In explaining why his company is looking for a PR agency, a prospect recently mentioned that a flagship product was “born out of frustration” with the industry’s failings. Never mind the category; the words “born out of frustration” instantly piqued my interest.
It’s something we can all identify with, and that simple beginning signaled a good story to come. The rest of the conversation made me think of the challenges – and opportunities – that classic storytelling techniques offer for communicators as the craft of public relations evolves.
Most of the narratives we in PR and marketing create for brands fall into a category right out of Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots. They range from the familiar David vs. Goliath story to the rags-to-riches myth and variations on my favorite — the archetypal Hero’s Journey.
The issue for many public relations professionals is that most are trained into an “earned media” mindset. We place enormous energy into identifying, shaping, and pitching the story so that someone else will want to tell it – usually a journalist. But with the growth of brand journalism and the influx of professional journalists into PR and communications, we need to not only find those stories, but to tell them at a high level. So, like the archetypal hero who sets off on a journey or quest, we must rise to the challenge. Here are some ways that the basic storytelling plots can help.
Overcoming the monster. This one goes back to ancient Greece but it still thrives today. Look no further than Avengers: Age of Ultron or just about any other superhero film. But in business, this is typically about conflict: a small company looking to upend a behemoth; a company founder beset by personal or professional demons; or an everyman who musters the will to fight the establishment. It can be an ordinary Joe or the brilliant misfit who struggles to carve his own path, like Steve Jobs when he took his company back after Pixar.
The “frustration” line that triggered my thought is what Kevin Rogers calls the “rebel yell” statement, – a story about being fed up and wanting to make change. This works into the “monster” archetype as well as the quest, below.
The quest. This one’s arguably the most common story. It has given birth to many variations, often as an entrepreneur’s journey, bedeviled by setbacks and fraught with personal sacrifice. Think of every startup company you’ve ever heard of.
The voyage and return. This archetype is the hero who undergoes an unexpected experience or falls down a rabbit hole but succeeds in returning home, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. And as with Dorothy, the experience is transformative. The protagonist is changed as a result.
Rags to riches. This overlaps with “the quest” but is typically about the fruits of success and the story that follows. Serial entrepreneurs and socially minded CEOs like Richard Branson or Howard Schultz who leverage their business success to write new chapters for their business and/or new ventures belong in this category.
Comedy. Comedy can translate into an irreverent company culture or an upstart attitude of irony. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Brands who’ve embraced this archetype range from the friendly, yet sophisticated Warby Parker, to insurance providers like Geico and Progressive, who are willing to poke fun at their own industries.
Tragedy. A tragedy story is tough unless it has an upbeat or transformative ending. Which leads us to…
Rebirth. This is every business that has weathered a reputation crisis, economic downturn or other near-death experience. It can be self-inflicted or driven by external forces, but it’s usually some of both. Lego – a beloved brand that faced bankruptcy just 10 years ago – General Motors, and Yahoo (as a work-in-progress) have benefited by crafting a narrative involving a triumphant return or rebirth and engaging customers to root for their success. Who doesn’t love a good comeback story?