James Burnett reporting from Haiti in February 2010, weeks after the deadly earthquake that killed more 230,000.
As a former journalist, one of the questions I’m asked most often is, “Do you miss reporting?” More specifically, I’m often asked if I miss writing about interesting people, places and organizations.
It’s a fair question. For 16 years I reported (for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Miami Herald, and the Boston Globe) on topics, institutions, and influencers, ranging from consumer behavior and trends to crime and poverty, race relations, state and federal courts, billionaire business leaders who’d started from nothing, and gubernatorial and presidential candidates. I reported from New York City in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, from Port au Prince in the days after the deadly 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, and was on the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath.
My answer, though? Always a resounding, if qualified, no! And though it’s an answer that shocks every time, the surprise comes from a place of misunderstanding.
I don’t miss writing about interesting topics because I still do so as a public relations practitioner. I would argue, in fact, that if a PR counsel is not incorporating richly layered storytelling into his strategic approach, he isn’t doing his job right or well.
As recently as a decade ago, a diligent PR practitioner could send a well-written, detail-laden press release to a newspaper or TV or radio station. If the topic was interesting enough, odds were high the practitioner would get a “hit.” Some reporter, editor or producer would respond and request an interview with the practitioner’s client.
However, as internet access has exploded, social media reach now touches the most remote corners of the planet. Recording and editing equipment is more affordable. Consumers (and the businesses that hope to sell them products and services) have demonstrated a willingness to read, watch and hear news from people other than their favorite columnists or anchors.
What hasn’t gotten more affordable or more readily available is time.
Keeping all of this in mind, public relations storytelling can no longer consist of just a press release. Frankly, it should have ceased being a press release-only practice a decade ago as businesses started to recognize that their stakeholders and target audiences had begun diversifying their sources of information. But for those who didn’t get the memo, proper storytelling in this space must include tools and tactics that deliver stories to where audiences are, rather than where we’d like them to be.
For public relations practitioners that means authoring blog posts and producing podcasts for clients, sharing client business success stories on Twitter and Facebook, positioning client executives via LinkedIn articles and op-eds as subject matter experts and industry and community thought leaders. This is where brand journalism comes in. When you approach storytelling like a journalist, you can create a compelling narrative that has real news value to your target audiences.
These things can be labor-intensive, but with consistency, they pay off. News consumers, whether Average Joe or Jane, business or community leaders, public officials, or other concerned parties, are Pavlovian in their habits and want to know that in addition to getting detailed and accurate information, they’ll receive it in regular intervals in places and on platforms that they frequent.
And at the end of the day, good storytelling —with business development in mind— serves an inadvertent purpose as well: to grab the attention of that busy, harried, traditional journalist who no longer has the luxury of time to vet every press release that crosses his or her desk or screen.
Proper storytelling must include tools and tactics that deliver stories to where audiences are, rather than where we’d like them to be.