Reverse-engineering the Storytelling in a New York Times Feature

PR storytelling techniques

As a PR nerd, when I read a story in a publication that vacuums my attention, two questions immediately come to mind:

  • Was PR the catalyst for the article?
  • What storytelling techniques carry the narrative?

Such is the process I went through with the NYT piece, “A Chinese Billionaire Spinning Research into Investment Gold.”

As for the first question, my guess would be yes, PR planted the seeds for this feature. Either that or Zhang Lei’s storytelling acuity scores in the Ira Glass quadrant. Regardless, this doesn’t take anything away from the journalist Alexandra Stevenson who crafts a story that shows — not tells — Mr. Zhang’s verve.

In breaking down the article, four storytelling techniques carry the narrative.

As noted, anecdotes play a role in providing a window into what makes Mr. Zhang tick starting with the lead.

“With an $18 billion war chest, he is one of China’s richest investors. Yet on a recent trip to San Francisco, Zhang Lei and his entourage crammed into a three-bedroom house in the Mission District, rented through Airbnb. He also ordered water from Instacart, the on-demand grocery delivery service. A few days later in New York, he bought food through Google Express. Of course, it is not as if he could not afford luxury hotels and restaurants. Instead, it was research.”

A second anecdote serves as an indicator that entrepreneurism is encoded in his DNA:

“At 7, Mr. Zhang had his first business idea. He rented his comic books to passengers waiting for their trains. Today, that shared-economy concept is the basis for Silicon Valley companies like Uber and Airbnb.”

It still surprises me that most PR functions (internal + agency) develop content bereft of anecdotes. Not only do anecdotes pump life into stories, but they often serve a dual purpose of meeting the journalist’s need for content not in the public domain (or readily accessible).

Aligning Content With Journalists Needs - storytelling techniques

One of the most challenging storytelling techniques, failure, makes an appearance in the form of rejection when he applied for jobs on Wall Street. Not only did zero job offers materialize, but one particularly harsh salvo came his way:

“One interviewer went so far as to question his intellectual capacity when Mr. Zhang asked whether there was any point to gas stations.”

The third storytelling technique, what I term the unexpected or weird twist, is woven throughout the narrative. Like how Mr. Zhang tried to hire an old friend who said no, but suggested his wife might be a fit. Today, “the wife,” Tracy Ma, holds the chief operating officer position at the firm as Mr. Zhang’s No. 2 executive.

And finally, there’s a contrarian quality to the story such as when Mr. Zhang takes the position that American companies and Silicon Valley can learn from their Chinese counterparts when it comes to innovation:

“I’m seeing an uprising of Chinese entrepreneurs who are able to upgrade themselves versus the relatively slow-moving multinational companies.”

Virtually every company would welcome a 1,432-word feature in The New York Times.

This type of win calls for building out the right content — storytelling elements if you will — that stitch together the Zhang feature.

In short, think like a journalist.

As Mike Butcher, TechCrunch’s European editor put it, “‘The man who bit the dog is far more interesting than the dog that bit the man.”

Update (4/27/15, 2:45 pm): It turns out that the PR function had zero involvement in the story. In fact, the NYT journalist Alexandra Stevenson pursued Zhang for close to a year. I appreciate Alexandra taking the time to share this context.

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A Not-so-obvious Part to “Every Company is a Media Company”

Newsroom- storytelling techniques

Thanks to the wonders of Internet and WordPress, any company can rationalize the cost of digital publishing.

What’s more, Google’s decision to communicate the dialing down of activities in China on its corporate blog gave street cred to owned media. Since Google’s act on January 12, 2005, organizations of all shapes and sizes have become much more aggressive in taking their stories directly to the target audiences.

There’s no question that this move lessens dependence on third-party media. Like the investment world’s emphasis on the diversified portfolio, the building of a brand calls for diversified activities.

With that said, the value of media relations doesn’t disappear. In today’s environment where information gets flung about with the care of a ditch digger, one could make an argument that media coverage is more valuable than ever to a brand today.

Yet there’s the rub.

Succeeding with journalists can require NOT publishing. In fact, it can often mean not publishing your best stuff.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but you can see how this plays out with Intel’s recent media relations work to publicize the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law.

Intel essentially takes on the role of journalist in interviewing Gordon Moore on his famous axiom. Rather than publish the interview, Intel opts to package the content in a tidy PDF downloaded from its newsroom.

Moore's Law  interview by Intel

In pointing journalists to the content, Intel gains three benefits:

  • “Access” to new perspectives from Mr. Moore stands to increase the depth of the stories.
  • Inserts Intel’s preferred narrative slices into media stories.
  • Controls Mr. Moore’s input (also reduces the demands on his time).

Let’s look at this last point. Even if Intel ponies up Mr. Moore for a day or even two days of press interviews, you’re still going to have a gaggle of journalists indignant that they weren’t the chosen ones.

