All Meaningful Communication is a Form of Storytelling

Solitary Man

Narration is “a conceptional framework for understanding human decision, discourse and action”-(Walter Fisher, 1989)

The Setup

My friend of 10 years Richard, a 45 year-old hard-working, loving father and auto mechanic from Charlestown strode across the street to his car, leaving early for a 8:00am meeting with his lawyer. This was to be their first meeting.

Once at the office Richard and his lawyer, a 27 year-old just out of law school, began to hash out an intricate legal strategy, one with the ultimate goal of receiving full custody of Richard’s two children from his alcoholic-gambling ex-wife Linda. Linda hasn’t worked in years and leaves the children, aged 10 and 12, home alone frequently while going to Foxwoods with her boyfriends to gamble away her child support check. Richard loves his children dearly and works 60 hours a week at the garage just to make ends meet and to provide for them. He does this even though he knows the money goes to liquor stores and into the casino safe instead of into his two kids’ bellies.

The Conflict

So, Richard and his lawyer meet every Tuesday at 8:00am for the next 6 months. During this time Richard gets up at 6:00am and goes to work at the garage for a hour or so before heading to his lawyer’s office in Jamaica Plains to plan out next steps. Linda stays in bed until noon, letting her kids get themselves ready for school and consequently, wait for the bus alone on the corner. While they get on the bus in the rain Linda is puffing on her third cigarette of the morning.

Linda also has a lawyer (subsidized by Richard’s child-support check) who is the typical pony-tailed, expensive-suited litigator with an office on State Street, who pulls out all the stops and plays nasty just to win. He has 25 years experience though with numerous investigators working for him. And he wins his cases.

The conflict between Richard and Linda continues, both in court and when Richard goes to pick the kids up every other weekend.

The Resolution

At the end of the 6 months, and after much hard work and scrapping together (through borrowing and pleading for overtime) money to pay his less experienced, but ethically stout lawyer, Richard wins full custody of his kids. The more experienced lawyer is beaten down and Linda is remiss for the loss of the child support check. The children love their father and are happy to finally be able to live with him full-time.

Installing new engine mounts in the Chev.

A Credible Story?

You know this little account that I just relayed to you? Well it’s pure fiction. Sorry! I have no friend named Richard who has just won a hard-fought battle for his kids. I told you this story to illustrate the power of Walter Fisher’s Narrative paradigm theory and to hopefully show you why storytelling is effective in marketing communications.  To quickly summarize, Fisher believed that

all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling or giving a reporting of events and so human beings experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives each with their own conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends.

And the way in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, “has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument.” And to believe in other people’s “stories” the same must hold true. Where credibility = a coherent narrative structure (e.g. the story tells us that Richard loves his children, and then depicts him fighting for them at great personal sacrifice), and also the story has to resonate with the listeners’ values, beliefs and experiences (e.g. ethics and morality will win over immorality and playing nasty).

Instead of mainly basing our decisions on logical, rational arguments (e.g. because Linda’s lawyer is more experienced than Richard’s, Linda will surely win the custody battle), Fisher posited that we humans make decisions based on history, culture and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved in the narrative.

So, while reading the account above, thinking about your experiences and picturing hard-working Richard and lazy Linda with her immoral lawyer, did you happen to forsee the ending? You probably did. You’re smart like that. Plus storytelling is engrained in your DNA.

What The Heck Does This Have To Do With Marketing Communications?

Well I’ll tell you. “Audiences are interested in the real stories, experiences, dilemmas and issues confronting us in 2011. It has to feel relevant to them,” says Charlotte Moore, the commissioning editor for documentaries at the BBC. Telling true stories well, as alluded to by Moore and discussed in the book Content Rules, powerfully connects a brand to its customers/community/prospects –  in a meaningful way. And telling true brand stories well entails everything I mentioned above – including conflict, resolution and of course the hero who comes to the rescue and solves the problem(s).

For example, narrative coherence would begin with a city-based university’s message to prospective applicants and their parents that they are there to solve all concerns students and their folks may have related to moving in and living on a “campus” in the city, and that ultimately the university cares about the student. Then they would cement the narrative coherence by offering a social channel like Twitter in which to provide insights and relevant info to students/their families and provide video/pictures that vividly illustrates what the dorms look like and where incoming freshman will indeed live.

