We all love telling stories. What’s more, we’re generally pretty good at it. Each and every one of us has our own ‘library’ of stories to draw from when we want to impress, empathise or entertain. Mine include: a government minister shaking his fist at me in parliament, being airlifted to hospital following a car accident and a teacher putting me in a ‘ginger identity parade’ at school (yep, that really happened).
We also love trading stories about things that happen to us, day-to-day. Not the mundane stuff, like unloading the dishwasher, taking the dog for a walk or helping our kids with their homework. We share things that are a little bit out of the ordinary - the rude shop assistant, the nightmare holiday apartment or the ex who’s turned into a stalker.
So it fascinates me to see what happens when people start trying to tell their story in their media. While they wouldn’t dream of telling their friends about their new industry benchmark standards, content management system (CMS) or the fact they've painted their boardroom yellow (ok, the last one might be a teeny exaggeration, but hopefully you get the point), they think people might be interested in reading about it in a national newspaper.
Journalists are professional storytellers. So the more you understand about storytelling - and the parts of stories people find most appealing - the better placed you’ll be to get media coverage.
Narrative Theory and Storytelling
Applying narrative theory can help. There are various theories on narrative structure, but my favourite is Tzvetan Todorov’s which states that most stories or plotlines (i.e. in books, films and TV) follow the same path (explained here, in my own words):
- The story opens with a state of equilibrium or balance
- Something happens to disrupt the equilibrium and/or create a problem
- The characters recognise that something has gone wrong
- Characters attempt to solve the problem
- The problem is solved and a new equilibrium is restored
Media stories are exactly the same - with one significant difference: journalists aren’t terribly interested in the ‘equilibrium’ stage i.e. the company that’s doing fine, the happy marriage or impeccably behaved children. They’re far more likely to share stories about the equilibrium being disrupted and/or how people are trying to put it right e.g. the company whose share prices have fallen, the celebrity marriage that’s falling apart or rising school truancy. In fact, media stories rarely give you the full narrative 'arc' (i.e. stages 1 - 5). They generally focus on one or two stages (generally 2-4).
Applying narrative theory to PR
That doesn’t mean journalists only share negative stories - ‘disruption’ can simply mean something that’s out-of-the-ordinary - like this yarn-bombing granny:
Or the chocolatier who created a 'Cumberbunny':
What businesses get wrong
The biggest mistake I see businesses and brands making with their PR is pitching too many ‘equilibrium’ stories e.g. the ‘isn’t my business wonderful?’ story or the ‘we’ve won an award no-one has heard of or even cares about about’ story.
If you want to get journalists interested in sharing your stories, you need focus far more on being disruptive which, as the examples above show, isn’t about what you’re doing badly. It can simply be about how you are doing things differently or solving problems that affect other people in your industry or ‘tribe’.
You also need to ensure your story has characters. The reason journalists aren't interested in sharing stories about the equilibrium (and people aren’t interested in hearing them) is because they’re very one-dimensional.
Pitch a story about how well your startup did in its first year of business and you’ve only got a hero (you).
Pitch a story about how you started your business because you didn’t want to take maternity leave and you’ve got a small cast of characters: the villain (big corporates with inflexible work ethics), the hero (you - because you broke the mould), the helper/sidekick (your parents who joined the business to help you), which immediately adds drama and tension. It’s also disruptive: leaving behind a great career to move to the country and run a business with your parents goes against perceived wisdom about what defines career success.
If you want get more detailed, you might also want to look at the work of Vladimir Propp who breaks down narrative structure into 31 functions and identifies seven character archetypes including the dispatcher (who sends the hero off on his/her quest) and the false hero (who takes credit for the hero’s action).
Personally I think there is an awful lot of fluff out there on PR and storytelling and doing these two things alone will improve your chances of getting media attention:
- Recognising that journalists aren’t generally interested in ‘equilibrium’ stories (and people aren’t interested in hearing them)
- Ensuring any stories you pitch have a small cast of characters e.g. hero, villain, helper
So the next time you find yourself wanting to pitch a story ask yourself this:
Is this a story that people will want to share with others? Something they will actually care about or have an opinion on? Or is it the professional equivalent of an anecdote about washing the dishes or clearing out my sock drawer?
If it's the latter, you might want to have a rethink.
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