Some journalists like Don Clark at The Wall Street Journal tried to connect with Mr. Moore: “Mr. Moore couldn’t be reached, and Intel said he wasn’t available to comment.”

Of course, everyone ends up unhappy if Intel manufactures 1,500 words of corporate speak. To this point, there’s a journalistic-like quality to the Intel deliverable with the same storytelling techniques.

For example, this anecdote surfaced in the BBC and The Wall Street Journal:

  • “It’s amazing how often I run across a reference to Moore’s Law. In fact, I Googled ‘Moore’s Law’ and I Googled ‘Murphy’s Law’ and ‘Moore’s Law’ beats ‘Murphy’ by at least two to one.”

There’s very much a conversational tone to much of the content like this passage that landed in the San Jose Mercury News and PC Mag:

  • “But one could see the trend was going in the direction that this was going to be the cheaper way eventually. That was my real objective — to communicate that we have a technology that’s going to make electronics cheap.”

Back to the point that Intel did not publish the Moore interview. The commoditization of the news release forces journalists to dig deeper for stories and content not in the public domain.

Content Not in Public Domain - storytelling techniques

It’s true that the Intel document sits in the public domain (Intel’s press room). Still, by virtue of the packaging — atomized content instead of a complete story — and being “roped off” for journalists, the perception is one of out of the mainstream view.

Did Intel’s approach work?

The question can’t be answered by simply looking at media impressions. The media was going to cover a milestone of that magnitude whether Intel lifted a finger or not.

But given that Intel’s atomized content showed up in so many of the articles ranging from USA Today to CNET to Wired, it seems reasonable to conclude that  Intel accomplished its mission.


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The Google Algorithm is About to Crush Your Content … Starting Tomorrow

Crushed Coke Can -Google algorithm

Before jumping into the sense of urgency part, let’s frame the issue.

Mobile devices are taking over the world.

In terms of raw numbers, mobile users surpassed the desktop users last year.

ComScore Global Users -Google algorithm

Yet, this only tells part of the story. For PR and other communication functions, the core question comes down to behavior. Are consumers and B2B buyers depending on mobile devices to access news and information?

Just the flow of a typical work day that finds people at every corner hunched over their mobile phones tells us, yes. If you don’t trust the anecdotal evidence, a Pew Research study quantifies that over 50 percent of smartphone and tablet users do indeed retrieve news.

Growing Mobile Landscape Pew research

If this weren’t enough to push all types of online business communications to be mobile-friendly, Google’s Webmaster Central Blog published a post last February that carried these words:

“Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.”

That’s tomorrow.

While Google’s guidance for landing high on the SERP (search engine results page) can be obtuse or worse, the blog’s statement on mobile search leaves nothing to interpretation. If your online content isn’t mobile-friendly as of today, the Google algorithm will crush you.

As PR continues to come up the curve on business storytelling, there’s now a sense of urgency for the function to shape content — whether earmarked for journalists, a corporate blog or social channels — that plays on mobile devices.

Unfortunately, a recent study by Didit reveals that over 40 percent of the websites for the top PR agencies (based on rankings by O’Dwyer’s) failed Google’s webmaster test.

Not good.

If we can’t get this right for ourselves, what does that say about the probability for creating mobile-friendly content for clients?

Google provides a Developer’s tool that grades out mobile-friendly content with either a pass or fail. Just plug in the URL and out comes to the answer. Our site at got the thumbs up.

Mobile-friendly Test - Hoffman - Google algorithm

It’s amusing that some of the mega shops with digital savvy reputations like Edelman weren’t so fortunate.

Mobile-friendly Test - Edelman Google algorithm

To show I’m not picking on Edelman, this blog also failed the test, an issue we’ll resolve next month with a redesign. Looking at the blog’s analytics, it’s clear that the bad look on mobile screens has already cost traffic. Access to the storytelling blog by mobile devices which peaked at 33 percent last year now sits around 23 percent, and that’s before it takes a hit today.

Of course, creating mobile-friendly content is more than a technical exercise. It calls for understanding how behavior changes when the screen shrinks. While logic says that attention spans would also shrink, I’ve read contrarian research indicating people will read longer pieces. One thing everyone agrees on — mobile devices put a premium on visual storytelling.

Regardless of how behavior on mobile devices shakes out, communications needs to get the technical piece right.

We’re working on it.

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Never Eat Ramen Alone, Speak Like a Human and the Future of Digital Advertising

It occurred to me that I could write a grab bag post every single day.

Social media platforms like Twitter serve up wacky as well as useful fodder in a never-ending stream. Of course, the challenge lies in the fleeting nature of this information.

These grab bag posts provide a forum to “stop” on three tidbits.

Here goes.

Never Eat Ramen Alone Again

At least that’s what the Japanese food company Nissin seems to be saying with the launch of a new website that pushes the boundaries of owned media.

