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."


Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Reluctance to Wear Apple Watch--Theory in Practice

I read with interest this article in Fortune about people who bought an Apple watch not wearing them.

If you look at the specific reasons why people aren't wearing the latest tech gadget, they match the key concepts of the Diffusion of Innovation Theory. In addition to spelling out the main types of adapters of innovation, the theory addresses the five specific factors that influence--or inhibit--adoption of technologies. Those five factors seem at play in the Apple watch owners:

  1. Relative Advantage - The degree to which an innovation is seen as better than the idea, program, or product it replaces.
  2. Compatibility - How consistent the innovation is with the values, experiences, and needs of the potential adopters.
  3. Complexity - How difficult the innovation is to understand and/or use.
  4. Triability - The extent to which the innovation can be tested or experimented with before a commitment to adopt is made.
  5. Observability - The extent to which the innovation provides tangible results.
Relative advantage relates to "missed my old watch." Compatibility relates to the various "didn't like" comments. The other specific comments fall into complexity. While these owners have conducted their own trial and observation of the watch, you can see how those factors did not in this case compel them to "adopt" (i.e. wear) the watch.

I teach this theory in several of my PR classes, and like to point out to undergraduate students that theory is not boring, abstract or irrelevant. It is immensely practical in explaining human behavior, and in forming strategies as a result. 

So, I thought I'd use the latest real-world example of adoption--or rejection--of new technology to illustrate the practicality of theory once again.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Should Your Company 'Brag' About Its Good Deeds?

A news release about local hospital caught my eye as I was trolling news apps and social media. "Metro Health Named One of the Greenest Hospitals in America" was the proud headline.

There is no doubt that organizations of every stripe issue news releases to tout their success. There are even special newsfeed like CSRWire dedicated to being a clearing house for news about various forms of Corporate Social Responsibility, a hot topic in public relations for years now.

But I got to thinking about this one given some recent research I read about what consumers want to know about companies' CSR. Yes, it would seem to be good for consumers to know that companies are doing "good" in addition to just making and offering good products and services. But is it seedy for companies to toot their own horn?

CSR was the topic of a 2014 special issue of PR Journal, published and available for free online at PRSA.org. One of the articles asked my question exactly: "Public Expectations of CSR Communication: What and How to Communicate CSR."

The results are interesting and helpful to PR academics who want to further research this area, as well as to PR practitioners who can use the study to be more nuanced and strategic in the ways they share their company's and clients' CSR activities.

Here's a breakdown:

  • consumers want mostly to know "who is benefiting" from the CSR activity. So PR pros should not write to make corporations central to the story, but to tell stories of improved lives or environments;
  • as far as sources of information, consumers preferred most to hear directly from beneficiaries, with the CEO or PR spokesperson the least preferred. In general, non-corporate sources were preferred over corporate representatives. So PR pros should quote or otherwise give voice to the publics their CSR efforts helped, and let the CEO and themselves be silent or a minimal part of the story;
  • in somewhat of a surprise, consumers liked to hear about CSR more from company controlled media like annual reports, social media, web sites, newsletters and so on as opposed to news media or expert blogs. My guess is this is as much about accountability and detailed information than it is about a particular source preference. But it is worth noting.
So the bottom line is that the news release I saw may be ok, since it was directly from the company and in fact quoted a third-party ranking of the hospital's green efforts, and it stressed the community benefit. 

For everyone else, don't play faux humility about CSR efforts, but also don't be too self-righteous. Strive for that middle ground where the company is in the background and the beneficiary is the star. Also, don't think media relations is the best when consumers are looking to your "owned" media for CSR information.

When it comes to doing good, it really is nice to share.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Insta Thoughts on Increased Popularity of Instagram

Instagram has reached 400 million monthly users, Adweek reports.

The social site which enables "instant" sharing of photos, as well as video, and of course text, has grown by 100 million users just this year.

It's easy to get all crazy excited about this, especially if you work in PR and have digital and social media as part of your job responsibilities.  But let me give some "instathoughts" about the news.


