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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Lee Kuan Yew, His Communication Skills Also Defied Convention


Since Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, every media outlet in the free and not-so-free world has chronicled his accomplishments.

If you haven’t spent time in Southeast Asia, it’s hard to appreciate the “miracle” of transforming this speck of geography into a world-class economy. It’s not quite Moses parting the Red Sea, but it’s close.

I made my first trip to Singapore in 1994, four years after Mr. Lee had stepped down as prime minister. Still very much a public figure, I saw how his approach to communications deviated from the status quo.

In a region where statesmen strive for vanilla,  Mr. Lee achieved chartreuse … in a neon state.

Americans like bluster; Asians not so much. Years ago in a discussion with the general manager of our Korean office, she explained this Asian dynamic with the Korean phrase, 모단돌이 정맞는다. Loosely translated it means, “The nail that stands out gets hammered.”

Mr. Lee clearly understood that communications that stood out would be more persuasive in rallying a nation and gaining peer status with other countries. If this periodically made him a target for the hammer, so be it. He had a job to get done.

In my studying Mr. Lee’s communications over the past week or so, what emerges is a master storyteller. By storyteller, I don’t only mean the ability to tell a compelling  story with a beginning, an end and twist in between … though he could do this. What’s more impressive was his natural instinct to apply storytelling techniques to how he communicated in general.

With this in mind, I’ve categorized a cross-section of his quotes by storytelling technique:

Conversational Language

“We knew that if we were just like our neighbours, we would die. Because we’ve got nothing to offer against what they have to offer. So we had to produce something which is different and better than what they have. It’s incorrupt. It’s efficient. It’s meritocratic. It works. We are pragmatists. Does it work? Let’s try it and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamoured with any ideology.”

- The New York Times, August 29, 2007


“The Americans are great missionaries. They have an irrepressible urge to convert others.”

-  The book “Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew,” 1992

The book “Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew - communication skills


“The final verdict will not be in the obituaries. The final verdict will be when the PhD students dig out the archives, read my old papers, assess what my enemies have said, sift the evidence and seek the truth. I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose.”

- The New York Times, September 10, 2010


“Let me be frank; if we did not have the good points of the West to guide us, we wouldn’t have got out of our backwardness. We would have been a backward economy with a backward society. But we do not want all of the West. Let me give you an example that encapsulates the whole difference between America and Singapore. America has a vicious drug problem. How does it solve it? It goes around the world helping other anti-narcotic agencies to try and stop the suppliers. Singapore does not have that option. What we can do is to pass a law which says that any customs officer or policeman who sees anybody in Singapore behaving suspiciously … can require that man to have his urine tested. If the sample is found to contain drugs, the man immediately goes for treatment. In America if you did that it, would be an invasion of the individual’s rights and you would be sued.”

- Foreign Policy, March/April 1994

 Conversational Language

“You lose nothing by being polite. The answer is ‘No’, but please say it politely and give the reasons … Explain to me why ‘No.’ Don’t change ‘No’ to ‘Yes.’ Don’t be a fool. If there was a good reason why it is ‘No,’ it must remain ‘No,’ but the man must be told politely.”

- at the Victoria Theatre, September 30 1965

Anecdote (on how Americans perceive Singapore)

“They don’t know where Singapore is, they are not interested. They think of only Michael Fay, then maybe caning, chewing gum … strange odd place this Singapore.”

-  Book, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew (March 13, 2013)

Singapore-U.S. map Rev. - communication skills

To see Mr. Lee in action, check out his interview on “Meet the Press” during the 1960s.

He starts off a tad nervous, but hits his stride around 7:41 with this response after getting  peppered with questions on Vietnam:

“ May I say what I mean in my own words. Americans have this friendly habit for helping a person think for himself, and I’d rather do my own composition if I may …”

If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, at least jump to 12:39 where after explaining to the clueless journalist the difference between being Singaporean and Chinese, he shares a prophetic narrative on China.

Needless to say, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t concern himself with staying on message.

