audiences seeing through spin by challenging irrelevant PR, it's now more important than ever for brands to put their purpose for being at the heart of every story they share.”

PR is not responsible for how front-line teams deliver the brand story to customers, PR does not lead on the development of digital interactions and PR does not lead on creating customer experiences

So far, Wade‘s words chime with many PR professionals views. However, where he may part with some is in his view of the importance of PR in the storytelling process. Wade believes that PR has a part to play in the process, but it shouldn‘t take the lead: “PR has a role to play and the skills of PR and journalism have become increasingly more important, that ability to find, capture and tell a story that people care about enough to share it. But PR is not responsible for how front-line teams deliver the brand story to customers, PR does not lead on the development of digital interactions and PR does not lead on creating customer experiences.” It should be emphasised, however, that Wade isn’t in favour of any particular discipline leading the storytelling process: “The modern workplace should not be about creating silos of who leads and owns, the modern workplace is about using the best skill sets to deliver the strategy, collaborating behind a common purpose rather than competing for attention."

One PR professional who believes that PR is absolutely intrinsic to the storytelling process is Johnny Pitt, CEO of agency Launch PR. Pitt says: “I often think people forget that that PR, in its very essence, is creative storytelling.

“A PRO’s job is to craft a narrative that tells a brand story, product story, initiative story, community story, whatever, to a level that journalists or bloggers can consider as ‘real’. We need to craft story that’s complete. If we fail, it fails.”

As PR has such a responsibility for creating stories that are believable, Pitt believes this puts immense pressure on the discipline to come up with creative solutions. He says: “This makes PR incredibly interesting from a creative point of view, and arguably, the most creatively demanding of all disciplines.”

How to tell a good story in PR

Whether or not you think that PR must take the lead in storytelling, what isn’t contested is the importance of creating stories that connect with audiences. Megan Murray Jones, associate director at PR firm Lansons, offers some advice for telling stories that ring true:

“In a world of unlimited content – and unlimited platforms to consume it – I believe that telling stories is more important than ever. A client asking for a ‘viral video’ or a brief that starts with ‘this needs national pick-up’, is missing the point. We cannot become blinded by Twitter trending or print guidelines and forget how to connect to the real people we are trying to reach. How did Shakespeare ‘go viral’ when social media didn’t exist? He did it through telling stories that emotionally connect with an audience and tap into human behaviours.

“It needs to tell a story that relates to the audience, provides a solution to a real issue or provides insight into a topic. Once you have that story, its ability to reach the audience is limitless.

“The secrets to storytelling? Simplicity is key. As Einstein says, ‘If you can’t explain it to a six year old you didn’t understand it’. In a world of cynical content saturation, honesty is also important. Avis turned its second place credential into a narrative around always trying harder (turning its $3.2million loss to a $1.2 million profit in under a year).

“‘What is the story?’ is the question I ask the most, and the one we should all be asking more.”