PR Insider: The Essentials of PR Storytelling

Marilyn Fancher

Marilyn Fancher

If there is one concept that is consistently used (and perhaps over-used) in public relations and advertising, it’s storytelling. At the 2013 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, virtually every speaker—from top agency creatives, Fortune 500 CMOs and leaders of major social media channel—extolled the importance of storytelling in creative communications.

PR is a natural venue for story, and PR professionals are natural storytellers. But how do we define storytelling, exactly? Is it enough to show the role of a product or service in the life of a consumer? Make the product the hero, as the Mad Men of the world once proclaimed? Or make the consumer the hero, as is more commonly done today? Do good stories need both a protagonist and an antagonist, or even an enemy, to provide a complete and satisfying narrative? I would contend that it’s not about heroism, or about dramatic roles, per se. Truly compelling stories always share two things: Emotional relevance and an understanding of the nature of conflict.

Emotional Linking

How do we recognize a story that is authentic? Most of us know the answer. We know a story is truthful when we recognize ourselves, our own experiences and emotions, within the narrative. Clearly, we are not always a part of the target audience for a product, service or cause. However, as human beings we recognize an emotional truth to the stories we connect to on a gut level. If we don’t somehow feel that connection personally, our audience probably won’t either.

The link that forges relationships and builds bonds between brands and consumers is made up of experiences, emotions and associations. The consumer (or stakeholder) is our partner in the story; they will be working with or against us to engage and complete the experience. Today we are no longer telling tribal tales around a campfire, where we can immediately gauge our audience’s reaction and change the message or heighten drama on the fly. As creative storytellers in a globally connected, digital world we have to develop the foresight to understand our audience/partner’s reactions and personal internal dialogue. This is the essence of what will make a story meaningful and memorable.

Our research consultancy, APCO Insight, has developed an Emotional Linking model that identifies eight key emotions in forming brand attachment: understanding, approachability, relevance, admiration, curiosity, identification, empowerment and pride. These emotions are essential to the development of lasting brand-consumer relationships.

Embrace Conflict

Life is full of conflict, and all good stories have it too: some kind of force that prevents or delays the protagonist from obtaining the object of their desire. Resistance can come from social, institutional or physical obstacles, or from within as a form of internal conflict. Inertia itself is often conflict enough to deter us from pursuing even the most heartfelt of our desires. We want to be healthy and look good, but it's hard to keep even the most fervent vows to regularly hit the gym. Nike’s iconic “just do it” campaign recognized inertia as a central element of conflict in the lives of their customers. We all want to write and create a good client story, but it’s hard to know where to start. It’s harder still to unearth the raw emotions in ourselves that will help make the story real.

As a storyteller, I find that an effective place to start is to search for the essence of central conflict. Where is the friction, the point of contention, the competing desire or the uncomfortable sticking point for my client? Sometimes it’s right below the surface of something that the creative team is glossing over…an uncomfortable truth, a copy point too hard to describe, an issue too cumbersome to address. We shy away and try to make the story about something slightly different just to avoid the rough spots. In so doing, we’ve probably missed the very thing that will make the story work.

Brands themselves are protagonists in their own struggle, with their own challenges and fears, and their own idiosyncrasies and personalities. Unless we ask difficult, even uncomfortable, questions that force us to understand the essence of conflict for our clients, we will never succeed in making that story relevant or even interesting for anyone else.

Regardless of which stories we choose to tell, empathy—that most human capacity to see ourselves in the lives of others—is what will enable us to create a compelling, enriching narrative. Life, as a person or an organization, is a shared experience. We are indeed all in this together. And that's the real story.

Marilyn Fancher is chief creative officer of APCO Worldwide. Follow Marilyn: @mjfancher

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