Head to Head: Is storytelling in PR worthless?

In this series, Mumbrella invites the industry's most senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Corporate Reputation Practice's Peter Roberts goes head to head with FleishmanHillards's general manager Jenna Orme.

This week, Peter Roberts argues storytelling in PR is worthless, as the industry isn’t equipped to tell captivating stories, while Jenna Orme says storytelling through public relations is what puts a human aspect to brands.

Who do you agree with?

Yes, argues Peter Roberts, managing director, Corporate Reputation Practice:

“Naturally, there will be exceptions to the rule, but on the whole, the industry is not equipped to produce compelling stories. I recognise that’s a bold, if not heretical, claim which is in need of some supporting arguments, so here goes.

“PR professionals, as with the rest of the communications community, have been slavish to the idea of story, but we haven’t been astute enough to recognise that we tend to do it wrongly.

“Here’s what I mean. As practitioners we rely on conventional rhetoric to persuade. We mirror our clients, who have been trained this way. As creative writing guru Robert McKee says: we build our case on facts, stats and quotes from authorities. We see it as an intellectual process, because we can’t see it any other way. Subsequently, we miss the vital component that make stories persuasive – the emotion!

Roberts says “the industry is not equipped to produce compelling stories”

“Which begs the question – why do we miss it? As I said, this is partly down to producing what we think the clients want – a safe, logic-driven, data-based approach that typically leaves audiences cold. Ultimately though, we can’t do this properly, because as practitioners we’re schooled to keep those emotions in check.

“This is especially the case with agency staff – I include myself here as a former agency man – who are immediately alerted of the paramount need to keep clients happy.

“I’m not saying that agency folk lack maturity per se – of course not, there are some brilliant minds at work here – but I fear they reflect their environmental upbringing which is essentially about one thing: profit. If we don’t fully explore our feelings in this space, including the reality of failure and the uncertainties of a tech future, how can we expect to produce rich, meaningful narratives for others?

“Disruption is affecting us all at dizzying speeds, businesses are feeling increasingly vulnerable, so it is incumbent on us as professionals to embrace greater emotional exposure – to demonstrate how we feel – to produce stories and relationships that are reflective of our growing sensitivities and befitting of a more engaged audience.”

No, argues Jenna Orme, general manager, FleishmanHillard:

“‘We all feel a compelling need to watch stories, to tell stories, to discuss the things that tell each one of us that we are not alone in the world’, said TV titan and recent TEDx speaker, Shonda Rhimes.

“With more brands, more competition and more cynics than ever before, brand spiel doesn’t wash any more. Consumers want to know the story behind the brand, how it’s making a difference, and how it relates to their world.

Orme says “impact is made through storytelling”

“Impact is made through the power of storytelling. We’re emotional beings and we’re more likely to remember moments and memories over facts and USPs.

“Storytelling in PR puts a human touch to a brand. Savvy consumers know they’re being marketed to, but they’re more open to it when a brand is relatable. I’d argue media are too.

“Storytelling allows a brand to take its audience on a journey that evokes a reaction. Whether the story generates feelings, ideas or attitudes, it creates a level of engagement that goes deeper than rational benefits. It allows brands to connect with their audience.

“With a suite of traditional and digital platforms, PRs can tell brand stories in more compelling ways than ever before, but the fundamentals remain: know your audience, leverage cultural relevance tension, identify your heroes and heroines.

“After all, who doesn’t love a good story?”


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