PR Insider: The Write Stuff – Telling the Story

In part 1 of this article, Sean Carney of the Brownstein Group explored Why Writing Matters. Here he will discuss the elements of storytelling for communicators.

Okay – enough philosophy.

Crank out a release, throw together a plan, mock up a quick pitch – we’ve all been there. When assignments come in we don’t abscond to a sun porch to sip iced tea and contemplate rhyme and meter. The first draft is due by ten o’clock and it’s nine-thirty, we’re on our fourth cup of coffee, our notes are half-scribbled thoughts and doodles and the insight from the client is that the announcement is “innovative,” if not “ground-breaking” and certainly “disruptive.”

Sean Carney
Sean Carney

Don’t panic. Whether writing a press release, an annual plan, or just a simple pitch – you’re always simply telling a story. Slow down, consider the facts. To get you started, here are some quick tips:

Press Releases

Many PR professionals cling to form as if the first press release had been chiseled into stone tablets, sent down from Mount Sinai by Ivy Lee Himself. Don’t just write a press release to write a press release, consider the following:

  • Break the story down.

Cut through the clutter, put the Kool-Aid aside, think about what’s really new about the announcement. If there isn’t anything new, how can you provide the right context to make it part of an existing narrative? Remember, if you don’t have a story, find one and make it your own.

  • Level the Announcement.

The inverted pyramid doesn’t just apply to journalism. Make sure you order things correctly so you don’t bury the lede. How did we arrive at this announcement, and what does it mean for the overall industry or region? Think about it the same way you’d tell any story

“Joe and Mary had a baby!” – (The big news in a simple, direct fashion)
“It’s a boy!” – (More details)
“They are doing fine.” – (Quote)
“It was late December when she went into labor and all of the inns were closed…” – (More Context)

  • Act like a Teenager.

The next time you’re writing, try to act like you’re telling the story to a teenager. They are a lot like reporters – they don’t trust you, they don’t have time, and they think you’re lame. (Some clients may also feel the same way.) When thinking about your story, ask yourself the same questions an uppity teenager would, and in the same order:

What’s Going On?
Why Should I Care?
Says Who?
Why Should I Listen to Him?
What’s He Got to Say?
What Do You Want Me to Do About It? 

Plans

The dreaded plan – what’s the difference between a goal, strategy and objective? It’s easy to get bogged down in semantics and lose focus on the bigger picture. Keep these things in mind when you get started:

Determine What’s Really Important.

Discuss objectives with the client and ask what they’d like the end result to be. Sometimes that can dictate the message we put out there, and tell us who the audience should be.

Be Realistic.

Why do most stories fail? Because they are not believable. Acknowledge the challenges facing the plan and outline them up front, it grounds the story in reality and gives it much more credibility.

Mind the Narrative Arch.

Always keep the narrative in mind. A plan is taking the client on a journey and the narrative thread carries them along, reminds them of the important elements and eventually plunks them down safely at the destination of our opinion. Successful plans are complete stories – where we are, where we want to go, and how we get there. Take them along in that succession.

Pitches

We’re not writing for journalists anymore, we’re writing for the public. Write the story FOR the reporter, make the subject line the headline. The easier it is for the reporter to connect-the-dots, the more likely the story will get published.

Give it to me Straight, Doc.

Imagine a patient going into a doctor’s office for a diagnosis. The patient sits down, the doctor starts the discussion this way: “When I was in school ten years ago, I often thought about the impact my work would have on other humans. One day, I think it was early March, the flowers were just starting to bloom and...” No! Give it to me straight, Doc! “You have two weeks to live.” Boom. Unfortunate in the case of the patient and the doctor is kind of a wank, but that’s the headline I’d read. Now fill in the details about why they have two weeks to live.

Show, Don’t Tell.

Good writers “show,” they don’t “tell.” Nothing turns a reporter off more than a PR professional claiming authority. Reporters are often cynical people and will not take your word for it – they don’t even know you! They know you have a job to do, but they also know you’re doing a job. Reporters want to reach a decision about a product or storyline themselves, based on the facts presented. Think about it like being on a date – it’s the difference between sitting there and talking about how attractive you are, or showing qualities to the other person that leads them to think you’re attractive. Which is more impactful? 

We’re all busy, our worlds are ruled by deadlines, meetings, obligations. PR is about balancing, compartmentalizing. We’re from different backgrounds, work in different industries, have different titles, responsibilities. We’re not tasked with creating artistic masterpieces with each piece of writing, I get that. Sometimes succinctness is called for, sometimes pithiness is required. But without vigilance, we risk turning robotic, churning out messages with no story.

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: scarney@brownsteingroup.com.