What you can learn from schools about making your customers the hero of your publicity

By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Podcast. 

Who does the best job of putting their customers first and making the hero’s journey? It’s the school.

Recently, I went to my daughter’s graduation ceremony and her school did a fabulous job of doing what the textbooks say: To make your customer the hero. In my The UnNoticed Podcast, I shared how that could make a difference to you if you’re running a business. While the hero’s journey is a common narrative in theatre movies, it’s also considered the best way to generate productive public relations for your business.

How Schools Celebrate Children

Think that you’re a proud parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle watching your child leave their school. The teachers would come up, announce the children’s names in order, and celebrate the achievements of each of the children. First, one by one; then collectively as well. 

We, as parents and guardians, are part of our children’s support team. However, it’s them who have worked hard to be able to go from one place to the end of a particular journey (In this case, going from nursery school to the end of Grade 6). 

Schools do this intuitively. They recognise that while we care about the school, what we’re really focused on is how well our children perform. And the children’s performance, their wellbeing, their happiness are a reflection of how well the school is run. 

When it comes to business’ public relations, how many of us have really considered our customers or our staff or partners in the same way? When doing PR or advertising, most of us talk about ourselves and how great we are. 

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Imagine if 30 children and 60 parents sit in the audience of a graduation ceremony. The headteacher gets up and talks about themselves — about the great job they’ve done and their wonderful facilities. Imagine them talking about how their teachers deserve all the credit and how our children just happened to be there; that our children are mere customers and they’re the heroes of the story. 

Oftentimes, this is what’s happening in the conventional approach to PR. Most of us are telling our stories. We’re talking about how we set up the school, how we decorated the classrooms, how we bought the infrastructure, how we hired the teachers, trained them and made them the best in the industry, how we developed the best innovations and methodologies — all while our customers remain unmentioned. 

I’m guilty of this as well: How we’re really talking about ourselves and how well we’ve done for our clients; not how well the clients have done as a result of being our clients. 

Collaboration and Companionship

At the school ceremony, the children were celebrated. They got awards and they had a teacher to read out their successes on their behalf (maybe they won a prize for sport, art, or science). 

However, later on, the children also shared their individual stories. They talked about their best memories from nursery. Each child played a part on the stage at several different times during the event. They gave gifts to teachers who were leaving; they sang a song about the values they learned by being at school; they gave each other hugs realising that they were leaving school.

What the school did was foster a culture of collaboration, cooperation, and companionship among its customers. They made the students feel like they’re part of the community. 

We, the parents, were also invited to talk to the teachers, wander around, and see the work done by our children in the classrooms. But how many of us do these with our companies? How many of us invite our customers to our facilities to explain what we do beyond just delivering products to them? The school, of course, is slightly accepted as a training facility. However, the concept is still the same. 

When I’ve interviewed Park Howell, who hosts the Business of Story podcast and has a book called “Brand Bewitchery,” he talked about the hero’s journey and how companies need to put their customers center stage. I’ve always struggled with that a little bit, because, how do you really do that? 

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Different Stages of the Hero’s Journey

When I watched the school literally put children on stage, I thought how this kind of institution can do that very well. It also reminded me of the theory between what actors and actresses do in movies and what we can do for our businesses. 

The hero’s journey, which is often called monomyth, was a subject discussed by Joseph Campbell in his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” He identified and simplified the 17 different stages that a hero goes through by evaluating works such as The Wizard of Oz. Another writer, Christian Vogler, also has a book about that called “The Writer’s Journey: The Mythic Structure for Writers” (His has 12 stages).

In my recent podcast episode, I shared some of these stages. And at each stage, we have the opportunity to help our customers as businesses. There are also potential case studies, press releases, interviews that we could have with our customers about their experience with our business. In other words, these are also content opportunities that you can use for your PR campaign. 

