The death of the narrative

April 11, 2013

I have had an epiphany over the past six months. Narratives are dead. You know the kind. The scripts PR people are famous for preparing and then demanding our clients to stick to. The ones that come with messaging stacks and PowerPoint pyramids, along with three-day messaging sessions designed more to up the agency’s hourly billing than to deliver real-world client value.

Well, I am calling it a game. Narratives are dead. The stuff of “Just do it” Nike advertising campaigns from the 1990s, along with the communications tricks of the Clinton administration. Back then, leading-edge PR amounted to the simple notion that if you just say it enough, the world will eventually believe you. It worked back then. But not today.

GONE: Narratives have fallen out of place

Today, no one cares about what you have to say. No one is interested in your need to tell them. They couldn’t care less about your value proposition or your features and benefits. Or your unique selling proposition. Everyone has that at their disposal. The consumer is past the hollow promise. They don’t want to be talked at any more. They aren’t listening to your narrative.

In fact, the very term “narrative” suggests the same old one-way street of communications. I talk, you listen. I say what I have to say, you stand persuaded. Naha. Ain’t happening. Not in today’s multichannel world.

We got it all wrong, and we better straighten it out real fast before we continue this propaganda noise. In place of the narrative, here’s what the new tenets of PR hold in 2013.

1. Know your audience. What do they want to hear? What do they need to learn? Where are they in their lives and what is important to them? Last week I was working with a plaintiff attorney and friend. He’s incredibly creative, a remarkably strong writer. But four of his last five blog posts are about the evils of tort reform. I finally challenged him. Do you think your clients and prospective clients really care about politics or legislation or the reforms that threaten your livelihood? I told him bluntly, stop talking about your points of pain and start addressing theirs. Your clients come to you at the most difficult times in their lives. They might be broke and broken. Their lives shattered. They couldn’t care less about how legislators are threatening to limit your ability to sue. No. They want something much closer to them. They want your empathy, strength, and passion. They want to know things will be OK. They want your confidence and your insights — not your railings against your opponents. Talk to these people. Demonstrate concern. Express humanity. Get off your narrative and engage, inform, enlighten, and inspire. That’s communications and that’s public relations in 2013.

2. Change your message according to the channel. Our multichannel world dooms the narrative because each channel demands a different approach. Social media is merely a means to extend your reach, but often not a place for one-sided narratives. Change your message accordingly to reach diverse audiences, a realization that stands in direct opposition to old-school, narrative-driven public relations.

3. Think like a publisher — not a pusher. Publishers engage. Build audience. Speak to the interests of a market by publishing on a common issue, topic, or subject of interest. Pushers stick to narratives. They clobber the audience with their message. Publishers, though, embrace their audience. They seek input and congeal eyeballs through interest. And they do it with no greater product than the passion of their own readers or viewers or listeners. Do you push or do you publish? Are you connecting or are you correcting? Self-publishing represents the great revolution of the digital age. But the start point has to be the needs and drives of the audience, not the needs of your business to sell more today!

4. Content collaboration. Let’s face it. Content is king and it’s killer. It’s pure gold when done well, but difficult and time consuming to create. Yet, more than anything, our customers want to be informed to know what’s going on. Why else do they check Facebook, Instagram, emails, and texts every minute of the day? More than anything, they want information from the partners and brands that they choose to let into their lives. So there are two halves to the content equation. First, content has to be created. Second, it then must be marketed and publicized. It’s a collaborative affair that puts to death the notion of narrative-driven PR and gives rise to the real truths of building audiences, creating public relationships, and ultimately creating highly loyal and valued customers.

The narrowness of the narrative failed to foresee the great content revolution that is now upon us. No longer can clients, brands, and enterprises create a single narrative and expect that to suffice in a multichannel world, where dialogue is now the hallmark of engagement.

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