Tell compelling PR stories from the heart

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PUBLIC relations is a form of classic business storytelling. As PR professional Robbie Vorhaus said, “It is pure nonfiction. It is truth told in the precise same context as any other story form as movies, advertising and journalism.”

Storytelling is essentially having a point of view or a central idea that focuses on a person or object. The purpose of discussion, you may call the person, the “champ,” and the object, the “champ’s magical rock”. Effective storytelling takes your audience on the champ’s journey as he goes through acid tests and distressing states to arrive at some new position. It doesn’t matter if you’re promoting a country, company, product, political figure or cause. If you tell the story using a consistent recipe, project ingredients, prototypes and a trail of differentiating stories, your key messages will be heard and acted on.

In business, whoever tells the most compelling story rules. To tell an engaging narrative, open with fire—a peep at the champ’s commonplace, but believable world. Then move on and add a strong middle—the champ’s journey into some unusual world—and end with a tail that bites the head—the champ’s return to his ordinary world, but transformed or morphed.

A vital component of an effective story is a compelling point of view or an umbrella theme, such as: “There is no substitute for persistence,” “Great performance brings great result” or “It’s all in the presentation.” “In fictional storytelling, you can benchmark on movies like Titanic, Ghost, Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story,” Vorhaus relates. These box-office hits carry a uniform premise: “True love never dies.” In business storytelling, you can latch on classroom marketing cases, like this Dominos Pizza story: A young man who grows up in an orphanage joins the Marines, returns and buys a small pizza store in Ypsilanti, Michigan, thinking he can make more money delivering pizza than waiting for customers to come to him. He opens other stores, buys out his brother for the price of a Volkswagen car, and builds the company into a $3.3-billion global enterprise. He sold the business for $1.1 billion and is quoted as saying, “I want to give all my money away and die broke.” Crazy maybe, but the overarching theme of his story is, “There is no substitute for persistence.”

Friends and colleagues in news organizations observed that one just has to pick up from hundreds of faxed, e-mailed or personally delivered press releases, and see the state of story telling in the country. Most likely, you will get stunned at the poor grammar, spelling errors and complete lack of any apparent writing skills. The lack of writing skills and storytelling ability provides a huge disconnect between journalists and PR practitioners.

Stimulus and response

“TO be an effective storyteller, you must stop trying to sell,” Vorhaus said. You must learn instead the art and science of connecting with your audience, not manipulating it. Reading some books on nonfiction writing and journalism can provide superb help. Excellent titles recommended for reading include Richard Dowis’s The Lost Art of the Great Speech, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Don Hewitt’s Tell Me A Story, Lillian Ross’s Reporting Back and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

When you have mastered the theories, move on to practice, practice and more practice. Find someone who has no vested interest in your story, then tell it, and tell it well. Be prepared for feedback as you bring your story to a defined public. The stimulus-response (S-R) communications principle says that you should respond based on a stimulus. In comedy, the take is, “If the audience doesn’t laugh, it’s not funny.” In a stage performance, “If the audience doesn’t clap, it isn’t a good show.”

In PR, the same thing holds. “If the public doesn’t get it, the public won’t support it.” Such approach is a match with corporate objectives. For example, URC, the company that started C2, is “the country’s favorite refreshment;” Jollibee, and its memorable Langhap Sarap; and National Book Store, founded by Nanay Coring Ramos, “the leading bookstore brand in the Philippines,” all have glorious stories that deserve to be told well.

Storytelling can have many platforms: staff meetings, project presentations, company events, industry conferences, community gatherings, and training sessions. The list is as endless as your imagination. You need to be a great storyteller to effectively project your stories. And you can heighten success by preparing how you will communicate your stories, taking into account some guidelines when you’re actually sharing them.

International communicator Lori Silverman said, “We all tell stories in casual conversations. They often spill out without any pre-planning. While spontaneity is the norm in these settings, selecting the best stories to use in more formal venues requires forethought.” Silverman lists some criteria for selecting verbal or written stories:

  • Who will watch, hear or read your story? Make sure the story and the words and language used are appropriate for your audience. The last thing you want is to inadvertently offend someone. Stay away from painful or embarrassing stories or those that speak to life or death challenges until you’ve established rapport and credibility.
  • What objective are you trying to achieve? This doesn’t mean the story needs to strictly fit the topic. A metaphorical or symbolic story can be just as powerful.
  • When will you tell a story, in relation to other information that you’ll share? Here are some rules of thumb: If you know people will be tired or distracted, open with a story to capture their attention. If you suspect they may resist what you have to share, relay a story beforehand that helps them understand its importance. If you’re unsure that they’ll comprehend the data you have to communicate, tell a story afterward that brings meaning to it; or tell one early on that leads into the need for the findings. If you’re skeptical that they’ll do what has been asked of them, end with a story that speaks to the need to take action.

Telling your stories right will enhance your messages. They will connect more closely with those whom you want to hear or read them, and, without a doubt, increase your chance of success. Take time to prepare what needs to be prepared and think through the impact your story will create. Tell your audience your stories from your heart, and their hearts will surely open.

PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the UK-based International Public Relations Association (Ipra), the world’s premier organization for PR professionals around the world. Bong Osorio is the Communications consultant and spokesman of ABS-CBN Corp. We are devoting a special column each month to answer our readers’ questions about public relations. Please send your questions or comments to