Telling true stories well also entails communicating a brand story that resonates, for example, with the students and their parent’s values and experiences. Of course to make this all jive marketers and communicators have to first hear (listening as action) the people they are attempting to connect with and then weave these insights into their communication(s) and story.

Mechanic photo credit: Edward Wingate

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Marketing Objectives, Strategy and Tactics Made Clear by the Show COPS


Throughout my collegiate career, studying both journalism and PR, I have found that the best way to learn about (and retain) complex and even not-so-complex ideas was to be provided with real-world, pragmatic examples (obviously, an even better route is actually taking part; i.e. experiential learning). But nonetheless, for our present purposes lets discuss the power and clarity of real events/life as examples when it comes to understanding and learning.
market

When we were studying heavy topics such as journalistic law and ethics, the confidentiality of sources and the federal shield law, our kind professor at U-Mass spent a good amount of time discussing Judith Miller and the leak of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.  This real-world example/event contained vivid lessons of the importance of the freedom of the press, the fundamental role the confidentiality of sources plays in journalism’s ability to function as the “watch dog,” and it even illustrated the issues that arise from the mixing (i.e. conglomeration) of corporations and the press. I learned a lot.

A Strategic Approach to Digital Marketing Initiatives

I know from my own experience and casual reading of blogs and articles that the world of digital marketing planning and execution, specifically the steps involving the setting of objectives, strategy and tactics, is a bit murky and can become hard to order. And therefore it ends up detrimentally affecting the overall initiative/campaign.

So, how about a real-world example to shed some light on the differences between marketing objectives, strategy and tactics? This will also hopefully illustrate how these planning steps fit in and build off of each other to equal an effective initiative or program. (I do recognize that there are more steps involved, such as timescales and evaluation, but I want to concentrate here on what I see as the most misunderstood aspects of the planning and managing process).

Bad Boys, Bad Boys…

Two Of Them
As I was watching COPS recently I began to think about the major goal that the two partners had (“making it home safe at the end of the night,” as one cop said), and how they worked to achieve it. I’ll define the objective “making it home safe” as walking through their own doors at the end of their shift, having incurred no personal injury. Soon, I recognized that this specific example would perhaps make the topic of marketing objectives, strategy and tactics a little bit clearer. Lets begin with the two cops’ objective.

Objective (What do the cops want to achieve?):

  • As I mentioned above, these two cops want to make it home safe after willingly immersing themselves in danger all night.

Stakeholders/Publics (Who do they talk to/and who can affect their objective?

  • Criminals, victims, witnesses, the general public. These are all groups of people that define what the police do and can affect the two cops’ objective of making it home safe. Much analysis and research has been done and statistics are available for police brass to consider when developing the protocol (e.g. use harsher methods/communication with criminals than witnesses) that deals with these groups while on the job.

An example of how these stakeholders can affect the objective: The two police officers finally are able to enact a traffic stop after a suspected bank robber leads them on a 90mph chase over 10 miles. Then instead of listening to police commands to lie down face first, the criminal makes a beeline for the nearest bush to hide in or fence to jump over (this example will become clearer in the tactics section, I promise!). By running the criminal puts the cops’ objective at risk. As the cops chase the criminal a neighbor could mistake them for burglars, they could get hit by a car or the suspect could all of a sudden spin around and brandish a weapon etc. Therefore, the cops want to lessen the chance for this uncertainty, this lack of control to occur. Which leads us perfectly to the content of the initiative.

Content (What do our two cops say?):

  • Remember that devising the content of an initiative or program is very specific to the individual situation. For our present example the nature of the “initiative” is mainly one of information (one-way messages with little to no dialogue but that still persuades), so an example of a real message here is “For our safety we are putting you in handcuffs. You are not under arrest.” See how this may influence an individual to comply and importantly, how it’s related to the cops’ main objective? Here is a link to a pretty decent deck that covers developing simple campaign messages.

