A 2021 Call To Action: Recommit to the PR Fundamentals
5 ways to shift from surviving to thriving in the new year
For the past nine months, we communicators have been in a state of reactive storytelling. Ever since the first month of COVID-19, our surge capacity has maxed out, our stress limits have been exceeded and we are just plain overwhelmed. Now throw in politics, protests, wildfires, etc., and it’s chaos. As things continue to changing, it is a comfort to me that there are some things I can always rely on to keep me grounded, like my four-year-old’s insatiable appetite for chocolate milk, “The West Wing” being a fantastic and comforting series, and the fundamentals necessary to tell a good story.
In a time when everything is in flux, we must return to the fundamentals to ensure reactive storytelling does not become our “next new normal.” Business advisor and entrepreneur Barry O’Reilly says, “Our instinctive reaction when faced with uncertainty is to hit the brakes. [But] stopping activities, saying no, and shutting down is NOT the way to succeed in an uncertain environment. It’s the way to struggle, stagnate, and fall even further behind the tide of change.” We don’t want to just survive this period of uncertainty and turbulence; we want to thrive in it. In his article Don’t Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste. Instead, Use It as a Catalyst for Innovation, O’Reilly recommends we “unlearn, relearn and break through.” Luckily, I recently had the opportunity to do just that.
After nearly 15 years in the public relations industry, I was tasked with developing an onboarding manual to help new employees align with how WE builds stories for our clients. Senior Vice President Brandon Sandford and I set to work unweaving our muscle memory to objectively look at what the steps are for building a great story, and better yet why these are the steps. A few months later I had the opportunity to share the manual in the 2020 PR Council The Agency-Ready Certificate Program, a brilliant solution for recent graduates and college students seeking necessary internship development when internships were being canceled due to COVID-19. Spending time talking with fresh minds during the chaos of 2020 was the inspiration I needed to recommit to the fundamentals.
Fundamental #1: Rethink Your Communication Skills
As communicators, we often think of our talents as soft skills. Communication is just as important in our career as it is in our daily lives, and often as we develop the skill professionally, we see its benefits personally as well. But what separates a soft skill from a hard skill? One is how we think, the other is how we do. Communication is both. As Brandon puts it, “Storytelling is as much art as it is science.” By walking the next generation of communicators through the storytelling process, I was able to narrow in and see the hard skills we often take for granted.
Today, in a time of ever-shifting narratives when the difference of interpretation is actually a life or death matter, our audiences rely on communications. At the same time, newsrooms are shrinking and beats are expanding; our reporter colleagues are spread thin. It is more imperative than ever for communicators to use our skill to inform with reliability, accuracy, empathy and quality.
Fundamental #2: Lean Into Your Emotional Intelligence
So much of our job is just thinking. Thinking about insights, thinking about relationships, thinking about the client, the consumer, the media, the stakeholders, the product, the service, the environment, the competition, and how each piece affects the rest. All this critical thinking is founded in one key skill: emotional intelligence. As communicators, we must be able to emotionally understand all the facets and effects to make data-led, yet highly creative, recommendations to our clients. In just the past few weeks, I’ve seen a major shift toward empathy, especially in our communications and storytelling efforts. One way empathy can help us tell better stories is by enabling us to think about what the audience needs and shaping our efforts to help deliver it; whether it’s news, a laugh or a deeply technical how-to, the goal is to help the reader. The other is thinking like the end audience, and making sure we’re telling stories we’d want to read if we were them.
Consumers are stressed, overwhelmed and worried. The stories they will seek out and engage with are the ones that resonate with where they are on an emotional level. We must be more human than ever when crafting communications to give readers the relatability and connection they crave during this period of uncertainty and distance. At WE, we don’t believe you can tell a story well without being human to the core.
Fundamental #3: Recognize Your Intentionality
Building out the storytelling process, and then explaining it to a group of people who had never seen it done, was a reminder that great stories do not just happen (most of the time). Great stories take effort; they take intentionality. Developing stories day after day can begin to feel like the stories just fall into place by themselves, when in fact they are driven by communicators who understand the topic, the audience and the reason behind the story.
Communications professionals have been trapped in quick-twitch, reactive content for almost a year now, but we must return intentionality to a place of priority. Be intentional about how you drive timing and angle; consider the what, the when and the how. And most importantly, consider the who, and make sure we’re telling the right story in the right place to reach them. We all know that a good story at the wrong time can do significant harm, more so now than ever. Would you share about employee promotions during a time of mass layoffs and unemployment? Would you amplify a large public event while other countries were forced into quarantine? Would you celebrate the launch of a new product during civil unrest? Some brands did. If you plan with intentionality, your next step will be clear when change happens quickly. Be intentional or risk being tone deaf, or worse.
Fundamental #4: Discover Your Athleticism
The hardest part of building out the storytelling process for me and Brandon was establishing the “correct” order. Once we looked at the process as a whole, the parts were clear, but what order to put them in was not. That is because in storytelling, the steps do not always happen in the same order. Depending on the situation, they can change, and in some instances, you have to start over in the middle of the process. Storytelling is a muscle; it needs to be used, strengthened and stretched, so that it is not only powerful but flexible and agile.
Right now we are all being stretched, adding brawn to our brain. Our wheelhouse has expanded to include communications around global pandemics, medical concerns, systemic racism, etc. Powerful and flexible communications is important, but adding agility makes you a true communications athlete. It is important to know when to move to catch an opportunity and when to move to avoid a catastrophe, as we saw with the #SilenceIsCompliance hashtag. Powerful, flexible and agile communicators are the Ninja Warriors of our industry.
It’s as important in telling stories as in playing sports (and so many facets of life) to accept and learn from losses too. Not every story lands, and not every story lands how you envisioned. Recently, after an otherwise fruitful and successful test, SpaceX blew up a prototype Starship rocket on landing. Elon Musk’s response to the seeming failure was to say the flight went well and “controlling [Starship] all way to putting the crater in the right spot was epic!!” Even if a part, or most, of a story goes epically wrong, there is always something to learn or some small success to be proud of – even if it is a smoldering crater full of wreckage.
Fundamental #5: Embrace Your Passion
Brandon said it best: “As a storyteller, your passion has to come through. Experience comes with time, but passion transcends that. Passion is not a way of thinking about your world; it is a way of bringing others into your world. The only way to get someone excited about something is if you’re excited! So first, figure out what that is.” It’s really hard to tell compelling stories about things you don’t care about.
It is up to us as storytellers to make sure that in our ever-changing environment, we stay grounded in the fundamentals of not just what we do, but how and why we do it. How and why WE tells stories is what sets us apart from the competition. Stories can connect us with a brand’s message and purpose in a way that is both meaningful and memorable. When crafted well, stories have the power to drive brand loyalty, create awareness, change perspectives, inspire action and so much more in this time of chaos. So, let’s rethink how we view our communications skills, lean into our emotional intelligence, recognize our intentionality, discover our athleticism and embrace our passion to reverse our reactive mode and make 2021 one of purposeful communications. I’ll leave you with a final thought from Brandon: “When communicators truly understand the purpose of what they are accruing to, they are able to bring so much more to the table.”