History favors the storytellers, the yarn spinners, orators and scribes alike. In public relations though, pragmatism often tempers creativity. We are professionals, entrusted with the brand of our client. As in medicine, the guiding tenet of PR is, “First, do no harm.”
In its purest essence, our job has always been communication, shaping and molding information to be consumed, passed on. But things have changed. The rise of click journalism has resulted in our brightest young PR minds being reduced to listicles, obsessed with reductive headlines and ridiculous hashtags, the Buzzfeedification of an industry.
Look at any resume, talk to any entry-level candidate. What skills are pushed to the fore? Find one without social media near the top. As media outlets continue to commodify, we’ve turned into a community of foragers, survivalists, looking for a way in. I am no luddite – new tactics like native advertising or paid social have value, often times less “de rigueur” and more “de norm.” However, I contend that in the rush to evolve, we are losing a core element of our past.
When the dust settles from whatever new technology is hastily flung into our arena, writing remains. Writing has always been (and will always be) one of the most basic skills of a PR professional, but now it is treated as a specialty. Some can write, others cannot. Why? If you’re unable to communicate via the written word, you’re in the wrong field. Plain and simple. Quit.
Writing is as essential as air. We as PR professionals come from varied backgrounds, and while some nerds have a degree in public relations, I’d argue the majority of us were history majors, English majors, journalism majors, political science majors – thousands of abandoned law school applications left in our wake. But all of us (hopefully) got into this gig because we had a passion for current events, news, and above all, communicating. We’re probably personable, we’re probably outspoken, we probably drink too much – this is PR.
But PR must still be writing, it must still be rooted in creation, not merely gimmick or virality. We must be able to write because, above all, story is paramount. Yet storytelling, the heart of writing, remains one of the rarer characteristics of our profession, often jettisoned in favor of brevity. And it’s that brevity that is eroding our abilities and choking our vocabularies.
So what can be done?
Who among us hasn’t trolled through our agency server to find an old document to start from? Nothing is more intimidating than a blank page. Most company news you read online sound the same, most articles are safe. Because there is safety in conformity, risks are mitigated. It’s also just easier.
But conformity is boring, don’t you agree?
As PR executives, especially those in leadership positions, we must continue to push first draft writing projects to junior staff. The lessons from such assignments are invaluable. Be harsh, edit ferociously, let the pages bleed. This is where young PR professionals find their voice, find how they want to express themselves to the client and to the media. If left to insular assignments or short form functional tasks like social media they will never evolve their thinking to a bigger picture, to the art of setting up a story.
Tips for Storytelling in Writing
Writing can often become daunting when two things happen – you get too caught up in process, or you’re not sure what the story is. How can you tell a story if you don’t know what it is? It’s easy to get too close to the client – they’re excited about their vision, they’re passionate, and they have a vested interest in the story being told exactly how they see it. That’s not what PR is – that’s advertising. It’s our job to hear the client’s story and distill it, make it relevant to the larger public (or at least the reporter).
Good storytellers structure how they will tell the story; great storytellers consider how people will hear the story. Always write for the audience, whether it be your supervisor, the client or the general public. How do you want them to react? Words alone are mere notes, the way you use them are the difference between noise and music.
Next we’ll consider how to put these thoughts into action and get more granular by discussing how storytelling can be applied to writing pitches, press releases and the dreaded PR Plan.
Sean Carney is an Account Director at Brownstein Group, the oldest independent brand communications agency in Philadelphia. He is also a writer and was named ‘Best Storyteller in Philadelphia’ in 2014. Sean can be reached at: email@example.com.