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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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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Live Twitter Chats: A Perusal for PR Pros

Quite obviously the dark days of the old school broadcast mentality are dead and gone. Good Riddance.

And we all know social media is empowering public relations and marketing professionals to have conversations directly with the publics that define and matter most to the brands they represent. But one of the most attractive and inspiring aspects of social media is that people with common interests, professions and goals now, and with a robust sense of community, can easily share info, tips, trends, questions and solutions surrounding best practices or they can simply just listen to the collective from the comfort of their own homes – but in the age of transparency and participation this is not always recommended.

These days, it’s all about utilitarian information, conversations, niches, communities, stories and the value that each possess and can bring to someone else. A perfect example of people utilizing social media to assemble and virtually interact amongst themselves for the purposes and betterment of all of those things I just mentioned above is the live Twitter Chat.

Twitter Chats are group conversations on Twitter centered around a distinct topic or issue, for example, “financial well-being for nonprofit employes.” Chats are usually steered by a moderator or guest host and the larger ones can have general rules in place to foster seamless and polite talk. These conversations, which can include hundreds of people, are conveniently organized around and searchable by tweets with a common hashtag (e.g.#foodchat).

There are also web-based applications that can be used to track and participate in these live and spirited conversations, but what I will concentrate on here are a few of the most salient weekly Twitter Chats that are a must for those of us looking to break into public relations, learn to ethically and effectively apply the tactics and strategies used everyday to drive action and get results and harness the digital evolution which is blazing forward at incredible speeds. A caveat;  As I write this post, I myself am still learning about and exploring these Twitter Chats and will therefore be embarking on the journey with you – so look for me out there in the Twitterverse!

Live Twitter Chats for PR Pros

1. #CommsChat: This UK-based Chat is cofounded and produced by Adam Vincenziniand Emily Cagleand goes live on Mondays starting at 8:00 pm UK time, which is 3:00 pm EST for us on the east coast. These conversations are based around “all aspects relating to communications including PR, traditional & social media, journalism, blogging, marketing and more.” What makes this a must for us is that knowledgable pros, from varying communications disciplines, participate in and share their experiences and opinions with the community. Social and New Media have blurred the lines between these disciplines and have made integrated and collaborative campaigns essential, so this Chat rocks. Check it out.

2. #blogchat: This weekly conversation takes place on Sunday nights at 8:00 pm Central, which is 9:00 pm EST. The host of the Chat is Mark Collier, a social media consultant, speaker and trainer. Each week a different blogging topic is chosen, with Chats covering such topics as “how to optimize your blog for search engines” and “how a company can pick its blogging team.” The value inherent in this Chat is quite obvious – blogging, whether personally or for business is an easy and effective way to establish thought leadership. Create awesome content that also solves people’s problems or gives them value in some way and get noticed by the world – whether your goal is to get noticed by prospective employers or by consumers. It is one of the most important topics for us as young communicators.

3. #journchat: Hosted by Sara Evans, this Twitter Chat between journalists, PR professionals and bloggers goes live Monday nights from 7:00-10:00 pm CT, which is 8:00-11:00 pm EST. Concerning the ethos behind the Chat Evans writes, “I believe there is a need in this evolving world of media and public relations for some major dialogue between those who make it happen.” This is one of the best and most dynamic Chats around, and we should certainly be participating in it because the folks having the conversations comprise the very influencers, we as PR pros, should be familiar with and knowledgable about.

4. #pr20chat: Weekly Tuesday Chat about Public Relations 2.0 at 8:00-9:00 pm EST. This conversation is moderated by @PRtini and @JGoldsborough. I included this Chat on the list because its community’s focus is on “how social media influences PR professionals’ engagement with ALL publics (not just the media and bloggers).” This Chat, combined with #journchat should give some insightful ideas on the strengthening of relationships and engagement with all the stakeholders we are expected to reach and interact with, genuinely and effectively. Here’s a recent transcript of the Chat to check out for yourself.

5. #socialmedia: This Chat is serious. The guys behind this weekly Chat, live every Tuesday from 12:00-1:00 pm EST, are Jason Breed and Marc Meyer. In the interest of space their bios are here. The Chat hosts “Leaders of Fortune class companies as moderators and participants to share, moderate and challenge this group to come up with industry specific best practices, new concepts, etc. related to #socialmedia.”

What makes this Chat a must is that the topics covered on a weekly basis are among the most challenging but interesting and definitely critical for us as communicators. For example, on June 22nd the Chat featured Shel Holtz who guided conversation on The New Digital Press Release. Also, check out their site to stay up on special events and the specific hashtags to follow for them (e.g. #sm65).

Let me know in the comments section if there any other conversations that we, as young, driven communicators should know about.

Thanks.

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7 Crucial e-books for Young Communicators

As this is mainly a blog for younger, entry-level communicators, I often want to post resources that will aid in navigating the PR, Marketing and Journalism landscapes and provide powerful and effective tips, tools and techniques to those in search of them.

