Is Storytelling the New PR?

By Steve Smith

Public relations legend Richard Edelman says, “Reorder Your PR Priorities.” In a recent interview for The Drum, he tells Kenneth Hein the old ways of PR are gone. It’s a time of more decency, less messaging (except in politics, and that’s a topic for a very different article).

He recommends three actions: Be decent and remember it isn’t just about the money, own your bad news, and re-order your PR priorities. 

In service of the first action, being decent and remembering that it isn’t just about the money, Edelman says if they are creative, ambitious and decent, strong companies will get through this god-awful COVID-19 mess. Of course it takes cash to do that, so I would argue that at some point it does have to be about the money. In the absence of enormous government assistance, at 25 percent capacity, the restaurant business will need the Hubble Telescope to see a profit. 

COVID-19 has woven itself into every aspect of marketing. Brands are “bustin’ their necks” – to quote former Vice President Joe Biden – to convey reassurance, comfort, confidence. They want us to feel their product will keep us safe, bring our families together, comfort us. That’s a steep hill to climb when the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. has surpassed 200,000 and confidence in our government’s ability to fight the virus is wearing thin. 

Did a famous PR practitioner just say he doesn’t believe in messaging?

Regarding the second action, owning your bad news, there certainly is more than enough bad news to go around – new coronavirus diagnoses, interrupted supply chains, store closings, curtailed business hours – the list of bad news goes on and on. 

Edelman says, “The old PR was about telling half the story in the messaging. I don’t believe in messaging. It shouldn’t sound like something that was written by lawyers. It’s better if the chief executive or chief marketer or spokesperson has a story.“True, the right stories can even work well during times when bad news must be conveyed. 

In crisis mode, if the CEO had a good story to convey, one that humanizes him or her by conveying empathy and humility, the brand would be less likely to have what I describe as a “BP moment.” The CEO of BP, in a post-oil spill news conference, famously referred to small business owners as the “small people.” With his “clumsy English” he made himself look small, and did no favors for the giant oil company’s tarnished image. An extreme example, I know. But if he had a story to share that was relatable to the “small people” he might have come off as less of a pompous ass.

Reordering the priorities

It’s that last one that struck me as most meaningful and actionable: Re-order your PR priorities. 

The PR business is different now. Traditional media relations tactics worked fine when newsrooms were fully staffed and long-term relationships could be cultivated with true journalists. 

Beginning with the shift to online news delivery, then gaining momentum during the run-up to the Great Recession and continuing during the new COVID-19 crisis, the downsizing of newsrooms has had a tremendous effect on the way we work. It’s altered many of our media relations norms.

Now, because of COVID-19, 2020 is a horse of a different color. Edelman says priorities have to be reordered, and that this is a time for action, not just image and perception.

And it’s not all bad

If there is a silver lining, it’s that there is a new freedom to come up with ideas that would not have been considered earlier this year. When every brand on the planet is confronted with the same new reality, there is less “we’ve never done that before” pushback of new ideas. 

What are the implications for content marketing and storytelling? Does that mean content marketing and storytelling ARE the new PR? 

My take is that the basics still apply. What problem needs to be solved? What bad news must be conveyed? On the plus side, what new and positive information must be promoted, but without beating our chests?

Whether the news is good or bad, if it is framed in a way that is meaningful and relatable, it will resonate with your communities. As my friend and social psychologist Rich Luker has said so prophetically, real stories based on authentic human experiences are far more resonant, and will “stick” long after marketing messages are forgotten.

Consider further the rising tide of consumer sophistication, skepticism and tribal politics, and you have an even stronger case for storytelling because it presents real-world evidence. It’s relatable. It goes beyond making claims about the effectiveness of your brand, its attributes and personality – it demonstrates them. 

And in this time of COVID-19, brands need to do a lot less claiming and a whole lot more demonstrating. 

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