Every PR agency and internal PR function strives to communicate positive stories about the organizations it supports. When we capture storytelling assets for one of our clients, no one proactively comes forth to share the time that something went horribly wrong.
Yet, failure is one of the best techniques to bring tension or even drama to business storytelling. In fact, many journalists won’t pursue a feature story on a company unless there’s a dimension of failure.
You can see how this plays out in a recent story in the Chicago Tribune on McDonald’s Innovation Center.
Before going further, it’s useful to recognize that there are shades of failure ranging from Failure with a big “F” — also known as “epic” when an entire organization goes south — to small “f” failure.
The failure in the Chicago Tribune’s story on McDonald’s certainly fits the small “f” category. We learn that McDonald’s invented a contraption that dispensed the right number of Chicken McNuggets for cooking so employees wouldn’t have to count them out each time. The invention didn’t see the light day. Same goes for a 3-D printer that was supposed to create Happy Meal toys in real time (that one got shelved).
If you’re thinking these failures aren’t “life threatening,” I agree. It’s questionable whether they even bring a touch of tension to the story. Still, they serve a purpose in guarding the journalist from the worse conceivable insult, “What a puff piece!”
That’s why you’ll find that feature stories in the tier 1 media properties typically follow a formula, including two to four vignettes that put the company in a negative light and the obligatory mention of a competitor or two.
The ramifications for PR are counter-intuitive. In packaging what we term one-off storytelling in pursuit of feature coverage, including at least one “negative” in your pitch increases the likelihood of success.
But how often is PR prodding and cajoling resources to discover actions that didn’t go according to master plan?
I think it’s fair to say not very often.
One final point —
I’m convinced that failure when it underpins the narrative is the surest way to crack a heavyweight media target.
One of my favorite examples involves UPS garnering coverage in The Wall Street Journal when it came clean that its training program underperformed. The Journal lead kicks off:
“Vexed that some 30% of driver candidates flunk its traditional training, United Parcel Service Inc. is …”
What on the surface appeared gutsy, actually carried zero risk. Because UPS framed the narrative with the fact that its corrective actions lowered the flunk rate to 10 percent. The storytelling came through in the “how” UPS achieved this result including several amusing anecdotes.
There are many ways to play the “F” card.
Of course, you’ve got to dig up the failures first.