Strategy (What is the overall approach the two cops take; the rationale behind the tactics?):

  • They act proactively and ask questions only after first squashing the threat. Open communications is key. The issue is safety (even for the criminals themselves), so all actions taken should lessen, in some way, the possible danger to the two cops on their beat and to the general public. So how do the two cops implement this strategy? Tactics is how.

Tactics (What actions do the cops take that compliment each other & the objective?):

  • As I alluded to earlier in the content section, if there is any inkling of danger or uncertainty the handcuffs come out first, then the cops question and search. Questioning and searching are also tactics meant to ensure a safe environment for everyone involved (and specifically, for the two cops).
  • If the cops have information of a serious crime having taken place earlier by a suspect and/or the stop poses a significant risk to the police for any reason (e.g. a weapon is seen), our two cops will enact a “high risk” or what is termed a felony stop. This is different than a “regular” stop because of the tactics used – the cops will pull their gun before approaching, they communicate specific verbal commands and radio the dispatcher of their intent to perform the “high risk” stop (i.e. open communications).
  • The use of the radio: communicating openly and at all times where they are and what actions they are taking is a tactic that is meant to ensure the two cops get home safe. For example, the two partners run into a suspect who they can’t control. They radio dispatch who sends in reinforcements who then help the two cops subdue the criminal, hopefully without anyone getting hurt.
  • Ask everyone for identification. Its safer to know who you’re dealing with right?
  • The use of canine (K9) officers to go in and disable the threat. The use of dogs also prevents the two cops having to rush in themselves to dangerous situations and it then improves their chances of making it home safe.

Hopefully this real-world example has shed some light on the difference between objectives, strategy and tactics and has illustrated the interrelated nature of these salient steps that go into a marketing/PR initiative or program. Do you have any other real-world examples that have helped you understand and learn?

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Market Photo credit: Tiffa 130

Two cops Photo credit: Kevin Spencer

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Creating an Interactive Customer/Fan Experience Wins


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Wow, the interactive marketing space is getting cooler day-by-day. If you turn your head just for a split second, you’re bound to miss some new combination of digital media and deep community listening that spawns an awesome customer experience. I just came across a post by lostremote.com, a site dedicated to social TV coverage, that illustrates just such an example of how to go about creating an impressive and interactive customer event.

Trending Topics Powered by Facebook

All-Star Pulse, launched by NBA.com, is a Facebook-powered experience that was created for the All-Star game this past weekend. The site tracked “real-time conversations about the players, stars and brands associated with the annual event” writes Lost Remote. One interesting fact about the site is that it is powered by Facebook, not Twitter. The NBA told Mashable, according to the piece, that because the NBA is a global brand, Facebook (with its huge reach) was a natural choice. The league itself has “7.4 million Facebook fans and another 2.3 million Twitter followers,” so I would offer that this was a smart choice as it illustrates a solid grasp of its audience (and ensures copious amounts of fuel for the engine and subsequently, a better experience for all.)

Real-Time Topic Pages

The picture directly above corresponds with clicking on the “2011 NBA All-Star Game” tab, which pulls up a topic page, and gives you the total mentions of the phrase, Facebook user mentions and it even drills down to provide mentions of the game per hour and per minute. Besides this, you can watch keyword-related videos, check out pictures of the game and read the latest articles and blog posts – (categorized by each.) Pretty sweet huh?

Each page is also decked out with “social bling,” promoting cross-channel sharing/integration and therefore, furthering the branded experience that much more. For example, there are “share this” options if you want to post the Lebron James stats (e.g. mentions per hour) and video content to Twitter, as well prompts to “follow the NBA” and “like the NBA.”

I can see other organizations harnessing Facebook’s massive people-powered engine to create more of these branded experiences. How about a “pulse” for a new Victoria’s Secret product launch? Or perhaps a Facebook powered, real-time site for the Apple iPad 2 announcement?

I would also offer that besides digital marketers, journalists can get in on the action by using/visiting these sites after and during an event/campaign to pull real-time stats and get context and media for their related articles. What do you think are some future uses?

