At its core, public relations are about storytelling and now more than ever brands need to have a powerful and compelling story to engage and mobilize their audiences.
The trouble is, storytelling has its limitations. In today’s saturated communications marketplace, where information is digested in smaller sizes and competing against more channels, the ability for a story to engage and retain an audience is becoming increasingly difficult. Furthermore, technology has expanded the ability of audiences to digest information, so brands must find a more meaningful means to deliver a coherent and credible message.
Moving beyond storytelling
Brands today must move beyond segmented campaigns and episodic storytelling and develop a narrative, an central thematic that is the basis of the brand’s identity and strategy. A foundational idea that encompasses and forms all areas of a brand’s engagement across its myriad of channels and stakeholders, be it employees; consumers, traditional media, social influencers, policy makers, etc. A company’s narrative should tell everyone what it stands for and offers an idea for those stakeholders to connect with and align behind.
Today, public relations, corporate relations, publicists and marketers are all competing to engage the same audiences through more integrated means – paid, earned, social and owned – meaning that messaging needs to be not only engaging but also consistent across the various streams, and most important of all, in real time.
Brands must lead conversations
Digital and social media platforms have changed the way brands engage with their audiences. Communication no longer flows in a single direction; audiences are now feeding back to companies on a constant basis. Brands must now lead “conversations”, interacting with their audiences in real time, which has quantifiable impact on their reputation.
Proactively driving engagement is now an absolute. While engaging with audiences across these various channels, brands need to utilize a coherent narrative, one that provides clarity and consistency of that engagement. The ability to communicate a compelling, inclusive and consistent narrative has the power to inspire, energize and mobilize an audience in ways our industry never thought possible.
How to develop a strong narrative
Have a real understanding of the brand’s purpose and its values. Consumers today are more value driven than ever before. How a company is trying to achieve its objective, is as important as what it is trying to achieve. Ensure your narrative seeks to explain what the brand stands for and what is it is seeking to achieve.
The narrative must be relatable and easy to explain. To maintain the attention of audiences, a narrative cannot be bogged down in jargon. A strong narrative is based on fact and is not only persuasive but also easily repeatable.
Be inclusive and insightful. Narratives need to evoke an emotional connection and invite participation. It presents an idea for an audience to believe in, support, and ultimately recommend.
In our hyper-completive, over-saturated communications environment, being able to portray a potent and authentic narrative has the power to genuinely connect with an audience, inspire them to action, and lead them on a journey.
The Nature Trust of British Columbia, a leading land conservation organization based in BC, recently called for donations to acquire and protect the Salmon Estuary River on Vancouver Island. Here lies a critical land that provides a year-round habitat for some of BC’s rarest wildlife and fish species, including Great Blue Heron, Marbled Murrelet, Northern Pygmy Owl, Roosevelt Elk, and eight species of salmonids.
F-Pacific Optical Communications Co. Ltd. announced the establishment of their North American headquarters in Vancouver and plans to open a new manufacturing plant in Surrey that would create 200 jobs. The campaign resulted in over 50 pieces of coverage, equating to over 47 million impressions.
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” is the famous line from the 1967 Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke. It best sums up the Marathassa – Burrard Inlet oil spill and points to a critical failure we often see in a crisis. In planning for a crisis, organizations forget the importance of communication, not only in dealing with the crisis, but also when informing the public. They plan how to deploy resources and deal with the crisis internally, while often forgetting what exists outside of their organization.
A timeline in the Globe and Mail shows several communications failures that lead to delays in calling out cleanup and containment crews in the Marathassa spill. Once deployed, the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) teams did an excellent job, cleaning up 80 per cent of the oil in 20 hours, but the communication delays turned what might have been a minor incident into a major event. Those internal communication failures were then compounded by a failure to inform the City of Vancouver until 12 hours after the spill was first reported. This turned it into a major story.
Rather than being praised for its response, the Coast Guard faced a storm of criticism for an inadequate response and cleanup effort. The public was unhappy. Local politicians were unhappy. The Provincial Government was unhappy. This could not come at a worse time for proponents of expanded crude oil shipments out of the Port of Vancouver. Oil spill prevention and a world-class response are central to gaining public support. Public and political sentiment is that this was not world-class. Poor communications lead to a slow response, which let the crisis get out of hand.
The Coast Guard’s prime stakeholder in a crisis situation is not the Federal Government or Coast Guard management in Ottawa. The Coast Guard’s number one stakeholder in a crisis is the public who they are charged with protecting and that includes local governments who represent all of us. That stakeholder was forgotten.
So how do you avoid making the same mistakes in your crisis? Here are seven things to think about:
1) Have a crisis communications plan. Crisis planning is not complete without a crisis communications plan. Who to call (or tweet), when to call (or post on Facebook), what to say, and how to best get your message out. To be seen to be effectively responding, you have to tell someone about it
2) Alert your communications team right away. Don’t wait until the story is out of control—get the communications team working on the crisis from the outset. Bringing in heavy hitters from Ottawa didn’t save the Coast Guard’s reputation, nor change the public perception of the crisis. By then the story was written by the public, the media, and the critics. The story was “clean up was a failure,” “world-class spill response was anything but” and “Coast Guard cuts made the problems worse.”