Because communications, sales and specifically public relations and web marketing now revolve around creating and building useful and valuable content for niche audiences (the Long Tail), and establishing thought leadership and brands, free industry e-books from companies and individuals have become quite prevalent and very important (for both the companies themselves and their customers). As David Meerman Scott says, we must all “think like a publisher.”

Therefore, I scoured the Internet and came up with a list of 7 valuable e-books for young communicators from today’s thought leaders. I realize that this has been done many times before, but I’m attempting to zero in on e-books that specifically provide value to us as young professionals. Enjoy!

  • Brink: SHIFT’s Todd Defren wrote this e-book on social media, consisting of his best thinking over the past five years and offered it for free on his blog PR Squared. Defren explains the book best: “Let’s face it: most of this blog’s readers already ‘get it.’ You understand that we are poised on the ‘brink’ of amazing change. You can already see how social media is irresistibly changing the face of marketing. But, I’ll bet you have a ton of friends who either ‘don’t get it’ or only ‘kinda-sorta do.'” What I find handy here is that Defren illustrates, using real situations faced by real companies and through a familiar human voice, how we as communicators can/should create interactive channels through which we share, learn and directly participate within the appropriate markets that define our business.
  • Social Media Marketing GPS: “Interviews with 40 Marketing Leaders” by Toby Bloomberg. Shel Israel writes in the forward that “SMGPS will tell you the why & how using social media, 1 tweet at a time. You’ll learn essentials in digestible little spoonfuls.” This e-book focuses on conversational methods of marketing and succinctly explains why old broadcast practices are becoming obsolete. I found useful and engaging the format of this resource with the short, but concise interviews and answers from practitioners (thankfully “digestible,” considering the info overload we face today), with each of their Twitter handles easily accessible for following. Especially worthwhile is the section on metrics – what to measure in social media marketing and why – as well as the section on the esoteric but meaningful topic “social media ethics.”
  • The New Rules of PR: “How to create a press release strategy for reaching buyers directly.”  e-book from author, keynote speaker and marketing strategist David Meerman Scott. Although the e-book is from 2006 I include it here because crafting releases is something new hires are usually tasked with and because it lays a solid foundation for current industry practice today – PR and web 2.0. He writes, “It is time to step it up and consider the promise Web 2.0 public relations holds.” I also put this on the list because the implications of a proper, effective press release strategy are far-reaching and integral to PR best practices. Meerman makes plain the utility and power of utilizing the press release as a direct consumer-communication channel. Take heed!
  • Geeks Guide to Promoting Yourself with Twitter: “Promote yourself or your business in 140 characters or less on Twitter.” This e-book is produced by GeekPreneur and it explains why you need to be on the service, the ins-and-outs of promoting yourself on Twitter once there and how to brand your business on Twitter, among other nuggets. This is basically just a refresher for most but I believe it is relevant to us young communicators because it explains how to take hold of the service, its various “Twitter Tools,” and how to then utilize it to create a more interactive experience, which results in getting your name out there as someone who is adept in social media and has something valuable to offer. It also helps sow the seeds of a community that you can learn from and rely on in your burgeoning career.
  • The Social Web Analytics e-book: This highly detailed and informative e-book is from Philip Sheldrake , a partner at Influence Crowd LLC. The author writes “I review [in the book] how all organisations can try and make the most of the unprecedented wealth of information afforded by the Social Web, the incredible facility to ‘listen in’ on conversations close to their heart, and to initiate and engage in this dialogue.” The really insightful part of this book, which also touches on the semantic web, is that Sheldrake explores “text mining technologies,” the disadvantages of traditional market research and the advantages of continuous engagement instead. He also covers the controversial but increasingly important terrain of measuring and evaluating PR and marketing campaigns. This adds context to the metrics section of SMGPS found above – Really important aspects of any strategy or campaign in today’s business environment.
  • Marketing in 2009: “12 marketing professionals reveal their execution imperatives.” e-book from Valeria Maltoni and offered on her blog Conversation Agent. I included this book because it explores traditional marketing quite well and from different angles, as well as what social media means to it. Why some organizations won’t adopt social media in their business strategies and the necessity of building internal social media evangelists is discussed. I think its important for millennials to understand the big picture (not just social media), and where we have been.
  • Johnson & Johnson Does New Media: case study e-book by Ron Ploof. This e-book is solid because it is a case study, and as such, it provides (although somewhat specific to 1 company) a detailed picture and an opportunity for the reader to sharpen their analytical and problem solving skills. It chronicles J&J’s journey into the world of New and Social Media and it includes some links to their various social and multimedia efforts. The lessons contained within could possibly be used to illustrate to management the utility and advantages of an online communications campaign.

Bonus
Here are some bonuses –  Ragan.com offers a great list of PR, Marketing and Media podcasts.

  • The Essential Guide to Social Media: e-book by Thought Leader Brian Solis. An outline of social media tools and resources needed to listen and participate, guiding PR, customer service, product development, and marketing. This e-book is essential because it covers a wide array of PR 2.0 topics as it explains the vital role social science plays in social media – blazing a trail to success for us in a very clear and conversational tone. And what would a social media list be without Brian Solis?

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Photo credit: Daniel Lobo