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How to tell good stories in PR and why it matters

Blog post   •   Sep 17, 2013 13:01 BST

When I was a child, I loved watching TV ads because I found them entertaining. Nowadays, I have to watch them, and analyse other types of marketing, because I write about PR. Sadly, too much content is forgettable, so campaigns that are engaging stand out. Brands that spring to mind for memorable creative work are Pepsi (I think nearly everyone on the planet has seen this Test Drive film now), (meerkats are everywhere these days) and Marmite (although I neither love it or hate it). Brands that know how to tell stories.

As a consumer, I appreciate a good story. As a journalist I need to remind myself of the principles of good storytelling every time I write a feature.

To help pinpoint what makes for good PR storytelling, and why it is important, I asked PR experts to share their wisdom. Museums are full of great stories and the Museum of London has fascinating tales to tell about our capital. Andrew Marcus, deputy head of communications at the museum, appreciates the power of a good yarn, he says: “As humans we are programmed to respond to stories, this has been ingrained in us over many millennia. Facts and figures may interest us, but well-told stories make our eyes light up. Press releases, speeches, videos, events and other tools which are composed around a narrative will resonate in the minds of the audiences for which they are intended, be remembered and in the best instances, bring about changes in behaviour.”

A key element of a good story is having a strong plot, but this must always relate to the brand. Dan Clifford, head of PR at integrated agency WAA, explains: 

“A central narrative running through a number of channels allows a brand to build a picture of itself – or how it wishes to be perceived – in a coherent and impactful manner. This also results in reduced cost, effort and planning when it comes to marketing strategy. Of course, the story needs to be carefully thought-out, and must balance the need to deliver key messages with the need to create appealing content, but assuming the journey is designed with customer engagement in mind, a company that successfully embarks on storytelling can see fantastic results, think of Apple, Coca-Cola and McDonalds.”

These days there are so many ways you can communicate to an audience, from instant customer responses on Twitter, to films on YouTube, that it can be easy to get carried away. Nick Leonard, managing director of PR firm Ruder Finn UK, says: 

“With so many potential channels, platforms and engagement opportunities out there today, it is easy to react to everything and take every opportunity to comment – while this may get you a lot of exposure, such an approach makes it difficult to remain consistent and credible. A strong narrative needs to underpin everything that you do, and that narrative needs to inform which opportunities you pursue and which you decline.”

When planning PR campaign it is important to think about the heritage of the brand, and how storytelling could further strengthen its identity. As Leonard concludes: “If you work in PR and don’t try to tell stories then what are you doing? Probably just sending out a series of unrelated stories and content with no link, no cohesion and no value. And ultimately, you’re not doing your job.”

Top tips for good PR storytelling

· Know your audience. This is rule number one. Give people what they want, in the format they want it. If you are pitching to a journalist, find out if they prefer a tweet or to be sent a dossier full of facts. If you are communicating to consumers, match the message to the medium – entertain with films on YouTube and with informed features in broadsheets.

· Be consistent and have a strong identity. Don’t jump around with creative treatments and mixed messages, they will confuse. Your audience may love the campaign, but do they remember who it’s from?

· Learn from the past. Get facts and figures about publicity that has gone before, and find out what works. Once you have worked out the winning formula, use it.

· Be creative. This doesn’t mean being crazy, there are always interesting angles to be found, no matter what the subject matter. Consider unusual formats, and think laterally to generate memorable campaigns. Just make sure they fit with the brand.

· Be honest. Don’t pretend your brand is something it isn’t. Nothing puts people off faster than something false.

· Plan and be efficient. As with all PR work, storytelling means hard graft. You can’t afford to cut corners. Make sure whatever you do, whether it is a press release or a stunt, is checked for accuracy and goes out at the right time. Audiences notice mistakes, it is a shame to undermine a campaign with a thoughtless error.

By Daney Parker, Editor at PR Moment