Falling under the life-is-better-than-fiction category, the site essentially serves as a virtual companion for those eating ramen alone.

 Nissin Ramen Companion- owned media

Hit the start button, and the Japanese actor Takumi Saitoh helps his “companion” kill time while the noodles steep in hot water for three minutes. He also talks to his “companion” once the eating commences.

Nissin’s market research must have showed that a.) many people eat ramen solo, and b.) those same people would prefer company.

If the site is a hit, I suppose the same concept could be applied to other foods.

I wonder if Slim Jim fans would enjoy some company.

Personal Talk vs. Business Talk

The simple act of talking like a real human being would lift most business communications. There’s something about a business setting that causes people to flip the switch to stiff and vanilla language.

An article in New York Magazine, “The Cost of Faking Your Personality at Work,” touches on the broad concept. A study by psychologists at the University of Cambridge shows that people are able to act against their natures when the situation calls for it.

But, and here’s the kicker, people who suppress their true self for too long can suffer from stress, burnout and even health problems involving the immune system.

This could be fresh fodder for our storytelling workshops, explaining to executives that corporate speak is actually bad for their health.

corporate speak- digital journalism

Will Advertising Disappear?

Nieman Lab conducted a terrific interview with Tom Standage who heads the digital side of The Economist.

Tom Standage - digital journalism

It’s a terrific read.

Beyond taking a shot at The Guardian — “Obviously, The Guardian is a special case — they’ve got their sort of trust fund, so victory for them is only losing £30 million per year” — he offers fresh insights on where digital journalism is headed.

This response on revenue generation particularly caught my attention:

“The Economist has taken the view that advertising is nice, and we’ll certainly take money where we can get it, but we’re pretty much expecting it to go away. So we’re switching toward what we call thought leadership, which is we sell sponsorship of conferences, with white papers, with online advertising as well. But essentially it’s not straightforward display advertising. It allows advertisers to associate themselves with particular topic areas, or raise their profiles in particular areas. And it’s not native advertising either, because the crucial thing for me is that we’re not serving this out of our editorial CMS. For me, that’s the line that we won’t cross. When the ads are coming out of the same CMS as the editorial, which is one definition of native advertising — we won’t do that.” 

With thought leadership increasingly dominating PR campaigns, it’s interesting to hear that The Economist is also plotting its future around thought leadership (over advertising).

Seems similar to the rationalization behind PR budgets.


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TSA Shows Its Visual Storytelling Chops

Nobody likes airports.

Dealing with the security gauntlet at airports is right up there with going to the dentist and watching Brady Bunch rerurns.

Naturally, the organization behind airport security, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA),  finds itself image-challenged. To borrow from Shakespeare, the TSA does experience “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Still, I give the TSA credit for using Instagram to put a face on the organization. Taking a page from the visual storytelling playbook, TSA’s Instagram account highlights the dangerous and even crazy stuff that people try to get through airport security. I suppose there’s a form of reality TV going on here; i.e., what will the TSA find next?

Which explains why over 250,000 people follow the TSA’s Instragram account.

Of course, airport security is no joking matter. While it walks a fine line, the TSA’s Instagram account balances the seriousness of its role with a “life is better than fiction” dimension. Using detached and formulaic language, its Instagram account highlights a range of “goods” that did not make it through airport security. I’ve captured a cross section of the TSA Instagram photos with snippets of language describing the items.

Loaded Firearm - Milwaukee- visual storytelling TSA

This loaded firearm was discovered in a carry-on handbag at the Milwaukee General Mitchell International Airport (MKE).

Hand Grenade - New Orleans - TSA visual storytelling

This inert hand grenade was discovered last Thursday in a carry-on bag at #NewOrleans (#MSY) International Airport.

Bag of Explosives - TSA visual storytelling

With the X-ray machine’s help, our officers discovered 30 electric matches, a bag of potassium chlorate, a bag of titanium powder and a suicide vest. All of the items were inert, and the passenger was an explosives instructor traveling with his training aids.

Bear Repellent -TSA visual storytelling

An 8-ounce container of bear repellent was detected in a carry-on bag at the #Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. While traveling can be a bear at times, bear repellent IS prohibited in the cabin of an aircraft.

Note: Every once in a while, the TSA will go off script with a touch of levity.

Six-blade Throwing Star - TSA visual storytelling

Here’s a photo of a six-bladed throwing star that was discovered in a carry-on bag at the #LosAngeles International Airport in July of 2012.

Tactical Axes -visual storytelling

These razor-sharp tactical axes were discovered in a carry-on bag at the #Baltimore#Washington International Airport.

Not content to merely show what security flags as a no-no, the TSA periodically depicts items that you can bring you in the plane.

For example, it’s OK to pack a pie in your carry-on bag.

Pie- TSA visual storytelling

I’ll need to mention this to Mom who has proven that frozen chicken will also pass the TSA test (a story for another time) .



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