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Hidden in plain sight…the story of a story

StorytellingThe article is authored by Arnab Mukherjee, Sr.VP, Planning & Strategy, Adfactors PR 

A public relations professional in India today must be a brave soul. We do not have a choice. Clients demand and believe they need an endless stream of ‘exclusive, cover stories’ which supports their business objectives. They also need to be trending on twitter – only positive mentions, please. The clients have a point. Their business environment has become hyper-competitive and hyper-unpredictable. Formidable competitors spring up overnight and steal the entrenched leaders’ lunch – anytime, anywhere, online or offline. Business cycles have shrunk to rival the proportions of hot pants and mankinis. If a business proposition or a product or a service does not achieve overnight success, over-time success is ever more predictably unlikely. Hence, PR must contribute and the PR executive must deliver the ‘cover story’ tomorrow. Simultaneously, s/he must also be not merely plugged into social media 24×7, but also be the indefatigable custodian of the brand online.

The PR firms we work for obviously understand the clients’ challenges and require us to rise to the occasion and effectively support our clients. Therefore, our employers and bosses want us to understand business strategy and be equipped to craft a PR strategy that support clients’ business objectives. They also need us to be masters of tactical implementation, good team players, great coaches and mentors for our teams, possessing great relations with the media, bloggers and twitter influencers. Our friends in the media want us to be informed, patient, humble, understanding. Our friends and family require quality time from us. We must be caring daughters or sons or fathers or mothers or brothers or friends in our family and social circles. Everyone is, isn’t it so?. Never mind the necessity to eat, sleep, and to use a deliciously anachronistic expression, ‘perform one’s ablutions’. There are other factors, too, which we must account for, to win at work and in life. Let us take just one. The transportation network in Indian cities that we use daily to reach our workplace or travel for meetings with clients or go for ‘media-rounds’, require us to be resilient – come rain or shine, literally. Given such demanding lives, we must also stay physically fit and emotionally positive. Through all this, we must be unflappable in our demeanour, as we juggle several priorities and struggle and strive to balance what is expected of us and what we can deliver in the 24 hours at our disposal. Obviously, to rise and shine every day and battle this scenario – cheerfully, efficiently, nonchalantly – one must be brave.

Thus we live, thrive, and sometimes, crib – managing our demanding lives that necessitates hyperactivity from dawn to dusk and long beyond – day in and day out.

Yet, ever so often, certain incidents, developments or individuals not only rivet our attention but emerge as the focus of public interest, often simultaneously or subsequently galvanising mass action. How do these incidents and individuals manage to distract millions of people focused on completing their onerous load of daily tasks? How are large masses of such individuals – enmeshed completely in their own lives – motivated to not just let the world around remain as it is but act in cohesive unison – to change governments, make a new product or service wildly successful or acclaim an individual to such an extent that s/he is anointed as humankind’s hero-of-the-season? Such instances represent the fondest desire of PR professionals – to not merely deliver ‘cover stories’ but campaigns that unleash desired action by stakeholders, en masse. Can such outcomes be engineered or catalysed or triggered – if not on grand, global scales but even in limited fashion?

Over the course of a month, as Adfactors PR initiated decisive steps to galvanise organisational reinvention – not only so that we retain our position as the PR industry leader in India, but prepare ourselves to expand globally and extend our capabilities – the question hung in the air. Our digital initiatives leader Vikram Kharvi, in association with Archana Muthappa, organised three panel discussions, and as moderator of one of the panels, I played the cameo assigned to me. An impressive array of panellists – stalwarts among online journalists, corporate leaders of brand communication, twitter influencers – shared their perspectives and insights with us, on how to engage online media. Paul Holmes visited our office and spoke to us about the reinvention of PR and PR executives. At the Sabre Awards India 2015, there were more panel discussions and an even-more impressive array of panellists representing marketing and PR professionals from both the client and the agency sides. All through these talks and discussions, one expression appeared to pop up often – ‘story-telling’.

Sujit Patil, Head of Communications at Godrej Group, brought it into focus with the telling perspective that ‘story-telling as an activity had retained its essence since the days of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata’. Paul Holmes contextualised story-telling in the age of Big Data. He highlighted the necessity for PR professionals to reinvent themselves – as ‘story-finders’ and ‘story-miners’ from the treasure trove of information that Big Data generates. To these data-centric ingredients of a ‘raw story’ must be added, as per taste of target stakeholder groups, a dash of emotionally-connectible ‘intimate data’ masala sourced from cultural anthropologists. The final step was to present the ingredients artfully – an opportunity, as he helpfully suggested – to return their ‘old jobs back’ to ex-journalists populating PR, as ‘brand journalists’.

At some indeterminable point of time while attending the presentations and participating in the discussions, the penny dropped and the bulb popped alight in the mind (pardon the mixed metaphor) – central to success of a PR professional today was the ability to master the art and science of story-telling! Yes, knowledge of platforms and formats mattered – print and digital, written, infographic and audio-visual, long-form and 140-character. This knowledge allowed us to enhance the users’ opportunity to discover the story and relish it in a format of their choice, at a convenient time, in a familiar environment. But most importantly,, the interesting stories must be found and they must be told in such a manner that interest is retained, preferably enhanced. The forms the stories take can be customised for different media, different contexts, different stakeholder groups. The story is the essence, the telling is the craft. Effective integration can lead to sublime experiences and acclaim-worthy outcomes – supporting clients’ business goals and also winning awards for ourselves.

If story-telling is important, it is also necessary that we understand the factors that lead to crafting of a good story and telling it effectively. The components of an interesting story and its packaging include protagonists that the audience can relate to; sufficient details that flesh out and enliven the environment, the settings, the back stories and the characters – making them believable; a credible yet daunting challenge for the protagonist to square off against; overcoming the challenge through ingenuity, dedication, hard work; a denouement that either provides cathartic, often vicarious relief for all of us who must brave a challenging environment daily, or in some way sears the tapestry of our emotional fabric with a lasting imprint.

There are other aspects, too, that must be considered and addressed. How do we package the stories we need and want to tell – for mass appeal or appeal to the segment of stakeholders relevant for a particular initiative or objective? How do we balance story-telling with the necessity to be factual or brief? How should stories be told in the press release format, without deviation from the core facts or undue exaggeration, or within the 140-character limit of Twitter? How do we cater to a sceptical audience without triggering scepticism? Questions abound, answers must be found, but that is the focus of subsequent investigations, ruminations and interactions.

But it is certain that if a PR Manifesto were to be written today, with apologies to Marx and Engels, it may not be inappropriate for such a manifesto to contain the following exhortation: PR executives of the world, unite! Shed the shackles that bind your imagination and fetter you only to information! Retain information, but acquire imagination. Go forth, tell stories; and no longer would you just strive and survive, but you will thrive! Be a story-teller, win the world’s attention. Being resourceful is not enough. You have to be imaginative – at least till such time when we have to reinvent ourselves, yet again. If you cannot tell stories yet, you must learn to find them; and also find those who can tell them on your behalf and teach you how to. But stories have to be told – that attention can hold! Hence, ye PR professional: be bold, find the stories untold; let them unfold, to lead you to professional success – and your personal pot of gold!’

🙂 Thank you for your interest and attention, O brave PR executive, if you read up to this sentence, for this story now ends! 🙂



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