In closing, I asked three of our senior leaders in our Singapore office to share their thoughts on Mr. Lee:

“Mr. Lee was a clear-eyed, blunt-speaking economic strategist and an astute observer. He kept the government nimble and small, the economy transparent and effective, and regulation simple, which is why Singapore is the success that it is today. He was also a firm believer in meritocracy. But I will always recall his firm, no-holds-barred authoritarian communication style to the electorate as typified by this quote from 1987 to The Straits Times: “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters — who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

- Shawn Balakrishnan, General Manager

“Lee Kwan Yew’s style of communication reflects the kind of leader he is. He tells you straight what you need to do in order to lead a better life. It’s paternalistic and direct. Here’s a video of LKY telling a female PhD student to get married before her child bearing years are over. This clip summarises the kind of person he is and how he shoots from the hip.”

- Idran Junadi, Account Director

“I grew up watching Lee Kuan Yew on TV and at political rallies, and to this day, I have not seen another local politician with the same fire and force of conviction that LKY displayed in the earlier years. Few orators can command the audiences the way he could. He was singularly eloquent, fiercely intelligent and equally comfortable using analogies that ranged from Ozymandias to the brawling pit. He pulled no punches. He was always brutally honest and often controversial. If you were the opposition and facing him at a political debate, God help you. Many local correspondents have shared that no global statesmen terrified them more than our very own Lee Kuan Yew.”

- Maureen Tseng, Director of Client Services

It’s true that Mr. Lee was a polarizing figure.

But I think one thing everyone can agree on is that Mr. Lee showed the power of language in leadership.


Should HR Be Telling Stories?

Storytelling in HR

I’m not referring to fiction or fabrication.

The question relates to the role of storytelling techniques in the HR function.

The question also happened to be the thrust of my talk at the Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS) conference last week in Hong Kong.

It turns out that one can make an argument for HR more than any other function needing storytelling. After all, the ability to recruit and retain talent often determines the success of a company.

Of course, HR wants to be persuasive in its communications.


In a world in which companies compete for talent with the ferocity of nine-year olds after smashing open the piñata, one would  expect HR to lead the charge in applying storytelling techniques to their communications.

Not so fast.

It’s human nature to resist change, and from my unscientific observations, the language of HR still takes its cues from the mahogany row handbook drafted during the Reagan administration. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but most of today’s HR communications depend on the same uninspired language.

My talk at the AMS conference zeroed in on the job journey captured in the following illustrations:

Job_Journey infographic- storytelling in HR

Every interaction is an opportunity for HR to influence the candidate’s perception of the company and the actual job.

Take something as seemingly simple as the auto-generated email that confirms receipt of a candidate’s resume or application. Here’s an example of how 99 percent of these emails read:

Generic_email- job application confirmation letter- storytelling in HR

Forget differentiation.

Just adding a shard of human warmth would improve the note. Ironically, the above words came from a creative services company.

John Ciancutti, who has hired hundreds of engineers in building world-class teams at Netflix, Facebook and now Coursera reiterated:

“Every touchpoint in every phase of your process should drive toward that result.”

With this in mind, here’s the note we recently implemented for candidates to confirm receipt of their application:

Hoffman Agency job application confirmation letter- storytelling in HR

We don’t expect our auto-confirmation email to prompt the candidate to channel Jim Carrey with a “So they’re telling me there’s a chance. Yeh!!!”

We do believe that allowing our voice to come through the note helps the candidate get to know us a little better.

And the better that candidates know us, the more likely they’ll sign on the dotted line.

Side note: Alexander Mann hired a graphic recorder to capture each of the talks at the conference. Here’s the “picture” from the talk.

Lou Hoffman- Should HR be storytelling

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Return of Ishmael’s Greatest Storytelling Hits

Ishmaels Greatest storytelling hits

Taking a page from the music industry, I introduced our “greatest storytelling hits” in 2013 pulling from posts published before 2011.

Now I’m going back to the well, showcasing some of my favorite posts published between 2011 and 2013. I hope you’ll find that they still have relevance and some spunk.

1. An Open Letter to the PR Community to Help Restore the Credibility of Journalists

The passing of David Carr, The New York Times voice on the media, was felt across all parts of the communications industry. I did not personally know David, but I sometimes sparred with him (if you can still call a one-way activity sparring). Such was the case when his column lamented PR types bullying journalists into providing executive quotes for approval before publishing. Showing my solidarity, I came up with the “Just Say No to No” initiative.

