March 6 2023
For thousands of years, humankind has chronicled stories to learn from and teach others, and it is through the recounting of these stories that lessons have been passed down for generations. As a species, we have progressed greatly from those early days and technology has made way for more detailed representations of these lessons. While the essence of storytelling has remained the same, it has been adapted to a variety of vessels and refined to fit its intended audiences.
From selling products and entertainment to preserving education and culture, there are many facets in which a good story is a powerful tool. In the world of public relations, it’s a potent device for driving your message forward. Although we encourage our clients to tell their own stories, it is only one essential component of a solid public relations strategy. A focus on earned media remains one of the most valuable engines to boost engagement and gain trust among a target audience. However, the key to building committed relationships with members of the media goes beyond a cup of coffee and a few likes on social media. The secret lies within storytelling and the opportunities are all around us.
Just as the story will fit a particular audience, so will the storyteller. Gone are the days of blasting a generic pitch to your entire reporter listserv. Adopt a quality-over-quantity approach when seeking coverage opportunities by sending customized pitches to the right reporters already interested in that topic and distilling the key point into an intriguing subject line. In years past, reporters were only responsible for writing one story each day (or less), but with fewer members of the press in local and regional markets and a higher demand for stories, reporters are under greater pressure to find the diamonds in the rough. Cater your story to the journalist and help them to see its potential.
The research you put into the reporter’s backstory will not only give your pitch an edge, but it will also make an excellent impression on them. The recent decrease in news media positions also means younger and more inexperienced reporters may be reading your pitches. That makes it imperative to craft a pitch that’s worth their time and begin forging new relationships. Seek out the types of stories journalists like to tell beyond their beat, so your pitch has a better likelihood of becoming a headline. The more information you can gather about the reporter’s style and publication, the better you can gauge if your story would appeal to their audience and achieve your client’s goals.
Everyone has a story, but would it surprise you that the individual should not actually be the focal point of your pitch? Sure, they are an integral part of the story – a character, if you will – but the action is what audiences find most compelling. Reporters must make quick decisions to filter through the number of pitches they receive, so the opening line must convey why people will care. If you’re placing too much of a focus on the details of the client, the story likely won’t resonate as effectively as it could, and your pitch will get passed over in favor of something more relevant.
An influential story will present the character, conflict and resolution in a concise and captivating way. Long-winded details will only slow your pacing and in a world of short attention spans, active voice and tighter language will maintain readability. Bear in mind that writing in a straightforward manner doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be plain. Color your pitch by describing what is happening rather than just sending the black-and-white facts. At its heart, storytelling employs creativity, so challenge yourself to practice the art of word economy to bring the audience along quickly.
One of the most captivating elements of storytelling is the reader’s ability to visualize and connect with the language. Consider what aspects could provide dimension to your pitch and enhance the story while taking the medium into account. Offering thoroughly vetted contacts, interesting B-roll footage or rare audio components will strengthen your relationship with the journalist and help them tell someone’s story in a way that will stand out from competitors. Your assets serve a persuasive purpose, so highlight compelling sensory aspects to elevate TV or radio spots. Remember that you cannot control how the story is told, but you can guide the process by providing a well of curated resources from which the reporter can draw.
Within public relations, you often have easier access to information that journalists would need to scavenge. It is your responsibility to think like a journalist and attain the hard details that will elevate the story and provide them in a timely manner. Being an excellent resource and being there when the storyteller needs you are valuable qualities of a strong media relationship. Their deadline should be your priority, too. Gathering quotes, bios, points of contact and photos all help to streamline the research process and improve the overall composition of the piece. These also convey greater value to the reporter and facilitate their ability and desire to tell your client’s tale. Earned media that showcases a conflict someone has overcome will foster an emotional connection and is one of the most impactful ways to generate trust. Where appropriate, take the opportunity to offer a few members of the company’s staff or customers as resources and prepare them for the potential interview process ahead of time. Although they may be experts in their field, they may require some media training to properly convey their value.
In public relations, we tend to have a client-first mindset, and our work centers around presenting them as a thought leader in their industry while highlighting the positive and distinguishing qualities that set them apart. For journalists, the story comes first and the person or organization is a second priority. One of the keys to securing earned media is finding the balance between these two and allowing the story to take its course. Just as you cannot force data to reflect a particular result, the storyteller may have a different perspective and present your information in a way that didn’t align with your initial idea. As long as it is ethical and factual, you must learn to let the reporter take the reins to develop the story while you identify every opportunity to usher the process in a productive direction.
Even when you provide additional contacts and resources, a good journalist will do some digging of their own. Ensure that you’ve considered a variety of angles prior to pitching to reduce the risk of bad press for your client. Reporters are looking for a great story to give them an edge and the facts they uncover may not present your client or organization in the most favorable way. Be mindful of any variance in priorities, put in the work and be a reliable resource for the best possible result. You each have a job to do that requires valuable material, authenticity in engagements and respect for deadlines in order for the desired story to unfold and resonate with its intended audience. If you’ve done your job and nurtured positive relationships with the media, your connections will foster influential stories and may help you to secure additional coverage in the future.
While the landscape of storytelling has shifted throughout the centuries, its effectiveness is still directly tied to the connection it evokes and its reliance on a consistent thread of authenticity to bring about understanding. This influential tool lives on in public relations through television, radio, print media, podcasts, social media and a plethora of other avenues. It is up to us to find the gems and match them with the speaker and outlet for which they are best suited. Storytelling is a foundational part of how we support each other as a community and has the potential to impact generations. When you approach the storytellers of our time with opportunities, remember to be respectful, resourceful, reliable and relevant as these narratives contribute to a legacy that will impact generations.