  • Ordinary world. First, the customer is in stasis (for example, the child is at home).
  • Call to adventure. Then, when a child is four, five, or six years old, they get taken to nursery school.
  • Refusal of the call. In the beginning, the child would hate going to school. I remember my daughter clinging to my legs saying how she doesn’t want me to leave her at school. 
  • Meeting with the mentor. After overcoming the refusal, the child then gets to meet the mentor (e.g., teachers and teaching assistants). 
  • Crossing the first threshold. Afterwards, they get to a point where they’d cross the threshold and enter a special world (in this case, the school).
  • Tests, allies, and enemies. In the special world, they’d have tests and start to learn things. They’d also have allies — teachers, assistants, other children — and enemies or those that they don’t get along with. 
  • Approach to the innermost cave. In this stage, they’d enter an innermost cave and start to experience school in a way that is challenging, thrilling, and sometimes, scary. Every customer goes through this as well: They’d start to trust us as companies and at some stage, they’d start paying us to do a service for them. Here, they’re approaching the inmost cave of our business. 
  • The ordeal. This is where the relationship wouldn’t go well with our clients. However, we must think: How can we communicate with them about that ordeal (e.g., the anxiety of delays, product specifications not being met)?
  • Apotheosis. After dealing with that ordeal, there comes change. The client would start to change, move, and grow with us. We would also start to change as we’d both have to start working together. If we’re doing it right, our customers would start to learn and trust us as providers of a service — in the same way that our children would have to go from being at home to becoming independent.
  • The ultimate boon. In this stage, the children would start to become self-learners. They’d start to eat, play, study, and make decisions for themselves. We can also achieve that if we can do the right thing for our clients or customers, such as providing them with educational materials about our goods or services (e.g., user’s manual, instructional video). Whatever that material is, our customers should get the benefits of working with us.

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  • The road back. There’d be a moment when our customers would have to leave the way they worked before — and work in a new way using what we’re providing to them. They’re buying something from us to do something differently, to be somewhere different, or to be a different person or a company. As a result, there’d come a time when they’d have to embrace the change or decide to go back. Sometimes, they can’t go back in the same way the children can’t go back to school because they’re already too old. 
  • The resurrection. Even if they don’t want to, children have to grow up and move on from one grade to the next. The mentors and support staff help facilitate that growth. As providers of services and products, our role is to be a mentor and help our customers adopt the change — and to introduce that change within our own businesses or their own lives. This is similar to when our children become more independent and they won’t want us to play the same role anymore. Though we could still be driving them everywhere or paying for everything, they want to organise their own social events. They want to study their homework themselves, do online shopping themselves, watch television, and make their own choices. They already have the skills that we’ve taught them as parents. As business owners, these are skills that we share with our customers through instruction booklets, videos, or online guides. Through these, we can help them grow past the immediate need that they had when they met us. 
  • The crossing of the return threshold. This is where they’d have the choice to go back. And what actually happens is that they go back as a different person with different behaviour. The way they operate now is different. They start to behave and interact in their old world with new skills. 
  • Master of two worlds. When they start a new journey, they now have an enhanced level of skills or a new product or service. They become the master of the world where they came from and the world where they’re going to. After we make the customers feel as though we’ve given them mastery over the good or service that we provided to them, they also become evangelists for us — like how Tesla and Apple owners are. As the training facility and the community that surrounds these products are so great, people share them; they are confident in their own knowledge and experience of using them. 
  • Return with the elixir. As they return with special knowledge, they also become ambassadors. In the case of children who left school, they tell other children about their old school. The school, on the other hand, uses them when visitors come and explain what the children have learned in their school. However, as companies, we don’t really do that. Though we do testimonials sometimes, we must ask: How can we get our existing customers to help guide our new ones? This is very much the case with Tesla and Apple, and it’s something that we can aspire to achieve. 

These stages don’t necessarily happen in order. However, the idea is that as a business, we can help our clients pass through each of these stages — like what schools are doing for our children. 

Customers on Center Stage

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The role of the company is to be like a headteacher that coordinates, facilitates, gets the infrastructure together, brings in the teachers, and does the learning curriculum. However, we must not put ourselves on center stage. 

This is important because, in terms of business’ publicity, people would want to read about other people or companies like them that are on the same journey. If we can start to find existing customers that are in these various stages and share how they’re learning and growing, then we can create great content for potential customers who might want to read, watch, or listen about a solution to a problem that they’re facing. 

If we consider our customers as the center of our story and map out the journey for them, we can create the right content for them at the right time and, in the process, help them on their hero’s journey. By doing that, they can also help us in our journey of building our company. 

If you have more questions, reach out to me at jim@eastwestpr.com. You can also subscribe to our newsletter and get access to tips, tools, and free pieces of advice on how to get yourself noticed. 

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast The UnNoticed, you can listen here.


Cover image by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash.