Story Development

Is Storytelling in PR worthless?

Naturally, there will be exceptions to the rule, but on the whole, the industry is not equipped to produce compelling stories. I recognise that’s a bold, if not heretical, claim which is in need of some supporting arguments, so here goes.

PR professionals, as with the rest of the communications community, have been slavish to the idea of story, but we haven’t been astute enough to recognise that we tend to do it wrongly. Here’s what I mean, as practitioners we rely on conventional rhetoric to persuade. We mirror our clients, who have been trained this way; as creative writing guru, Robert McKee says, we build our case on facts, stats and quotes from authorities. We see it as an intellectual process, because we can’t see it any other way. Subsequently, we miss the vital component that make stories persuasive – the emotion!

Which begs the question – why do we miss it? As I said, this is partly down to producing what we think the clients want – a safe, logic-driven, data-based approach that typically leaves audiences cold at best. Ultimately though, we can’t do this properly, because as practitioners we’re schooled to keep those emotions in check.  This is especially the case with agency staff – I include myself here as a former agency man – who are immediately alerted of the paramount need to keep clients happy. I’m not saying that agency folk lack maturity per se; of course not, there are some brilliant minds at work here, but I fear they reflect their environmental upbringing which is essentially about one thing – profit. If we don’t fully explore our feelings in this space, including the reality of failure and the uncertainties of a tech future, how can we expect to produce rich, meaningful narratives for others?

Disruption is affecting us all at dizzying speeds, businesses are feeling increasingly vulnerable, so it is incumbent on us as professionals to embrace greater emotional exposure – to demonstrate how we feel - to produce stories and relationships that are reflective of our growing sensitivities and befitting of a more engaged audience.

This article first featured in Mumbrella on the 19 December


The London Whale Never Stood a Chance

The London Whale has spoken. More specifically, Bruno Iksil, the trader behind the wonderfully evocative nickname and the man at the centre of the JPMorgan Chase multibillion-dollar trading loss in 2012 has broken his silence about the whole affair - you can read more here.

In a comprehensive three page letter sent to the media, Mr Iksil sets out his side of the story and in doing so, points squarely to the door of his former employer as the engineers of the whole debacle. The trader writes that he was made a scapegoat for trades that were “initiated, approved, mandated and monitored” by senior management. JPMorgan Chase, have (at time of publication) made no comment, I hasten to add.

Mr Iksil goes on to say that the losses “were not the actions of one person acting in an unauthorised manner [and] for no good reason, I was singled out by the media.” Now, despite the losses, Mr Iksil is it’s assumed a very smart man to have made it to such rarefied heights in one of the biggest banks in the world. He clearly knows far more about banking than I do, but it’s apparent that he doesn’t know much about the media. Let me, pass Mr Iksil’s comments by you again – “for no good reason, I was singled out by the media”. Mr Iksil, you were always going to be singled out thanks to that nickname - the London Whale. It’s a label which, unsurprisingly, the trader resents and apparently borne of the size of the bank’s bets in corporate-debt markets. But that doesn’t matter; the media had their man. Trading is a complicated business, which leaves most audiences cold – you try explaining derivatives and credit-swap indexes over breakfast (or any other meal).

Quite simply, the media thrives on conflict, which results in victims, and with victims come villains. This is not to judge Mr Iksil, but to illustrate the point. The global financial crisis had shown that there was something rotten in the state of banking and to that end, those deemed culpable needed to be held up by the media.

The ‘London Whale’ hints at a corpulent, greedy culture which so resonates with the public when it comes to perceptions of the banking industry – the GFC’s Mr Creosote (see Monty Python), if you will. The name gave the media a face and personality (albeit wrong), which is a damn sight easier to engage with than corporate-bond defaults. So, you see Mr Iksil, singling you out may not have been fair, but it was always going to happen.


Framing Hillary Clinton

The results from the first US presidential nomination vote in Iowa were always going to be interesting, because it’s a largely entertaining group of runners who have made it to the starting line. Was the momentum built by Donald Trump going to continue, despite labelling the Iowans, “stupid” earlier in the campaign? What of freshman senator, Ted Cruz, and would the wheels of the Clinton juggernaut rock, or roll?

Now we know – a good night was had by Cruz, Marco Rubio and the veteran, Bernie Sanders, while it was a case of ‘could do better’ for the more prominent Trump and Clinton. Or was it? While, Trump’s underachievement is uncontested, other outcomes are far greyer when presented by the media. Specifically, how did Senator Clinton get on? In terms of the numbers, she shaded it from Sanders by .3 of a percentage point; that’s 49.9% versus 49.6%. She “struggled” according to the Australian Financial Review; she was “unnerved” in the Sydney Morning Herald and won on the “toss of a coin” in the UK’s Daily Telegraph.

