Opinion: Why PR needs to keep it human to survive
Mike Sergeant, consultant, international leadership communications adviser and author of PR for Humans: how business leaders tell powerful stories, discusses why ‘human’ stories are the ones which create cut-through.
The best stories are human stories. They are about people. Stories about companies, organisations and governments only take us so far. We usually want to know about the human beings leading them, and the people they serve.
In my experience of over 20 years as a BBC correspondent and communications consultant, I’ve thought a lot about why some individuals cut through and others drift into obscurity.
As a reporter, I interviewed presidents, prime ministers and CEOs. Now I’m fortunate enough to advise some of the most senior business leaders in the world. So, what are the secrets to powerful leadership communication?
Great stories and great characters
Two themes come up time and again. The first is that stories are essential for effective PR, marketing, communication and leadership. Through stories, our species was able to mobilise over tens of thousands of years and achieve a dominant position on Earth. Those with the ability to tell the most powerful stories have hacked the path of history.
The second theme is that stories are all about characters. It’s hard to find riveting stories about artificial constructs or legal entities. We want someone to play the lead role, and others to join the supporting cast. PR comes unstuck when the human element goes missing.
So, the challenge for any PR, comms or marketing campaign is this: does it make the business more human? Are we telling a story that’s going to work for an audience of real human beings?
Sounds obvious? I can tell you from my experience working on both sides of the TV lens that it’s amazing how frequently the human bit goes AWOL. Either the spokesperson doesn’t sound like a human being. Or the ‘key messages’ are robotic and clunky. Or the ‘PR strategy’ is an ‘engagement grid’ or ‘stakeholder map’, with no organic and characterful story.
CEO as the “chief story officer”
PR only really works well when the CEO understands that they need to be the chief story officer. They must personally authorise and enable the business story creation and delivery. Plus, they have to be able to articulate it – in pitches, speeches, media interviews, videos and articles.
None of this is to say that technology is irrelevant. Far from it. As digital tools become more powerful, and data creation accelerates, the most effective PRs will be the ones who can master the analytics, use high-tech story propagation and measure their activities accurately.
My message to business leaders – tell better stories as well as utilising new PR technology.
My message to PRs – embrace human storytelling and the most advanced digital tools.
Robots will never beat us on storytelling. They can’t know what it is to be human. And stories will always be about that deeper connection to the nature of our species. But without the machines, we can’t make sense of this vast universe of code that we’ve created.
And if you want to be a better, more credible leader, then the work usually starts with finding a clearer, more powerful story – for you and your business.
‘PR for Humans: How business leaders tell powerful stories’ by Mike Sergeant is published on April 18, but you can pre-order your copy on Amazon now.
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