In public relations, narrative offers a way to enable ideas, opinions, values and meaning to be expressed within a broader framework than the concept of “key messages”, which tend to reflect slogans, headlines and other contrived statements. Key messages can be part of the organizational narrative but too often are simply BS corp-speak lacking any real human connection .
Narrative draws on various literary and cultural principles, methods and practices; it is woven into the fabric of society and joins together our interpersonal relationships. It can be abused by PR practitioners, for example, in crisis situations organizations, their management or employees are presented as heroes or victims (while activists or the media are casting the same characters as villains). Corporate reports, histories and case studies can all reflect a controlled narrative of happy stories – the spinning that Judy Gombita raised last year when championing organizational narrative. Nevertheless, I believe (like Judy) that there’s an opportunity for narrative to offer a more positive, primary role for public relations.
Social media presents an interesting challenge when crafting narrative. Various technologies present formats that emphasise particular narrative approaches. Blogs are published in chronological order, interspersed with comments. The stories they tell may reflect time passing forwards or backwards. The extent to which there is any thread of narrative across time depends on the nature of the site. With PR Conversations we’ve never formally discussed our narrative framework, but our common themes, style of writing, and the people whose stories are told here reflect the personalities and interests of Judy, Markus and myself.
Crafting a narrative in social networks is more difficult – there’s more improvisation with different actors contributing regularly or briefly passing through. Keeping a story on track requires a plot that allows for deviation, back-tracking and co-authorship.
In Stories and Social Media, British academic, Ruth Page (2012) focuses on the language used by social media storytellers in narrative interactions with others. Her observation that women reflect a more emotive style could have resonance for PR communications; although ensuring this translates to an organizational narrative is perhaps different from being personally expressive.
Page also claims the moment by moment reports found in Twitter are lacking in plot with little, if any, causal or thematic connection between updates. This has me wondering if Tweets could be more than disparate statements or conversational slices. Surely there can be narrative, poetry, drama, meaning conveyed and pictures painted even within the 140 character constraints. Storify is one way of telling “stories by curating social media”, although this is a way to draw out or follow stories already told rather than craft an organizational narrative.
Where I’m heading with my narrative here is a series of questions about public relations and social media. I often hear people talk about online content management, and branding is also reflected in digital presence. But is anyone plotting PR narrative in social media? Ed Schipul has an interesting presentation on the concept and suggests MyStarbucksIdea as a model although to me the site lacks a narrative appearance.
Should organizations look to tell coherent and compelling stories across different media? Would a transmedia narrative approach be more engaging than the ad-hoc comment or key message statements broadcast by many PR practitioners on behalf of clients? Karen Russell recognised the potential of transmedia storytelling last September but questioned whether it was being put to effective use in PR yet. There seems merit here for PR practitioners to look beyond their usual mediated method of communications to reach out across mobile, online and offline media to ensure a coherent and engaging narrative between organizations and publics.
To an extent, seeking to plot a PR narrative in social media suggests an artifice that conflicts with the spontaneous culture offered by social media. But organizational communications are by their very nature the consequence of a process of construction and conveyance. The value of a narrative over key messages is that the former offers a less-prescriptive approach. As Judy wrote: the narrative is “like a giant tapestry that is continuously being woven, viewed and commented upon by various stakeholders”. As such, perhaps there is no question to answer since organizational narratives are being created in social media with or without the input of PR practitioners. Even more reason to be engaged in the plot being narrated.