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PR Persuasion: It's All About the Story—and Positioning

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Public relations is a profession, craft, or job category—take your pick—based on applying factual information and opinion to persuade people toward a particular perspective.

Whether you're attempting to position a company or product as a category leader, gain permission from a community to make changes, or push a law through the legislature, PR needs to tell interesting yet believable stories that make the target audience consider a new perspective or see the sponsor in a new light.

If your stories aren't understandable, interesting, provocative, or supportable (read accurate and believable), then your publicity effort probably hasn't got wheels.

It's all about the story!

It's pretty amazing that this basic idea is missed by so many business managers, marketers, and promoters. The essence of storytelling is newness or newsworthiness. Look at the following hints for potential news value:

  • Effect: how many people were, or are, affected—or will be?
  • Timeliness: did the event occur very recently?
  • Revelation: is there significant new information, previously unknown?
  • Proximity: was the event nearby geographically?
  • Oddity: was the event highly unusual?
  • Entertainment: does it make for a fun story?
  • Celebrity: was anyone famous involved?


Another way of thinking about the storytelling challenge, particularly in the commercial world, is bringing "what's different" into your story.

Marketing gurus Jack Trout and Al Ries have long explained the need for differentiation and it's never truer than when you begin a PR campaign.

In spite of the immense overuse of the word "positioning," few truly understand what is involved in achieving perceptual separation in the minds of the market. Read any of their books, such as Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind, Trout on Strategy, or The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, or many others, so you can incorporate clear, simple thinking and strategic direction into your campaign planning.

Discovering, understanding, enunciating, and demonstrating a clear and simple difference in language is essential to the success of both the public relations campaign and the business or political venture. A memorable slogan for this is "Distinct or Extinct."

The Dance of Differentiation: Learn It

The first thing anyone managing a PR effort needs to ask is "What's new?":

  • What are we doing or what can we say that's both important to our audience and unlike what competing entities are saying?

  • How can we effectively separate what we're saying or doing from the communications noise affecting the people we want to connect with?

  • What kind of an interesting story (interesting to our audience, that is) can we tell that will make them pay attention and help us to gain share of mind?

  • Do we need to be contrarian or outrageous?

  • Can we discover some key truths that others haven't expressed?

Most of the time, answers are lying around and are quite obvious: What strongly held beliefs about related issues and trends do the organization's managers hold? Are they being expressed? Can you "put a face on" the organization by giving voice to these beliefs? Those are all handles for a PR pro to grab when looking for stories that can give the campaign some legs.

Most often the story that's interesting or that will garner attention in the commercial sector isn't about the product or service you're selling. More likely, it's about how people are using your products or the competition's and the positive effect it's having on their lives.

The story may also be about what's not available, what people need that isn't yet provided or one your company will perhaps be introducing months from now. New concepts can be the basis for great storytelling.

Persuading managers to express their opinions and become the voice of their organization or company can be difficult. However, teasing ideas out of those who should be speaking for the company can also be a fun part of public relations work. Once they've done it a few times, survived, and seen their name in print, they'll be more willing to be public with their ideas.

Listening and reading what tends to be, these days, in PowerPoint presentations (does anyone still write in complete sentences?), can often uncover relevant and effective story ideas. Whether you're practicing public relations within a company or as agency counsel, the time spent listening to management and clients or reviewing their written output can uncover many story ideas or angles.

Reading related industry news is another key way of discovering appropriate story ideas. All PR pros need to invest time staying abreast of what's going on in the industries or market sectors in which they're working. Reading provides an added way of seeing potential stories you can tell or to which you can hitch your story. It also familiarizes you with what key journalists are covering. Knowing that is essential as well.

Armed with a solid list of story ideas that are connected to the essential difference you want people to perceive about your organization... will help make all the aspects of a PR campaign roll forward with greater vitality and impact. First, get the strategic story down, and the PR program's tactics will flow naturally from of it.


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Ford Kanzler is principal at Marketing/PR Savvy, a public relations and communications firm. He can be reached via ford@prsavvy.com.

LinkedIn: Ford Kanzler

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