Why strategic storytelling is important for the Indian PR business

Last winter, as per The Economic Times, star director Karan Johar regaled Coca Cola employees by using the evolution of ‘item numbers’ in Bollywood with standard marketing terms for a talk. The corporate sector has also called on Rahul Dravid, Kiran Bedi and Chetan Bhagat for talks. Some of these speakers are charging upto 5 – 6 lakh per speaker to hear the story. The ability to tell a story that can be used to inspire and shape perception about an organisation’s goals has never been as valuable as it is today.

PR professionals in India today are dealing with one of the biggest challenges it faces: to evolve beyond the rolodex of media contacts and to bring storytelling at the heart of the communication strategy.

Says Radhika Shapoorjee, South Asia President of IPAN H+K Strategies, "Never before has the public had more social platforms where they can voice their opinions and be heard. Never before has their voice and opinion become more powerful where they can impact the reputation and image of companies and brands within minutes. The fact is that the social media has given everyone a broadcast platform has brought the public at the centre of any debate and conversation exchange."

Radhika adds that, “Therefore the need to tell powerful compelling stories that will connect with the public has become a crucial lever for a successful PR campaign. For this, we have to understand what people really want and how are you as a brand going to make a difference to his or her life. Great communication and storytelling happens when you speak to the heart rather than the brain, when you speak in terms of stories rather than in terms of plain numbers.”

PR experts believe the time is right for PR to take up the storytelling agenda that is compelling for the audience. Giving examples of mass storytelling from Indian history, Radhika Shapoorjee points out that, "The Quit India movement was a 32-year public relations campaign where Gandhiji appealed to the public at large to free India from the British. It had all the emotions of powerful storytelling: happiness, joy, betrayal, courage and inspiration. Stories eventually have to inspire people and that is the storytelling challenge that PR faces today. I think some of the really good storytellers are in the mobile segment where brands like Vodafone and Airtel have connected with the hearts of people. In the financial sector you have brands like Maxlife who have recognised the need for financial security as a core need of the public and revolve their story telling around this premise. Microsoft is another example of how they bring alive human interest stories that exemplify the benefits of technology in our daily lives. Effective storytelling can educate, mitigate issues and inspire at the same time.”

Many PR professionals agree that currently there is too much focus on media contacts and media engagement rather than strategic storytelling, “Excessive focus on media in PR is a norm and many other important factors like focus on viable stories, brand management, laying down proper communication strategy in the long run are often ignored. Getting maximum coverage in key publications is seen as the ultimate goal for PR,” comments Neha Arya, Assistant Manager of Corporate Communications at JewelsNext.com.

Meera Krishnan, CEO of Lexicon Public Relations and Corporate Consultants (P) Ltd says that “This is a trend that is pre-dominant with clients who are in the medium and small sectors and who are essentially testing the waters on PR. Sometimes of course this malaise persists even among larger size business entities, who despite having engaged in PR continue to measure PR agency deliverables solely by using the media output matrix. Many of such clients have limited or no budget for advertising and expect the non-paid media route to deliver similar visibility. To compound matters, some of them dictate the spaces and platforms they want to occupy – much like booking ad space. With scant respect for independence of media, they also expect that the outcomes that appear in print are identical to the PR pitches.”

HR consultant Divya Banda, Managing Director of Aroha Consultants, says that “A large roster of media contacts may not be the best reason to hire PR professional but good communication skills is. If one is good at connecting and understanding the pulse of the situation and can put it in words while building a media roster in the process, he/she should be able to make a good PR professional.”

Radhika Shapoorjee points out that, “Having a compelling and powerful story based on your insights of your public is at the heart of a good programme. Good content will help you navigate the complex media landscape. Every journalist wants to write a good story and wants a pat on the back by his editor. And we need to understand and build a bridge between what he or she wants to write and how our client's business can link into the story. This is the art and science of our business. Therefore a media list is only a first step to any PR programme.”

The writing on the wall is clear, effective and strategic storytelling is clearly the agenda that PR should evolve too beyond media lists .