2. The Periodic PR Agency Plea, “Help Me Help You.”

Every person in a communications consultancy has experienced that “special” client who adds what I’ll call extra obstacles to achieving success. It takes strength of conviction to get to the finish line. For inspiration, we turn to the scene in the movie “Jerry Maguire” in which Jerry (Tom Cruise) immortalizes the line, “Help me help you.”

3. LinkedIn Encourages Bad Behavior

Think about the invites you receive to connect on LinkedIn. If you’re lucky, one out of 10 is personalized. This makes most invites more like robot media than social media. If LinkedIn simply eliminated the boilerplate that serves as the default invite, this issue would go away.

4. What Really Happened Before the NRA’s Press Conference

Just Shoot It NRA parody

The NRA’s press conference that followed the Sandy Hook Elementary School disaster came off as combative and even defiant.  I decided the situation called for parody, “recreating” the dialogue that led up to the press conference.

5. PR’s Answer to the Classic Story Arc

Most forms of business communications don’t allow for a full story with a start, an end and bad stuff in between. But PR can apply storytelling techniques which give lift to all forms of communications.

6. Dear First Time CEO of a Startup

Leading the startup charge is not for the squeamish. There’s something to be said for bringing a Type A personality to the table. Yet, as with any quality, too much of it becomes a destructive force. For those who view the Walter Isaacson book on Steve Jobs as a form of finishing schools for CEOs, I wrote this letter.

CEO Illustration - steve jobs

7. BuzzFeed Meets the White House

The White House has redefined owned media. I figure it’s only a matter of time before they cut a deal with BuzzFeed to license the platform and create GovvFeed.

8.  Why Journalists Get Cranky About PR

Peter Guber’s PR team for his book “Tell to Win” pitched me to review the book. There was only one not-so-small problem with the pitch. I had already published two reviews on the book, one for VentureBeat and one for my blog. Every time PR flings a mass blast to journalists without doing its homework, the entire profession takes a hit.

If I’m missing a deserving vintage post, by all means let me know.

At some point, I’ll go to work on “The Very Best of Ishmael’s Storytelling Hits.”

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Anecdote Takes Center Stage in a National News Story

That’s exactly what happened last week when CNN covered President Obama’s intention to veto the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada to Mexico.

Check out the headline.

Meet the pen Obama used to veto the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Obviously, the focus of the story lies on a Presidential decision.

Yet,  the pen makes headline.

But we don’t actually “meet the pen” until almost 500 words later at the very end of the story:

That pen is a left-handed Cross Townsend, assembled at the 169-year-old company’s plant in Lincoln, Rhode Island, from components made in China.

“The old saying goes the pen is mightier than the sword, and in these days we don’t use swords anymore, we use pens,” said Bryan Fournier, vice president of operations at Cross Pens.

What’s going on here?

This is a case where the needs of journalism and PR converge as one. I continue to believe that PR underutilizes the anecdote as a storytelling technique, and this is why the Cross Pen example stood out.

CNN is looking for a way to differentiate its news story on President Obama exercising his veto power.

PipelineMontage 02-15

As you can see from the smattering of headlines above, all of them essentially say the same thing.

On the PR side, Cross Pen is looking to “borrow” the news event as a way to shine the national spotlight on its product.

Reverse-engineering the story, all cues point to Cross pitching the anecdote as an exclusive. I say this because the anecdote doesn’t appear in any other coverage. It says something about the power of  anecdotes in today’s journalism that they can be pitched this way.

And the end of the story, specifically the clichéd comment from the Cross executive around the “pen is mightier than the sword, points to a pitch.

But the most revealing data point comes from the 81-second video that accompanies the news story in which the pen takes on the lead role. We even get a peek into the manufacturing process and learn that making pens for presidents is indeed cool (her words, not mine).

The video offers another proof point that “sausage making” content — the process and actions that take place behind the curtain — makes for an effective storytelling technique.

Note: Kudos  to one of our senior account professionals in our Pacific Northwest office, Kali Bean, who brought the CNN story to my attention. I’ll be making the trek to our Pacific Northwest office later this week to take the entire team through our storytelling workshop.


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