Every day, in organizations of all types and sizes, programs are designed, products launched and campaigns kicked-off without a clear story to support them–and predictably, the results are often forgettable.
The good news is that more and more communications and marketing departments are developing storylines to provide some narrative grounding to key corporate activities.
The bad news is not only that the storyline remains a poorly understood communications concept with the result that many of these are so focused on corporate spin that they read like works of fiction, but that organizations will often mistake their own PR for reality.
Developing the narrative around an event, product, or initiative is more than a writing exercise—it should be seen as an exercise not just in strategic communications, but in strategic planning.
At InterChange Public Affairs, our approach to storyline development revolves around working through a facilitated process to ensure that our clients’ narrative will not only resonate with all of their key audiences, but that their project will meet their strategic goals.
Our approach to storyline development is part SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, part journalism and part PR.
In all instances–but most importantly in the case of public events–we start by getting to and understanding the real story behind an initiative, and then framing our client’s narrative in the most objective and newsworthy fashion.
Depending on the complexity of the project, we typically develop two or more storylines. The first version–what we call the inside story–is rarely seen outside the boardroom.
When working on the inside story, we see our role much like that of a hard-nosed print reporter. We work with our client to answer the five Ws of journalistic writing (Who, What, Where, When and Why) to tease out positive storyline elements, and ask the tough questions to get at the problem areas. Our goal is to give our clients an advance look at how their story is going to read in the morning paper.
While this can make for uncomfortable conversations with the client, it also results in a better appreciation of the communications and other challenges that may exist with their project and provides them with an opportunity to make the tactical and strategic adjustments needed for a successful announcement or campaign launch.
For a final product, we strive for a one page journalistic-style story that highlights the newsworthy and fresh, while framing in the most positive light any issues that could not be worked out through the earlier process.
This type of storyline can be readily adapted to produce core communications products such as news releases, key messages and media lines, while providing the outline and narrative structure for everything from op-eds, to speaking notes and speech modules.
In addition to generating a compelling external narrative, an additional benefit of this approach to storyline development is that it helps organizations clarify and address strategic and tactical problems and priorities.
We have had cases where clients decided to re-think and re-design a campaign because they realized that it just wasn’t ready for prime time. Or conversely, what had been seen as a negative corporate announcement morphed into a good news story after working through its various (and sometimes subtle) storyline elements.
By taking what is most often viewed as an abstract writing exercise and translating it into a strategic communications effort, this approach to storyline development helps reveal potential opportunities and challenges that might otherwise have been overlooked in the initial planning process.