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The rise of the digital storyteller

February 19th, 2011 / 2:40 am

[This is a blog post I wrote for Marketing in Australia].

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.

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Telling the story

September 1st, 2010 / 3:00 am

This op-ed style article just appeared in Campaign Asia-Pacific magazine:

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Executive MBA lecture at Nanyang Business School

August 2nd, 2010 / 4:00 am

On July 27th I was honoured to guest lecture executive MBA students in Martin Roll’s class at Nanyang Business School. I talked about the scientific roots of the PR profession, putting the consciousness of corporations online through social media news streams, mapping data to design through digital storytelling, the worldwide rise of apology communications, and how with new crisis communications, anything that now goes wrong in a famous way is called a ‘PR disaster.’ This edited video is eight minutes long:

Categories: speaking platforms
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How the art of PR is becoming a science

April 24th, 2010 / 3:08 am

On April 23rd, I gave a speech to the 5th Annual Opinion Mining Workshop in Seoul. Attended by 150 academics, marketers, and social media thought leaders, the event was hosted by Daumsoft, a very exciting Korean company that among other things provides ultra-advanced business intelligence-gathering and media monitoring systems using their text mining technology. Here’s a copy of the presentation that I delivered:

How the art of PR is becoming a science

Categories: measurement, speaking platforms
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The persuasive storytellers

January 20th, 2010 / 9:00 pm

Today it was my pleasure to guest lecture two classes of PR students at Toronto’s Humber College. To say the least, I was impressed about the extent to which these bright and engaging students have a contemporary command of the forces of change shaping the future of public relations. Here’s a copy of my presentation deck:

Categories: blog, persuasion
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Guest lecture to PR students in Hong Kong

November 26th, 2009 / 3:00 pm

HKBU PR students

On November 10th, I was honoured to address PR students in the Communications School of Hong Kong Baptist University. I was invited and hosted by the distinguished Dr. Flora Hung as well as the wonderful Dr. Regina Chen. The theme of the speech was “Building modern PR campaigns and telling digital stories in the age of social technology.” Feel free to download a copy by clicking the screen shot below:

Pickard presso on building modern PR campaigns

It was my best effort to ‘connect the dots’ between my own two decades of communications consulting experience and the ideas of thinkers like Gerald Zaltman (re. metaphors tapping into the unconscious mind), Martin Lindstrom (re. neuromarketing and ‘unconscious’ storytelling), Dale Carnegie (re. making people feel important in conversations) and Robert Cialdini (re. the psychology of persuasion).

These are the key points made in the presentation:

  • No brainer: the mind is the key issue when it comes to PR.
  • The unconscious mind is more powerful than the conscious mind.
  • The emotions of the unconscious mind determine PR success, not the rational logic of the conscious mind.
  • Metaphors communicated through storytelling tap into the unconscious mind where people make decisions.
  • PR pros need to design and conduct campaigns accordingly.
  • Unfortunately, the ‘storytelling zone’ of news journalism (which has also been the province of PR people interacting with reporters) is shrinking as the traditional news media business plummets.
  • So marketers and their money are migrating to the entertainment media and social media spheres, where stories can be told directly to consumers.
  • Nowadays every company can create its own content and tell its own stories, like a media company.
  • Digital is now changing narratives; new stories are actually being co-created via conversations with people online.
  • Understanding the ‘psychology of persuasion’ within networked contexts is a key skill for modern communicators.
  • PR people of the future must think like story writers and media content programmers.

HKBU PR students

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Digital storytelling in public relations

November 25th, 2009 / 2:21 pm

by Bob Pickard

Recently I read Buyology, Martin Lindstrom’s colorful book about neuromarketing, which posits that people tend to remember products when they are woven into the narrative – the story – of media content, and that they tend not to remember brands that don’t play an integral role in the story because people can see them as being ‘just ads.’

Well, this contention certainly makes sense to me, because like most PR professionals, I’ve spent much of my communications career trying to convince skeptical executives that they should invest more in ‘earning’ editorial media coverage of their brands in news stories rather than ‘buying’ paid coverage through advertising. The idea is that because people can readily identify ads when they see them (and we tend to think that ads are supposed to be obviously 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 (that might result from a PR person’s pitching of a story to a journalist), they will probably assume that a company did not ‘pay for the play,’ and so are less likely to be suspicious and more likely to trust brand messaging that isn’t apparently manufactured artifice.

I learned a long time ago that the news is a product which media companies sell, but people have attached a value to it because it’s been produced by a journalism industry that – whatever its systemic biases and flaws – is supposed to be motivated by the pursuit of truth, resourceful in the use of research, informed by facts, governed by standards and edited with balance so that people know that the glass is half full and half empty.

The problem now is that the economic basis of that kind of journalism is crumbling, and so the quality of the editorial product is declining. As a result, I think people trust media stories less than they did before. There are fewer good reporters around, and not as many exacting editors. Battles about editorial ethics versus just going with what a company hands you for content are less frequent as money is the only thing that seems to matter.

