People like stories and consumers feel the need to be approached in an emotional and human manner, even by the brands we buy. Storytelling has always been present in our lives, through different means and forms and today, it’s blending into the communications world. But not everyone is happy about the merging of these various disciplines.
By Romanita Oprea
Why is storytelling creating such a buzz at the moment? Why not a few years ago? Or has it always been around and we simply called it something different? According to Oana Cristea, fun internal communication and public affairs manager at Pastel, people need to trust a brand or a company; they’re not willing to invest just in a product by itself anymore. They want to live an experience, see what others think about it, visualize the benefits and feel the impact their investment will have on their lives. Stories spark people’s interest by bringing in a human element and also bring them together by creating the power of communities.
“When you involve storytelling in advertising and PR, you’re sure your focus is on your audience, on your target, because you take time to think about what is impactful for them, what motivates them and what they need. You’re not limited to a product anymore, rather you explore experiences. You stop the one-sided communications and you start involving your audience. Storytelling is a participatory method and it’s mandatory to use it if we want to adapt to the needs of the industry we’re working in,” added Cristea.
In the agency she represents, Pastel, storytelling is part of the everyday work, since the staff decided to practice this art. They thought it was good for them as a team to first of all listen to others’ stories, to analyze how to put together a story and then how to share it with others. “We chose the “Stai sa-ti povestesc” (Let me tell you) project because every interaction with them was natural and filled with stories of their own. Also, we like it when our partners are involved in different projects and their purpose is to contribute to the community and care about people, focusing on the new generation, about how creativity is perceived and lobbying for people-oriented organizations,” said Cristea.
Alexandra Olivotto (GMP PR): “In brand journalism, we think about the brand communication as an editorial meeting¨
Storytelling is spreading to many agencies around Romania and also beginning to capture clients’ attention. This spring, GMP PR launched a brand journalism division, which creates editorial content for the agency’s clients and combines the communication brand strategy with journalistic storytelling. The brand journalism department is run by Alexandra Olivotto, who has more than ten years of experience in press and two in marketing and PR.
“In brand journalism, we think about the brand communication as an editorial meeting: what stories do we have, what angles should we approach, what are the key words. All have to shape a dynamic story for the brand, interesting for the consumer, that can be translated and adapted depending on the communication channel,” said Olivotto.
“The presentation of a brand story is more complex now than it was ten years ago. The time for advertorial and PR-istic texts has ended, brands either deliver valuable content or nobody will read it. The creation of the department came as a natural step in this context and hiring a person with experience in both fields allows us to cover exactly the bridge between journalism and marketing,” said Ioana Manoiu, managing partner at GMP PR.
Although it is the only Romanian PR agency with a dedicated department, GMP PR is not the only agency in the country that puts a lot of emphasis on storytelling and its importance on the communications market. PR agencies offering this type of service include McCann PR and Golin. In the Media Recap 2016, a piece of analysis by Golin and blogger Alex Ciuca about the major trends in social media, along with the most important campaigns and events in the field in 2015, it was reported that last year was marked by a strong bond between visual and emotional storytelling and brands have passed from selective to active hearing, as more and more users have a permanent mobile connection.
These distinct groups were evaluated based on consumption, engagement, brand affinity, and relative influence in each local market, including: inner circle (10-20 most influential people for your brand who get your whole story first), middle circle (up to 100 influencers based on specific interests), and community members (the broader audience we engage with through the most relevant social networking sites and microblogging platforms).
“Marrying the right channel to the right audience can propel your community into the hundreds of thousands of millions,” found the report.
“I think storytelling has always been part of good advertising and PR. Powerful ads have always told a story because storytelling helps to get at the human heart, and people might buy your products if you’ve touched their hearts. That’s what made Donald Draper, of Mad Men, a genius, and it’s the same for advertising and PR people in real life. ‘What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons,’ Draper famously said in the TV show. Similarly, athletes’ hard work and perseverance is used by Nike to sell sportswear, and, closer to home, friendship was used by the Alexandrion brand to sell booze,” commented Simina Mistreanu, a freelance journalist with extensive experience in media & advertising topics.
Some argue that recent times have been marked by a blending between journalism, PR, advertising and digital, all having in common the desire for good, real content. Because, at the end of the day, this is what consumers are demanding more and more. Therefore, native advertising and branded content are rising. But others recognize the problems in this approach.
