The Day I Went Rogue on PR Messaging

After being chastised by the National Storytelling Network – “You, Mr. Hoffman, are no storyteller” – I’d like to start with a ground rule on nomenclature.

When it comes to business communications, I consider storytelling to be shorthand for “storytelling techniques.” In other words, PR practitioners don’t have the luxury of 200 pages or 90 minutes on the silver screen to tease out a classic story arc. But we can apply similar techniques in creating content that outperforms the programming on CSPAN.

Classic Story Arc - storytelling

With that housekeeping out of the way, let’s rewind the tape to 1983 when I landed my first job at a PR agency. Even writing a press release on disk drive with 20 megabytes of storage (please hold the gasp) seemed exciting at the time.

I remember my initial experience observing the senior guys conducting media training for a client. It was all about pummeling the executives into submission to stay on message. While the trainers were having fun – kind of a PR version of a torture chamber –it occurred to me that such a process might generate robotic responses.

But what did I know at 25 years of age with zero experience?

So I followed the lead of my role models and the mantra “stay on message” … for a while. I can’t give you the exact time and date I went rogue. I just remember a few years into my career coming to the realization that prospective customers  – much less journalists – never uttered the words, “Wow, that’s a great message.”

Think about this for a moment. Aside from the chatter after watching a focus group, no one brags about a message.

But people do acknowledge good stories. Better yet, they talk about those stories and share them with colleagues and friends.

Stories trump messages every single time.

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2 comments

2 Comments so far

  1. Laura McGowan December 5th, 2013 7:50 am

    “Message” doesn’t have to be repeating the same statement over and over again, despite what the media trainers in the 90s (my newbie years) used to say. I can remember being in rooms where the goal was to get the spokesperson to say the exact. same. thing. regardless of the question. That’s not an interview, that’s a deposition.

    Storytelling is the most undervalued tool in the PR toolbox, and a PR practitioner in this day and age is most valuable when the message is a “read between the lines” message in a story. The best part, unless your message is total bs, it’s already in your story.

  2. hoffman December 5th, 2013 8:43 am

    Well said Laura. Thanks for the perspective.

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