However, the Clinton bandwagon knows politics to be a long and expensive game; crucially, it also knows the media very well and how it operates. More accurately, it knows how to frame the story. I allude to the concept of framing, which when applied to the media is primarily concerned with news outlets and how they give meaning to events is determined by the prominence they give to some aspects of the story over others. The Clinton clan is also acutely aware of the power of the image; ergo, pictures of a euphoric Hillary, Bill and Chelsea – this is the jubilation nation. Gone are the struggles and nerves; these are pictures that tell a different story – this is juggernaut unstoppable and these people are one thing, winners and we should all join in to feel the same way.

I’ve cited Gavin Esler’s ‘Lessons from the Top’ in this blog before and I do so again in relaying the story of television reporter Lesley Stahl, who looked to highlight Ronald Reagan’s “hypocrisy” in regards to public health schemes. Stahl used footage of Reagan visiting a nursing home to report the fact that the President opposed funding for such places. Following the broadcast, a White House aide called Stahl to say that they had “loved the piece”. Stahl had wondered if they had heard the piece correctly. The aide replied that they had heard every word, but that “nobody heard you”.  Fundamentally, the images of a doting Reagan with society’s marginalised far outshouted Stahl’s words. Hillary and the rest of the regiment know quite clearly that seeing is believing.


Tiger Woods is Great.

I recently revisited Bill Dorris’ The Arrival of the Fittest: How the Great Become Great in preparation for a tutorial I gave at UNSW. At the risk of woefully condensing the author’s insights to the point of becoming meaningless, Dorris points out that those who attain the label of “greatness” are credited with solving a key generational problem in society, or a field of play or learning; among others, he (rightly) cites the likes of Lincoln and Einstein as great. Now, the vital word in that description is surely, “generational” - quite simply, these men and women are few and far between. Why? Because the obstacles they faced were so few and far between. Essentially, it’s not necessarily about the individual achievements, but the metaphorical mountains they have to climb to get to those achievements.

I bring this up for a number of reasons; primarily, I love words and it is part of what we do in defining stories for clients at CRP, and secondly, it makes for an interesting debate. So, in light of the seemingly universal nature of greatness these days – please, enter, ‘Who is Great’ into Google Images and you get everybody from US soccer player, Oguchi Onyewu, to BB King and Harry Potter – I urge us to return the notion of what it means to be great, back to Dorris’ Himalayan heights. It can, rest assured, only serve us well.

Sport is the lightning rod of greatness, or that’s how media commentators would have us believe it. There is not a week that goes by without us being witness to apparent greatness, whether it’s behind the wheel, or in front of goal. Sportsmen and women are capable of great achievements, but that’s a big difference – it’s not greatness. The challenges they face are rarely insurmountable – the competitors are both familiar and finite; that is, you usually know the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents and there aren’t too many of them.

If there’s one individual that’s polarised the debate recently, that would be Tiger Woods. The golfer’s on-course achievements cannot be contested, but his personal challenges did much in the eyes of many to undermine any claims to the label of great. Greatness can only be earnt both on and off the course it would appear. However, if Woods’ career is to be framed against Dorris’ criteria, has he not already achieved greatness? Specifically, here was a young man of African American descent who opened up one of the most racially exclusive games to a generation of young, non-white players. Anyway, they are my thoughts – what are yours? 

What's the story, Mr Turnbull?

In his immensely readable book, ‘Lessons from the Top’, BBC presenter Gavin Estler takes a close look at the story telling techniques of those who have made it; from Bill Clinton, to Lady Gaga, Steve Jobs to Angela Merkel. In summary, they’re all very good at telling us who they are, their purpose in life and what defines them and their followers as a distinct group.

Estler’s analysis got me thinking about the Malcolm Turnbull story – that’s the new Prime Minister’s personal narrative; the story controlled and projected by Turnbull, as opposed to stories about his life to date. Undoubtedly, the life to date has been remarkable for its breadth and its achievements – journalist, lawyer, business man and technology entrepreneur. Seemingly, rich pickings to answer the ‘who am I?’ question, or is it? The Prime Minister and his advisors are smart people and to that end, acutely aware of how previous achievements could be misinterpreted by vast swathes of the public; for one man’s achievements, read another man’s privileged opportunities.

Rather unfairly, such a string of accomplishments could be framed by some as indicative of a restless streak – to put it bluntly, he’s not a stayer. Consequently, Mr Turnbull’s storytellers would appear to be focussing on the other parts of the process – namely, what defines the leader and his followers and what exactly is their collective purpose. This, in itself, is interesting as it takes us – for the time being – to excitement; more specifically, “the most exciting time to be an Australian” according to the Prime Minister. This presumably means that Mr Turnbull and his cabinet are the men and women who will help the rest of us realise the bounty of such heady days? There’s gold in them there hills, son; join us and we’ll get rich together.

They’ll backtrack from ‘excitement’ – they have to. It’s ephemeral and more importantly, it’s the opposite of ‘calm’ – a trait much sought after in our leaders.

It’s an intriguing word to choose; it’s evaluative and to that end, subjective. It wasn’t, it’s assumed, chosen lightly. These are exciting times, but the excitement is largely borne of uncertainty and that’s one place the Prime Minister wouldn’t go. As I said, he’s a business man, and if there’s one thing we know, it’s that markets hate uncertainty.