PR's First Principle: Storytelling

July 15, 2015 Max Bergen


In one of the most memorable scenes in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector says to Clarice, “First principles, Clarice. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?” This question ultimately helped Clarice achieve her objective of finding the killer. Don't worry, I'm going somewhere with this; I think asking it about PR can help us achieve our objectives as well. What is PR? What is its nature?

Although it is very easy to get distracted by all the trappings of the modern practice of PR, at its core PR is about telling compelling stories that shape audience attitudes toward a brand. Press releases, social networking, pitching journalists, monitoring media; these aren’t what PR is, they are the things we do to make sure the story of our brand gets told.

In every culture around the world, storytelling is how people connect with one another. State-of-the-art technology changes, but state-of-the-heart storytelling will always be the same.” That’s how film producer Sid Ganis captured the significance of storytelling in today’s technology-centered age. Stories are as ancient as communication itself, and for as long as there have been stories, the best stories have always been the ones in which we see ourselves. They help us make sense of the world and often leave us somehow changed.

Storytelling for brands is about elevating your message beyond product specifications and creating an emotional connection. It’s about sharing a unique point of view that might influence your audience to think or behave in a different way. The “Heroes Journey” becomes the “Buyers Journey.”

One example of extremely effective brand storytelling is Apple’s Mac vs. PC campaign that started in 2006 and included 66 ads. In the first one, Mac admits PC is good at business stuff like spreadsheets, while he's better at "life" stuff like photos, music, and movies. The campaign didn’t present the question of which computing platform was better, it presented the question of which guy would you rather be. It was so effective, I still feel a little embarrassed that I prefer Windows.

Another great example is Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign. It launched in 1988 and was so successful that AdAge chose it as one of the top two taglines of the 20th century with it being both "universal and intensely personal." It helped Nike to further grow its share of the North American domestic sport-shoe business from 18% to 43%. Guess what? It isn’t even about shoes. It’s about your ability to accomplish something great. Making their story become your story.

Clearly we think that the practice of PR requires modern tools for measurement and reporting, but the reason it all matters is still the story. Stories create connections for people. They form the emotional context people need to locate themselves in a larger experience. Ultimately, stories give people a reason to feel strongly about your brand.

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