Friday, January 22, 2016

Storytelling: A Renewed PR Focus

Storytelling is big. Again.

In many ways, public relations has long been about storytelling. From the early 1900s, practitioners like Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, Arthur Page and many who aren't famous today worked to inform and influence the public largely by telling stories.

Well all that's old seems new again. I've seen the word 'storytelling' come up in conferences, job descriptions and agency titles across the country and right here in West Michigan.

For example, PRSA alerted me to a "Master the Art of the Storyteller" workshop is set for next month in Phoenix. Advertisers are in on it too, as this Adweek article about the debut of the Sundance Digital Storytelling Conference can attest.

But it really stood out to me with a couple of local announcements recently. Tom Rademacher, the long-time columnist for MLive, this week joined friend and former fellow journalist MaryAnn Sabo  at SaboPR. The news release from the firm touts Tom's title as "lead storyteller."

"Lead Storyteller is a new title for us, although my team and I have been telling our clients’ stories for many years," MaryAnn Sabo told me.  "Our team is looking at new titles that better reflect what we do and add a little fun.  Really, what does associate or senior associate — two of the longtime staples in PR — tell you about someone?"  

Rademacher as Lead Storyteller and former press photographer T.J. Hamilton hired last year as Visual Guru are the first two descriptive titles at SaboPR. Both Rademacher and Hamilton reflect a renewed emphasis on storytelling, in a multimedia fashion, versus mere information dissemination. One example of Sabo's multimedia storytelling is seen on the Children's Healing Center Facebook page.

"When I started my firm 13 years ago, most of what I did was straightforward business communication," Sabo said. "I’ve seen a significant shift over that time to more of a storytelling format — in fact, our logo (which has been around for 3+ years) and our new website (rolled out in December) reflects that shift."  

Rademacher is already hard at work, writing social media, web copy and media pitches. He'll soon be putting a lot of effort into client newsletters, donor solicitation letters, and anything where writing is key. He'll also be leading the firm's "Writing Matters" writing coaching sessions for staff and clients.

Meanwhile, Tom Hanley, formerly of Wondergem PR, launched at the beginning of the year his own firm, aptly named HanleyStory. He explains why in his new firm's first blog post. As a former journalist himself, he has long believed in the power of stories, and adapted storytelling to PR practice. 

"Our brains are hardwired to remember stories," he told me, referring to some of the articles he references in his blog post.  "Memorable stories help break through the clutter of messaging noise, and gain our attention. The arc of a story follows a path of dramatic tension that forces us to pay attention, and rewards us when a happy ending releases the feel good hormone dopamine. Advertisers and PR practitioners use these techniques to get people to buy a product, or make up their mind about an issue or an idea."

Hanley is particularly interested in helping nonprofits make fundraising case statements. He notes that in an era of diminished capacity of traditional news media, organizations can use social media, blogs and other means to tell their stories directly to their publics in more compelling ways. Part of the problem, he shares, is that many people don't see or share the big picture of what their business or nonprofit is about, and storytelling is a way to do that.

"I have found in my career that people in business or non-profits wear blinders to focus on their own jobs and miss the big picture of the impact created by their company or organization," he said. "I believe a storytelling approach of asking the right questions guides people to think about impact and outcomes rather than the day-to-day operations."