May 22, 2013

4 Ways to Build Storytelling into Press Releases

The classic storytelling arc is a structure on which you can build many communications – including press releases.

Assuming that you need to stick to dry language and a certain format when drafting a press release can limit the appeal (and ultimately the success) of your message. Press releases have the potential to reach huge audiences, and constituents of every stripe.  

smpr“We’re kind of stuck on making an old format meet a new purpose,” notes Jeff Domansky, CEO of Peak Communications and author of the popular public relations blog, The PR Coach.  “ The first social press release format came out 7 years ago, but we’re not using it. People are falling back on the old format, and complaining that it doesn’t work.” [Editor’s note – Shift Communications used PR Newswire’s multimedia press release (“MNR”) to issue their social media release template.  The MNR remains popular today.]

So what does work in crafting messages today?  Building storytelling into the mix.

“Write a good story that communicates all the salient information you need to get out there, and do it in an interesting way,” suggests  Steve Farnsworth, chief strategist at Jolt Digital Marketing, and publisher of the widely-read Steveology blog.“Stories are how we understand things.”

In addition to building understanding, framing messages in the context of a story makes them relatable and memorable.  Stories provide contextual glue that makes key messages stick.

“You can tell the story, and press releases are a great way to do it,” says Farnsworth. “Press releases should be journalistic, not formulaic.  Trustworthy content has a balanced point of view.  It asks and answers the right questions. It doesn’t love itself. It tries to inform and educate.”

Adding narrative elements to your press releases

Building a story into a message as succinct as a press release can be challenging.   The key is to add narrative elements to your press release, such as:

  • A quote from the member of the product development team (instead of a canned exec quote) discussing the genesis of the product, and problem it solves or the opportunity it creates.
  • A video clip of a customer describing a successful outcome or demonstrating the utility of a product
  • An account from an employee on the service side of the business, describing decreases in support or other indications of customer happiness.
  • An infographic illustrating potential savings or efficiencies that could accrue over time.

“There’s a huge opportunity for communicators who are brave enough to deviate from the status quo and try new things,” notes Lou Hoffman, CEO of the Hoffman Agency, a leading Silicon Valley PR firm and author of the Ishmael’s Corner blog, where storytelling is a common theme.

But storytelling can be a tough sell to executives, who may be focused more on promoting the brand than serving the audience.   Hoffman is waging an ongoing war against “corporate drivel.”    He believes that a good story can fit strategically within the PR message, as long as the message answers two questions:

  • Does the content deliver the “frame” that today’s journalists need to write a story?
  • Does the content resonate with the target audience when reaching out to customers/prospects directly?

The storytelling arc

Putting the audience in front of the brand is one challenge when it comes to writing more engaging copy.  Figuring out how to build the story into the content – especially when you’re drafting a press release – can also be difficult at first.   But the classic storytelling arc, in which the scene is set, the conflict arises and is resolved in the climax, which then leads to the denouement, is a structure that works for a press release, too.

Borrowing from Hoffman's post on storytelling techniques, this is our simplified vision of how the storytelling arc structure can work for press releases.

Borrowing from Hoffman’s post on storytelling techniques, this is our simplified vision of how the storytelling arc structure can work for press releases.

If you frame the message in terms of the story of the experience you would expect your audience to encounter if they bought your product used your service/read your book/ attended your event/ etc., the storytelling arc structure makes a lot of sense.  To the point of the aforementioned war on drivel, it also leaves precious little space for, shall we say, the wandering narrative that folks up and down the approval chain are tempted to stick into your press release.

Though they’ve been around for decades, the press release is ripe for a re-think.

“Look at the release as the executive summary of any newsworthy things that comes out,” suggests Eddy Badrina, co-founder and chief strategy officer at BuzzShift, a digital strategy agency.  “Break the formula.  Dive into the value proposition, the benefits, case studies, the feature set and the CEO’s visionary take on what the announcement means to the company and the market.”

There’s no reason for any message we issue to be classified as boring, dull or dead.  Taking pages from the storytellers’ playbook will help keep your messages lively, relatable … and effective.

Have you experimented with different approaches to your press releases?  I’d love to your out-of-the-box approaches to press release writing!   Stick a link in the comments for me to admire and tell me the story of YOUR stories!  :)

sarah avatarAuthor Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of content marketing,  and is the author of the e-book “Unlocking Social Media for PR.”  Follow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik .

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