“It’s true that the lines between journalism and PR are starting to blur, especially in Romania (as compared to America and China, the other journalism markets I’m familiar with). It’s also terrible and a sign of the media’s powerlessness and the public’s lack of media education,” said Mistreanu. She also points out that storytelling is not journalism and everybody should be aware of this aspect. According to the freelancer, journalism may involve storytelling, but it’s much more than that. An essential trait of journalism is that it serves the truth and the public, and no one else besides that. As a journalist, you’re never supposed to serve the interests of the people you write about, the government, or the owners of your publication. If you do any of that, you lose your credibility with the public. Therefore, according to Mistreanu, “brand journalism” is a contradiction in terms. You can’t practice journalism when your content is intended to serve your brand, she points out. That is PR or advertising, which is what you’re supposed to do in the first place, but you can’t call it journalism.
Cristian Lupsa (Decat o Revista): ¨Content pushed by a company or an agency through the media is paid content, it’s a form of promotion, and the consumer should be aware of that¨
Taking a similar line, Cristian Lupsa, editor of Decat o Revista, a Romanian magazine famous for its outside of the box approach to the Romanian editorial market, which has made its mark by creating powerful stories, a unique design, special editorial projects, but also a series of events on The Power of Storytelling, considers that this relationship between PR and journalism has always been murky and complicated, which is not necessarily good for consumers. “There needs to be a line, and I’m not talking about a creative one, but one of ethics and standards. Call it by any name you wish, but content pushed by a company or an agency through the media is paid content, it’s a form of promotion, and the consumer should be aware of that. It can be amazing, fun, sharable, but it needs to be transparent as far as its origins go. Companies can now also talk directly to consumers – there we have a different issue, but it also goes back to honesty and transparency,” said Lupsa.
Elsewhere, the Pastel team members were always encouraged and trusted to have a human approach to their clients and projects, starting from the internal organization. “We have internal events for the team with challenges that make them get over timidity or reticence and practice improvisation, public speaking or creativity. They’re routine exercises that make every member of our team more confident in using their personal experiences and more bold in framing stories for the brands. The power of storytelling is also important in our internal organization and we are convinced that what we practice daily in our team will for sure reflect on our work. We listen to each other and cherish every insight, emotion and story a team member shares,” said the Pastel representative. Each member is encouraged to undertake specialized training depending on their preferred area of storytelling: in writing, speaking, visual or digital storytelling.
From Lupsa’s point of view, the moment is just a simple combination of things – people consume an enormous amount of information, packaged into all sorts of media, and the battle for their time has never been fiercer. In this eco-system, to be seen, you need to stand out. Stories have a way of sticking out (and sticking to you) a little better, so it’s only natural that many brands and agencies have turned to these age-old tools. Also, “the public has matured and the traditional forms of advertising-speak aren’t believable anymore. We want our companies to speak differently to us, to be closer to our experiences, and this also demands a different way of communication,” added the DoR editor. He believes that storytelling is a basic human instinct, as we are narrative creatures, and we’ve told stories from the earliest cave paintings, to Snapchat. “There’s nothing new in the principles and the intrinsic core of the story – it’s just the form that has diversified. The problem is that what most agencies think is storytelling is just a softer approach to selling. Stories, at their core, require conflict, action, change, and that requires the kind of transparency and engagement with the real world that the majority of companies/agencies – especially in this part of the world – are not yet comfortable doing,” concluded Lupsa.
The Power of Storytelling series of events created by Decat o Revista started in 2011, bringing four high-profile journalists from the US, the standard for nonfiction reporting and writing, to Bucharest, to inspire and share best practices. As journalism struggles to find its bearings in the digital world, the event’s goal was to make people remember that bite-size information and speedy delivery won’t displace the well-reported, well-written, and well-produced narrative stories that explain, investigate, create emotion and build community. Organizers say The Power of Storytelling is a conference built around the idea that we can learn to use stories to better our ways of communicating, but also change our worlds. It is intended to bring together superstar storytellers in all fields – from media, to arts, to business – to show the potential of stories to connect people, to heal wounds, to move to action, and to drive change. “We believe stories are for everyone. This event grows out of our deep commitment to in-depth and intimate narrative journalism, but it looks at the idea of storytelling from many different viewpoints. Over the years, our speakers have included multiple winners of Pulitzer Prizes, National Magazine Awards, Emmys, and other accolades.
The participants it attracts are writers, producers, artists, techies, communicators, marketers, activists, entrepreneurs, and community leaders,” said the organizers. Last year was the fifth time the event has been held in Bucharest, with the conference also hosting its second edition in Cluj-Napoca. The market reacted very well to this type of event, giving the organizers the courage to carry on and do even small spin-offs, such as the series of seminars created by the DoR team especially for the Calea Victoriei Foundation. “We have sold out all five editions we have had so far, the most recent one two months in advance. I think the mix of people that we attract – both the speakers and the crowd – is a testament not only to the need to learn from accomplished professionals, but also to a growing community of writers, producers, communicators who can better – and more wisely – embed storytelling in the work that they do,” said the editor.