The rise of the digital storyteller
The decline of the mainstream media in the face of the expansion of Internet-based communications has been well documented. Less well known is the concomitant declining quality of news stories themselves.
At its heart, the news is a product that media companies sell and to which people have assigned their trust. Traditionally, the news has been produced by standards-based journalism that is, at least in theory, motivated by the pursuit of truth, resourceful in the use of research, informed by facts, governed by standards and edited with balance.
The rise of digital communication has put the traditional news media at the eye of a perfect storm. On the one hand, declining attention spans and ever-shorter deadlines increase the need for news outlets to report ‘the facts’ as rapidly and succinctly as possible. On the other, declining advertising revenues impact the ability and willingness of news companies to hire top-flight reporters and editors. As an unfortunate result, sensationalism, speculation and speed trump research, analysis and accuracy. This decline in editorial quality is driving a parallel decline in the trust of media.
Ironically, in an era of around-the-clock broadcast news channels and ‘always on’ commentary via the likes of Facebook and Twitter, we have a lot more content noise but actually far fewer news stories.
Stories are fundamentally important when it comes to educating, inspiring and persuading people. Stories provide a way to tap into the subconscious mind and touch the feelings and emotions that drive daily purchasing and behavioural decisions. At a time when brands are increasingly expected to act like people, stories form the fabric of human communication and, when used effectively, are very powerful motivators of attitudes and behaviours.
Leading brand strategists have long recognized that messages woven into a narrative are more compelling and attract higher recall than messages pushed at an audience via overt communications such as traditional paid media. And yet the marketing conversation still tends to revolve around advertising and the role it has to play in convincing today’s new connected consumers.
Public relations practitioners, meanwhile, have spent their careers trying to persuade executives that they should invest more in ‘earning’ editorial media coverage of their brands in news stories rather than ‘buying’ paid coverage through advertising. Because people can readily identify ads when they see them – and we tend to think that ads are supposed to be present during times and places we expect them to be – they attach less credibility to their claims. But if they see a product featured in a news narrative, people are less likely to be suspicious and more likely to trust brand messaging that isn’t visibly purchased.
As trust in media declines, though, the traditional wisdom is turned on its head.
If it is true that a declining media business can no longer generate an ample supply of compelling story content then what is to prevent companies from generating that content themselves? If it is true that resource constraints (i.e. too few journalists with scant time to prepare stories) are reducing some media outlets to automated and uncritical conveyor belts for pre-packaged marketing information passed to them by PR people, then what is to prevent companies from filling the void and telling their stories directly to the public?
The ability of modern corporations to build and enhance their reputations is no longer constrained by the traditional news media model. The modern corporate storyteller has access to a range of digital communications platforms that can reach audiences in many different ways and draw them into the brand experience in a way that traditional media could never hope to replicate.
In many ways, the rise of digital storytelling is simply a natural progression for PR people. We finally have the freedom, the tools and the channels to communicate in the way that, at heart, we have always dreamed about. Now we need relationship connections not just between dozens of journalists but among thousands of people. Public Relations has always been about the artistry of relationships but because digital is by definition about data, now PR is evolving into an evidence-based science where results can be measured as never before.
When I started my agency life 21 years ago, the work of PR primarily involved pitching and placing publicity through interaction with journalists. This will continue to be of central importance to the profession. But these days we also need to know how to think like the media producer in programming content for scrolling social media streams while thinking like the researcher in applying an advanced mastery of analytics to campaign planning and accountability for results.
Where data meets design is the ‘sweet spot’ for digital storytelling. Information overload means we must tell complex stories in a simple yet compelling way in the blink of an eye and thus the rise of the infographic as the most transformative trend in PR at the moment.
Digital storytelling – and, by extension, brand storytelling – is not about pushing messages, it is about building relationships. The scattergun approach doesn’t work here. Instead, companies need to invest the time and resources to evaluate the relationships that drive their business, use the available channels to listen to the online conversation and then engage in a manner that is transparent, authentic and, above all, human.