  • It's monthly users.  That means it takes a month to get 400 million people to use Instagram. That means people don't use it what could be called "regularly" in our hyper mediated world. They could use it daily, weekly, monthly. We don't have that data in this report. But the use is occasional.
  •  75% of those 400 million reside outside the US. That is fascinating if you work for an NGO or MNC and want to reach a global audience. But if you have a more domestic focus, you are talking about 100 million, or one-third of the U.S. population.
  • Instagram started as and still primarily is a photo sharing site. That means to engage those users--if you still want to, given the above--you need to think and act visually. Does the organization story you have and want to tell have a visual aspect? If yes, go for it. If not, maybe Instagram in spite of its growth is not right for you.
  • It's a social medium. Just because there are a lot of people on Instagram or any other social site doesn't mean they are patiently waiting for messaging from businesses and nonprofit organizations. They want to engage with friends and network with individuals mostly, and maybe, if the content is right and not too overtly a marketing message, they'll pay attention to a brand message. 
  • Sometimes less is more. People are still lured by large numbers, but the growth of Instagram in volume of users may not mean it's an easy targeting opportunity for brands. Consider networking in person. If you walk into a room of 20 people you may have more meaningful engagement than a room of 200, 2,000, or more. It's the paradox and tension of digital media and the nature of attention--more people means more chaos. Remember that in social the people are not just an audience, they are the participants and the messages as well. You have to find a way to be relevant, engaging and real. So, work to find niche audiences within Instagram.
All of the above is just some quick critical thinking about this news. There is still rich opportunity on Instagram, but it must be considered realistically and strategically.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Nature Conservancy Shows Good Visual PR (But Caution About Ads)

The Nature Conservancy has a project that is a good example of employing visual PR, i.e. video, to reach audiences in a compelling and educational way.

Their video collection of Michigan preserves caught my eye recently. I have worked with various environmental organizations in the past and know that it can be a challenge to educate a mass public about what a preserve is, how they are arranged, and why people should care. This is one case where visual communication is compelling and I would imagine effective to show rather than merely tell in this case.

I was alerted to the video series in an online article on MLive, this one focusing on the video about the headwaters of the Grand River, which flows from near Jackson to Lake Michigan at Grand Haven, thus meandering through many MLive readership markets. So the Nature Conservancy has the videos and is doing the media relations to get the word out about them. Kudos for that.

I did notice one thing that provides a cautionary tale about PR pros using online video across sites and platforms. While the videos hosted on the Nature Conservancy site simply play from the beginning, on MLive I was served up a pre-roll ad before the video played. No huge problem there--MLive is a media company and like any business needs to make a profit. But this particular ad was advocating that tracking or shale oil drilling can be done safely. I will not get into the pros/cons of that particular issue. But the point is that such an ad may conflict with the Nature Conservancy's mission and brand, and they don't have control over which ads run as a preface to its own video.

What do do? Organizations can hope that viewers will make the distinction between ad message and their own content. Or they can restrict views of videos to proprietary sites without ads. Or media companies could start paying more attention to not just content but sentiment of ads and try to offer some compatibility, such as we have seen in print over the years with some human judgment about ad placement relative to editorial content.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Government News Service for Residents: Offensive to News Media?

The Ottawa County (Michigan) government recently announced a new subscription news service to residents of the county. Being a resident, and  PR professor, I subscribed to receive by email a variety of county news releases across categories. I already have received several, and find them to be objective and informative, as government information should be.

But it didn't take long for one paper in the county, the Grand Haven Tribune, (self disclosure: I write a monthly column for the paper as a community columnist), to take issue with the county's new public service. The July 29, 2015 editorial (not online yet as I blog so this link is to the opinion page vs the specific editorial) cautions that the county's news service is a "slippery slope" and the put the word 'news' in quotes in the headline and throughout the opinion. Their concerns are that the county may be circumventing professional media, or that in time it will be like Pravda, the Russian state media. They wonder aloud if residents feel the county will give unbiased reports of County Commission meetings and other public information.

I take issue with the Tribune taking issue with all of this.

I have a degree in journalism and practiced it for a time and still respect the role of objective journalism in democratic society. But I also have studied, practiced and now teach public relations, as well as PR ethics and law, and I commend Ottawa County for this new service. I disagree that it conflicts with the role of traditional newspaper and other news outlets, and I would assert that there are many positives to a subscription news service for residents.

Let me first address the Tribune's complaints.

First, the Tribune needs to reconsider the arrogant posture that only it and other journalistic organizations have a corner on 'news.' News comes from newspapers and broadcast media, sure, but it also comes directly from organizations, institutions and individuals. Newspapers report news, they don't create it, invent it, or own it. The Constitution guarantees "freedom of the press" to any individual to print and disseminate information, not just "journalists." The residents or any other audience are the ones who should determine what is newsworthy.

On a related point, the communications professionals at Ottawa County are professionals. The Tribune expressed concern about the County circumventing "professional" media. But public relations professionals--whether in the government, nonprofit, or business sector--also have professional degrees and standards of practice.