3) Prepare your statements in advance. Have fill-in-the-blanks templates for media advisories, statements and news releases for predicted events so you can get those out to the public quickly. It should include social media channels and your website as well.
4) First out with the information controls the message. The first voices set the narrative, the tone of the story. It’s your crisis so you know the most and you know first. Use that to your advantage. Become the source of accurate information. Media and the public go to who can provide the best information. In an information vacuum, they go to who screams the loudest.
5) Know who your stakeholders really are.Make a list. Make a list and have it as a key element of your crisis communications plan. Who they are and how to reach them. If the public isn’t on the list, they need to be there and the best way to reach them is through the media: both social media and traditional.
6) Define each potential crisis in advance. You should have a list of potential crises, each given a crisis rating based on seriousness and a planned response for each level of crisis. That way in the heat of the moment you can just follow the plan and effectively manage crisis communications.
7) Exercise the plan often. The worst thing you can do is create a plan and never practice it. If you regularly deal with minor events, get in the habit of pulling out the plan, assessing the seriousness and whether to call in the communications team. It’s free practice! Follow the same steps until they become routine. Use the templates mentioned above. It should become second nature so when a major crisis happens you know what to do. If you don’t have regular minor occurrences, then you need to do formal practice until you are confident in your ability in a crisis.
Look at the oil spill and relate it to a crisis your organization could face. Would you do better or make the same mistakes? If you don’t have a crisis communications plan, or if you have a plan but don’t know how to use it or where it is or who to contact and how to do that, then expect bad news. A crisis defines your organization. Your response to a serious event is revealing.
The foundation of successful communication is clear writing. If you want your message to get across and be taken seriously you need to be clear.
Some people believe that in order to gain attention, their story needs to be BIG and that leads to exaggeration.
One year at CTV Vancouver, we were major offenders ourselves. We had to ban the term “parent’s worst nightmare” because we used it so often on our newscasts. It had become lazy shorthand for almost every story involving a child. A child’s serious life threatening illness was a parent’s worst nightmare. A child being bullied was also a parent’s worst nightmare. So too were a murdered child, injured child, a missing child, even a close call involving a child. It was unnecessary hype which detracted from the news rather than enhancing it. Our news had become a parent’s worst nightmare.
You see this phenomenon in other storytelling. I had a chuckle recently when the price of oil rose by about three dollars overnight and business writers said it had “skyrocketed,”“soared,” or “surged” higher.
The writers might defend themselves by saying a seven per cent overnight move in oil prices, albeit temporary, is a big move, but in saying so it lacked context. It ignored the fall that preceded it. By having a narrow focus on just a few hours, the writers looked foolish to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the oil market.
Imagine you are watching a movie where actor Jackie Chan jumps off a 107 foot tall building. I like Jackie Chan; he does all his own stunts and has the bruises to show for it. At the 45 foot mark Jackie hits an awning and bounces up about three feet. Would movie goers gasp and say “look at him skyrocket! Wow Jackie is soaring!”? I think not.
Oil had fallen from a high of $107 in the summer to about $45 before thisskyrocketing, soaring, surging move happened. That’s the proper context.
Here are seven ways to avoid similar news release exaggeration, that makes you and your company look silly:
Never forget the context. Context is important and relates not only to you but also to your community and sector in which you operate. So for example, your “best year ever” may be true, but if your competitors have grown twice as fast as you, you might want to focus on something else—like innovation or new product development.
Don’t be lazy; be creative. Clichés such as “parent’s worst nightmare” are a crutch. Don’t use what you used last time by default. Take the time to be creative and get it right.
Be specific. If it’s your best year ever, what is the measure? Sales, sales growth, staff growth, profit, happy customers?
The headline needs to match the story. The headline at the top of the news release needs to be supported by the words below. A critical error is using a jaw-dropping headline which isn’t supported by the facts. It causes media blood pressure to shoot up with excitement and they get let down by the content. A disappointed assignment editor will kill your future story opportunities.
Stick to what you know and can prove. Facts are important. Media will want proof and if you can’t prove what you are saying then a positive event can turn negative in a hurry. Media are like sharks, when they smell blood in the water a feeding frenzy begins. Don’t believe me? Ask a media person. Feeding frenzy is a news media term not limited to the Nature Channel.
Tell your best unique story. If everyone in your industry is telling the same story, highlight what makes your story unique. If you can’t think of anything fresh, neither will the media.
Be flexible. If it’s a busy news day, your story is not getting on. It means your plans need to be flexible. If breaking news has made your story no longer relevant for that day, make yourself available tomorrow. Show you understand the needs of the media and it will pay off down the road. Don’t get mad that your story was bumped, even if the media cancelled an interview at the last second; get your story out there the next day instead.
One final thought. Every time you interact with the media you are making an impression, even when the media decides not to run your story. A good impression means you will get a fair hearing next time while a bad impression closes that door, sometimes forever.