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Top photo credit: mrdrebzee

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Moving Past Twitters’ Gate-Keepers


Gatekeeper
More and more it seems that Twitter is becoming an integral part of/player in the news of the world. Whether it be breaking the news, for example, the 2009 US Airways flight ditching in the Hudson river, or actually being the news, as it has been most recently concerning the role it played in the Egyptian revolution, “Twitter” and “News” are becoming synonymous.

A recent article on Paul Sutton’s blog The Social Web, and the report by HP found below, got me thinking about the topic of media gatekeepers, Twitter, news and how digital marketers can engage with Twitter to make it (news) and get results.

First, Paul’s piece asks some great questions concerning PR and the fact that Twitter now is the news and breaks it many times even before the mainstream media sites do. He writes,

“As for PR, our job used to be to provide newspapers, magazines and broadcast media with stories; facts and comments about client projects that managed or created reputation and demand. But is our job now to feed Twitter? Do we try to create news ‘breaks’ through seeding news to Twitter sources and journalists?”

This study by HP, which collected its data through Twitter’s own search API over 40 days in the fall of 2010, states that mainstream media brands such as CNN and the NY Times drive a “disproportionate” number of Twitter trending topics – by being the source of most RT’s while a topic is trending. Therefore, taking this into consideration and attempting to answer Paul’s question, I would offer that first I am a bit disappointed that this may illustrate, quite predictably, the saliency of traditional gate-keepers like the MSM on social channels. Although, the study also reports that

“Even though mainstream media sources tend to be extremely well-represented within social media discussions, a significant percentage of trending topics do stem from non-mainstream sources.”

So, in regard to the question of should we as PR professionals and digital marketers seed news to mainstream Twitter sources and their journos, I would posit that yes we should. Going by this report, this is “one” way to create and sustain buzz. But as a guy inspired by citizen journalism and emerging media I am more hopeful that we can find equally-powerful and mutually beneficial ways of creating and sustaining “buzz” on Twitter and other channels, in effect bypassing these conventional sources.

I would love to hear your ideas! Please share below.

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Photo credit: Joshin Yamada

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Kenneth Cole and Crisis Communications 101

By now I imagine you have heard of the insensitive tweet Kenneth Cole himself graced us with yesterday. This “attempt at humor” as Cole later classified it, certainly got the twittersphere and blogosphere’s attention. After reading and commenting on this blog post by Heather Whaling concerning 2 PR lessons learned from the gaffe, I decided to cover what I believe are the salient lessons in PR/Crisis Communications and even social media best practices that can be gleaned from this strange attempt to piggy-back off of the events occurring in the Middle East.

First, I would offer that Kenneth Cole’s gaffe is a pretty big deal; mainly because of the context in which it was made. No matter your political leanings or how you look at the unrest in Egypt and the Middle East, the fact is people are dying (and therefore not the wisest source of comedic material.) With regard to long-term effects of his original tweet (pictured above), I’ve heard the phrase boy-cott mentioned a few times already, but I would offer that the damage will more likely come from Cole’s resources now being differed from ‘business as usual’ to damage control and especially from his weak apology offered on two social channels (Twitter & Facebook).

The larger lesson (and Crisis Communications 101) to be learned from this situation in my opinion has to do with this so-called apology, “We weren’t intending to…” First, sincerity is key and it doesn’t seem sincere. Cole’s tweet doesn’t come across as someone who understands the offenses’ impact and there is no mention of any corrective action (I do understand this may be difficult to communicate in 140 characters but his Facebook message doesn’t offer it either.) Second, I would argue the second tweet wasn’t voluntary. It wasn’t until after the S**# storm started that he tweeted it. Taken together, this presents a major flaw in the apology and hints that this won’t be forgiven/forgotten anytime soon.

To couch this in social media, and with regard to Cole’s responses, I do appreciate his posting of an apology on Facebook on his discussion board, and obviously responding on Twitter (where the gaffe originated) was appropriate. But the best lesson in terms of social media and best practices comes from blogger Mack Collier when he wrote in his post yesterday that brands shouldn’t attempt to leverage conversations happening in social media that they haven’t participated in. This goes back to listening first and then participating only where you or your brand can provide some value – End of story.

Thoughts?