What Ottawa County is doing is not new. It is good PR practice. PR practitioners have long communicated with a mix of forms of media, characterized by the acronym PESO--paid, earned, shared, and owned. Paid media is advertising or anything that must be paid for. Earned media is conventional media relations, sending news releases to journalists with the hope that the editors and reporters who receive it will do a story as a result. Owned media includes the newsletters, annual reports, brochures, web sites and anything else an organization owns and controls as a form of communication. And recently shared media is the digital forum where tweets and posts are passed along by individual users in their respective networks. If you go to the news page on the Ottawa County web site you can sign up for these news releases as well as newsletters, annual reports and other forms of information.

A third point is the fact that not all news is covered. Even though journalists call themselves the watchdogs of government, they have limits in what they can cover. There is a volume of information available from Ottawa County and I doubt the Tribune has the capacity to cover all of it. They have to make decisions as to what is of must value to their readers and the community at large. The county subscription service doesn't compete with newspapers, it complements them and allows small groups of individuals to subscribe to very specific information of particular interest to them which may not get any attention in mainstream media.

Finally, the Tribune should acknowledge that Ottawa County exists in the same media environment that conventional newspapers do. Just as the Tribune has expanded online and into the social media landscape, so must all institutions. Digital media enables interaction, individually tailored information across multiple platforms and formats. If newspapers do this, why not the government? The county will likely garner an assortment of small audiences for various forms of information. The Tribune will still be needed to bring the most relevant and important information to broad audiences who would not otherwise seek it. And if the county does fall into the temptation to control information like Pravda, that's where the watchdog role comes in. I'm sure that the Tribune staff will still be sitting in on open county meetings and reporting on them, going beyond what the news releases say.

Meanwhile, there are many positives for the county's information subscription service. They do not pass over the conventional media, they merely offer specific and direct delivery of information to their constituents--a laudable goal. They are providing more transparency and accountability. They are staying up to date with technology. They are serving their constituents. Sounds to me like good "news."

In fact, the county did make the news recently for winning another award for its website. I'm not concerned, I'm grateful. In time I think the Tribune will be also.


Monday, June 15, 2015

Is Showing Both Sides Persuasive?

A friend of mine who got a master's degree in public relations at an East Coast university shared a link to a blog post written by one of his professors in that program, an adjunct who works at a major PR firm's office near the university. In this post, the author was discussing the wisdom of including an opposing point of view when writing an op-ed or position paper on behalf of a client.

The gist of this man's argument was that doing so was not his job. After all, he was hired by the client to present the client's point of view. He did note that mentioning alternative views in order to point out their flaws may be necessary on occasion. But generally, he opined, it was a waste of time and space to devote attention to the other side.

I have an....alternative view.

In the blog post, my friend's former professor puts forth a position based on a preference for efficiency and fiduciary responsibility. He also notes his years of experience. I would suggest that a concern for the effectiveness of actually persuading an intended audience should be a consideration as well. Indeed, if you can be more likely to persuade, you are hardly wasting space. Also, if a concern is doing what the client wants, do they want someone merely to write or do they want it to have the benefit of persuasion?

So the question really is not about how someone has written op-eds throughout their career, or the preference for loyalty to the client's point of view. It should be about the outcome in the minds of readers. And for that, we need to consider broader evidence from empirical research that informs persuasion theory.

In the just-published third edition of the book "Persuasion: Theory and Research" by Daniel O'Keefe," a required text in my Corporate Communications Writing class in the future, there is a helpful chapter on message factors. On the subject of one-sided vs two-sided (including alternative points of view) messages, the research results are more nuanced than a simply include or don't include the opposing point of view.

Basically, including alternative points of view--and then refuting them--(called "refutational two-sided messages") are dependably more persuasive than one-sided messages. However, two-sided messages in which the opposing points of view are merely acknowledged and not refuted are slightly less persuasive than one-sided messages.

In other words, raise the opponents' points of view, but be sure to knock them down. Readers don't take messages in a vacuum. They may be playing devil's advocate or wondering about other perspectives in their mind. If you address is head on and can argue against it, you have a better chance of winning them to your side. Or, if they had not considered alternatives, but you raise them, you look more credible, competent and therefore persuasive. Raising and refuting alternatives also has what's called an inoculation effect, meaning that later when someone else raises the opposing opinion, readers have been prepped with foreknowledge of the argument and why it is not sufficient and can be "immune" to its persuasive appeal.