Plotting PR narrative in social media

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.

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22 Replies to “Plotting PR narrative in social media

  1. How to make sense of a confusing world? If we only objectively reported events then there would be no sense in our words (or purpose to our communication).

    Storytelling simplifies and makes sense of events. Stories are also more memorable than a list of events.

    1. Richard, I think you are so right. I was reading about narrative journalism yesterday and bemused by the arguments that journalists should be objective. But how can any writer/communicator not be subjective when we choose not only our words, but the meaning we intend them to convey – likewise in our imagery choices? There are clear forms of narrative with journalism and of course, PR materials. I’m surprised to see so little has been written about this to inform practice and overt understanding. Taking it then to the social media level offers (I believe) a great opportunity for digital PR over other disciplines (although of course advertising has a great tradition of narrative).

      1. Heather; interesting you raise the issue of objectivity in journalism. That is what we were taught it in journalism school. I later taught it myself, and only took a critical view after I came across “new journalism” — which is a combination of facts and literary creativity.

        No textbook on journalism is complete without a chapter on objectivity.

        I don’t think the authors of these textbooks intend to portray the idea of absolute objectivity (inattainable) but rather balance — all sides to an issue should be heard. Most importantly this “objective” quest is meant to separate “views” (opinion) from “news” (facts).

        1. Don – Objective journalism is one of those wonderful myths (like rational management!) in my subjective opinion. There is this pseudo-scientific view of a ‘reality’ outside of subjective experience – we see it from a PR perspective (and particularly in public affairs/politics) in terms of the perceived value of the survey or opinion poll. I see it in academia with the focus on giving % marks to essays and dissertations etc which are realistically subjectively assessed.

          I do understand that in journalism, objectivity is supposed to indicate balance – although that seems to me to be an issue in itself. Again, it implies simplistically that there are primarily two views on a topic (for or against – ie the duel narrative of news reporting). On many issues debate isn’t that straightforward (it’s what I call “yes, but; no, but”).

          So-called balance is also often disingenuous since the way information is presented (and omitted) is actually a narrative choice. Indeed, balance itself is a narrative form. Facts are also often debatable or at least need to be contextualised. We routinely hear of 100% increase in something (probably promoted by PR practitioners) without any absolute figures.

          What you describe as ‘new journalism’ sounds like what I was reading about in terms of narrative journalism – particularly in relation to when media are ’embedded’ to tell an inside story as I understand.

  2. Toni, what she (Heather) said. 🙂

    I really like this post, Heather. What also struck me in reading it is how much our guest posters, regular commenters and/or champions (re: testimonials in tweets, or blogroll explanations, etc.) are playing a part in weaving PR Conversations’ own tapestry and narrative.

    1. I think you are right and that is an interesting part of the conversation (our narrative in effect). I suppose the thing is though that conversation is a more natural form whereby its narrative is almost by definition created by participants over time. It is very hard to anticipate and control a conversation (not impossible though) so maybe it is a good metaphor for what we think of in terms of a co-constructed narrative.

  3. Thanks Toni. I’ve been looking at auditing and developing narrative within the PR Strategic Toolkit book that will be published later this year. Among my thinking is that qualitative content analysis of historical and current materials is important to identify key narrative aspects and compare these to the vision of what the narrative should be (which needs to correlate with brand guidelines, mission statements etc). The three core aspects I’ve noted are: subject (what is being said), mode (how narration is expressed) and means (the way narration is conveyed). Cultural analysis is also necessary, to identify the visible and hidden stories, symbols and so forth. That means of course that the person undertaking the audit has to understand narrative and culture and how to research these.

    I’ve stated in the book that an organization needs to determine its narrative position which informs the narrative approach evident in execution. This leads to a framework within which written and multi-media materials are produced and guidelines developed for dialogue or narrative communicaitons. I think it is important to emphasise co-construction and mutual understanding rather than concentrating on what the organization wishes to say. Within the narrative audit and subsequent framework I would include priority points to be understood, with examples, imagery and other aspects of story telling to ensure the points can be illustrated, remembered and accepted.

    For me this is a work in progress, so keen to hear how your activity goes. I’m very interested in how narrative can be visualised (as the image in Judy’s original narrative post), particularly using digital means as I think the ability to include diagrams, images, sound and video alongside words is important in evidencing the narrative.

    Regarding integrated reporting, there is potential there, but as I’ve probably said before, my feeling is that such reports get the spin treatment rather than as you indicate perhaps starting to tell a more complex narrative through transmedia.

    1. Heather, as much as I like the post it raises some pertinent questions. Does an organization or person “craft” or strive to “live” its narrative. If we accept the notion that narratives reflect values and thus communicate meaning, values and ultimately answer the “why” of the organization’s existence, then the task at hand to explain this. This implies the “narrative” is embedded in the organization’s purpose for existence and comes before the sin doctoring.

      And of course if the “spun” narrative is at variance with reality, the edifice will crumble like a castle built on sand.

      According to Australian PR professional Paul Ritchie: “Narrative ties together the past, the present and the future. It draws together the past through the changed circumstance, the present in the current challenge/obstacle to overcome and the future through the goal or moral outcome.”

      Seen from this angle, the organization or PR dept isn’t the sole the author of this narrative — it is a work in progress or more aptly “a tapestry” that is continually being woven by different stakeholders, to use Judy’s metaphor.

      1. Don – I think you answer your own question, but yes, I think that we (organization or individual) have to both live our narrative and derive that narrative from our purpose. For me it needs to be a virtuous circle exactly as the quote you include illustrates. So absolutely narrative is something continuously being woven (stiched, unpicked and restiched etc) by many people and over time.

  4. My friends, this is hugely stimulating!

    I am holding next Friday in Milano a full-day workshop for senior colleagues on the auditing of organizational narrative in the context of a five day professional training series offered by Ferpi in partnership with Corporate Storytelling Observatory of the University of Pavia on the topic of Business Conversations.

    A very instrumental question to both of you: how would you approach today an audit process of organizational narrative?

    And now an observation:

    The integrated reporting process appears to me a highly relevant trend that, by considering the organization (social, private or public sector, no matter) as a narrative subject, interacts with its many stakeholders through an ongoing, multichannel, differentiated by stakeholder-interest, flexible reporting yet coherent.

    The value in the process is that it involves the whole organization horizontally and stimulates interaction and dialogue with its active as well as potential stakeholders.

    Thank you.

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