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Storytelling and PR
A novel way of telling your tale.
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Robbie VorhausOnce upon a time, a former CBS newsman devised a new strategy for telling a company's story: classic storytelling. Robbie Vorhaus founded his own Public Relations firm based on this principle. He shares the story of how it works in this interview with About Public Relations.

APR: Exactly how does storytelling relate to PR?

Robbie Vorhaus: Public relations is a form of classic storytelling, but for business. It is pure non-fiction -- truth -- told in the exact same context as any other story form, such as movies, novels, advertising and journalism.  Essentially, storytelling, and that includes PR, is having a point of view or theme, focusing on one person or thing (the hero) and taking your audience on that hero's journey through trials and tribulations to arrive at some new point, but now changed. It doesn't matter if you're promoting a country, company, product, person or cause; if you tell the story with the same structure, elements, archetypes and path of all great stories, your message will be heard and acted on. And, in business, whoever tells the best story wins.

APR: What are the components of an effective story?

RV: First, you need a strong beginning, which is always the hero's ordinary, believable world.  Then, add the middle, which is the hero's journey into some extraordinary world. And the end is the hero's return to his ordinary world, but changed, very changed. Other components of an effective story are a compelling point of view or theme, such as "nothing takes the place of persistence," or "true love never dies," or "it's all in the delivery."

APR: What is an example of storytelling done well?

RV: In fictional storytelling, Titanic, Ghost, Romeo & Juliet and West Side Story are exactly the same story: true love never dies. In classic storytelling for business, I immediately think of Domino's Pizza: A young man who grows up in an orphanage goes into the Marines, returns and buys a small pizza store in Ypsilanti, Michigan, thinking he can make more money delivering pizza than waiting for customers to come to him. He opens other stores, buys out his brother for the price of a VW, and builds the company into a $3.3 billion dollar global enterprise. He sells it for $1.1 billion and is quoted as saying "I want to give all my money away and die broke." The theme here is: nothing takes the place of persistence.

APR: What is an example of storytelling done poorly?

Robbie Vorhaus: Walk with me through any news organization's assignment area and pick up any of the hundreds of recently faxed press releases. I visit my friends at newspapers, network and local news organizations, and radio stations, and I'm stunned at the poor grammar, spelling errors and complete lack of any apparent writing skills. There is a huge disconnect between journalists and public relations practitioners because of the lack of writing skills and storytelling ability. Imagine some unkempt person walking up to you at a party and saying in a sloppy voice, "Hi, my name is Bob. Let's talk about me."

APR: How does one develop storytelling skills?

RV: First, stop trying to sell. Learn how to engage an audience, not manipulate it.  Second, read some books on writing non-fiction and journalism.  My favorites are still "On Writing Well," by William Zinsser, and "The Elements of Style," by Strunk and White. Finally, practice. Find someone who has no vested interest in your story and tell it. Be prepared for what that person has to say. In comedy, the saying is "if they don't laugh, it's not funny." In public relations the same is true. If your audience doesn't get it, they won't buy it.

APR: Are clients receptive to the storytelling approach?

RV: Our clients, yes. Companies that didn't hire us, no. Usually, CEOs who understand the importance of telling their brand story to myriad audiences, such as customers, media, employees, analysts, the trade, government and even competitors, find our approach exactly in line with their goals. For example, Buick, the company that started the world's largest corporation, General Motors; Bertolli, a 100% agricultural product, the world's leading olive oil; and Lipton, founded by Sir Thomas Lipton, the world's leading tea brand, all have magnificent stories that deserve to be told well.

APR: How do the media respond?

RV: Both the media and our clients are happy. The media get a good, compelling story; our client gets incredible coverage. It's win-win.

APR: What's your best storytelling tip?

RV: Know your story, know your audience, and tell your story better than anyone else. And don't forget to smile.


Robbie Vorhaus, president and CEO, Vorhaus & Company Inc., founded the New York City based public relations firm in 1989 when he left CBS TV to create a new model for public relations: classic storytelling for business.  He can be contacted at vorhaus@vorhaus.com, or visit the firm's Web site at www.vorhaus.com.    





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