So there are fewer eyeballs reading a shrinking number of trusted news media stories. Media companies have tried to make the news more entertaining (‘info-tainment’) and opinionated (e.g. FOX News), and the result of this debasing of journalism is a further reduction of news’ credibility. But if Lindstrom is right and a brand’s involvement in a story is still the best way for a product to get noticed, then what do marketers do about the fact that there are fewer trusted news sources producing a shrinking number of stories that will be credible enough to have commercial impact even if there is product mention?

Well, we see great efforts towards making advertising seem more like media stories. The ‘advertorial’ is an old trick for this purpose, but everyone recognizes such a blatant approach (thus its low impact), so now we see many more movies and TV shows where the plots are explicitly scripted to sell product surreptitiously. In other words, to sell unwitting people products embedded within story lines. Simple product placement has been going on for decades, but this scripting trend takes commercial penetration of the public media mind to a new level.

About stories in the news media that contain a PR-earned product mention, some people might ask: “Is this really the news?” Nowadays, regarding stories in the entertainment media that contain scripts written to sell products, surely more people will be asking “Is this really entertainment?”

That’s assuming they notice the products. But I think people are increasingly sophisticated and will see through such insidious marketing technique. Maybe more will want their marketing interaction straight-up, honestly transparent?

Richard Edelman – one of my mentors and an articulator of trends extraordinaire – is fond of saying that these days, “every company can be a media company.” If a declining media business can no longer generate an ample supply of compelling story content, and especially if owing to resource constraints it is becoming an automated and uncritical B2C conveyor of pre-packaged marketing information passed to them by publicists, then why can’t corporations fill the void themselves and communicate stories directly to the public? Certainly they have the money and the talent to create the content, aided by a massive and accelerating ‘brain drain’ from journalism. I am certain that helps PR agencies – including Edelman, which I served for six years, latterly as North Asia President – do a brisk business selling their ‘master narrative’ corporate storytelling tools, the bricks and mortar for everything a persuasive marketer needs…from the speech module content for executives to succinct elevator pitches for ‘spontaneous’ encounters with stakeholders.

But wait a minute: people would immediately see that a company is using such techniques as advertising and so they won’t trust it, right? I disagree. Increasingly, it seems people think marketing can be credible if they are involved, not just reading someone else’s story, but feeling like they are part of the plot themselves.

Old-style advertising assumes a passive person just sitting there consuming information. Individuals can follow cues and do what they are told, but they are atomized and feel insignificant alone. Therefore, as people trust traditional institutional sources of top-down vertical information less and less, we’re seeing them create their own horizontal peer-to-peer communities of trust, which can now involve friends, family, peers plus even corporate PR people who engage them in conversations, asking them for ideas or opinions (‘crowdsourcing’ is one current buzzword), thereby making them feel personally important as ‘co-creators’ of a brand’s experience.

Going back to Dale Carnegie, we know that making people feel important is the precursor to persuasion, and so once these PR-driven interactions foster that feeling, then stories are sold as conversations. Much of this is calculated illusion, with the objective of getting people to commit themselves in writing to a brand online (i.e. publicly, in front of others).

For those of us who have read Robert Cialdini (and I am a fan of his material), we know that when people commit themselves in public to something, they have created a new image template of themselves – including, for example, ‘as the kind of cutting-edge person who uses this cool product’ – which they will advocate to others within their personal networks of trust – Trojan Horse-like – as a credible peer. They will do and say whatever is necessary to conform with their new public image, and to evidence complete consistency with what they’ve said in ‘conversations’ online.

So it’s no surprise that these days there’s also a lot of work being done at PR firms in the area of ‘conversation communication’ and ‘digital storytelling’ and where the two meet allows persuasion marketers to tap into the power of metaphor (an area where reading Gerald Zaltman is a must). Conversational communication enables the easy application of metaphors used in everyday language for the development of marketing narrative to convince consumers about a product brand with story ‘frames’ that their minds have already developed at the unconscious level, which is where most marketing decisions are made.

Recently I posted on my Facebook page this article from The Boston Globe that delves into the psychology of metaphor, and my astute friend Michael Ferrabee summed up the situation nicely with this posted comment: “They [metaphors] force us to form mental pictures that are like glue to our memory and mainline directly to understanding.”

If almost all the public media time and space is embedded with product marketing messaging, then people who don’t trust anything in the public ‘media commons’ could become so cynical as to believe nothing and become more susceptible to the programming spectacles and short-attention span editing that critics of corporate power say are deliberately designed to keep people from seeing how they are really being manipulated. But now that our private media minds are being mined for marketing in such a scientific manner (including the use of the brain scans outlined in Buyology), it’s important for people to pay attention so that we retain conscious awareness of the increasingly sophisticated techniques intended to get us to do and think what marketers want us to do or think.

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