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Social web and the evolution of PR: Guest Post for @behindthespin


I recently had the opportunity to write a guest post for the UK-based magazine, “@behindthespin,” which is a magazine for PR students and young practitioners that publishes online throughout the whole year. Though based in UK universities, the publication effectively aims to take a global perspective on issues of relevance to the above mentioned groups. I will provide a link below to the article that I recently wrote for their site, but first, through a quick recounting of how the actual opportunity came about, I will hopefully offer you an illustration of the power and utility of social media and engagement for young pros who are looking to get their names out there through great content (which is a must considering the near ubiquitousness of the “Googling” of people’s names), and to then hopefully parlay it into job opportunities.

I became aware of the opportunity to write a guest post for Behind the Spin when I came across one of their tweets, which was a re-tweet from David Clare, the PR & social media section editor for the magazine.

I choose to get involved and shot a direct message over to David and explained my interest in writing for them. After brainstorming some PR and social media related topics, we settled on the topic of why/how has social media required PR to evolve, and what in fact will be the end result for the profession?

Since the post has gone live, another interesting, powerful and social facet of this opportunity will hopefully commence. Comments and insightful conversations around the piece and traffic driven to both Behind the Spin and this blog because of it, where more interaction around this topic can take place, will surely signal a mutually beneficial and healthy undertaking – the guest post.

Here is Social web and the evolution of PR.

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Stealing Opportunity from Cracks in the Status Quo

Photo Credit: Arvind Balaraman

Although there are myriad intelligent discussions, analysis and practice occurring lately about and around social media and the power and utility of the social experience, I wanted to take a step back and inward, to explore the vivid terrain of personal experience and what it itself can mean for the agency of the individual as well as for the social experience. I attempted this traversing of the subject of power, possibility and personal experience and broke the macro task down by looking at it through the lens and the phenomenon of “the news.”

News & the Process Through Which it’s Produced Determines Public Experience

One salient postulation that got me thinking about this whole subject of personal experience, structures and therefore human agency and opportunity is a quote by the sociologists Harvey Molotch and Marilyn Lester. “News is the information which people receive second-hand about worlds which are not available to their own experience.” This means that news and the process through which it is produced determines the experiences of the public. There is a middle-man and there are those with vested interests and the unequal power to get these interests addressed.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not explicitly saying having vested interests and influence are always negative attributes, just that we, as young communicators who probably do not have built-up influence, have to be alert, versatile and dynamic to make and take advantage of opportunities when they are presented to us – because they are increasingly few and far between.

Molotch and Lester go on to write that although the news, and especially routine, promoted events such as the president making an inspection tour of a ravaged Gulf Coast, is managed, there are certain times when the status quo is breached, true power dynamics are exposed and opportunities can therefore be swiftly exploited. In all such circumstances, we must be on the ready and have the confidence to take full advantage of these cracks.

For an example related to the news, after a very public accident occurs where oil is released in large amounts into an ocean basin and direct consequences of this unplanned event are that well-loved wildlife are killed and are being killed, this cannot be easily hidden from the public’s view – no matter how powerful the actors who may have caused it and no matter how much they may want it spun. According to Molotch and Lester the media must now become truly objective and serve as the public’s ally, not the partner to the ones with the power and influence.  Here we are able to witness such information usually obscured from public consideration as the close ties and the in-step decision-making that takes place between the federal government and Big Oil.

The opportunity lies within one leader or in-tuned individual of an environmental group being aware, proactive and taking advantage of the very public and the very negative climate produced by the spill that chastens Big Oil and cries out for regulation. He/she can then internalize and utilize this event and the subsequent crack in the dominant political structure to effectively lobby for changes to offshore drilling laws etc. The social experience for many will have been affected.

For our purposes and on a related note, I think its important that we take our personal experiences for what they are and to also be cognizant of their intrinsic value. We should make the most of these events and always be on alert for possible changes and trends in the industry that can signal our opportunity.

For example, taking a job right out of college that may not be our “dream job” in PR or journalism and internalizing the experience as we keep working to find and even cause the tremor that cracks the status quo and leads to our big break. What do you think about finding and making your own personal opportunities?

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