Why does the President Elect of America need to tell stories?

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Elections in America really bring to light the great American story. Joe Biden articulates the what it is to be American, what it is to have democracy, and the binding forces that will bring the nation together after the fairly tumultuous four years that America has gone through. These events are interesting not only from a political perspective, but from the context of telling a story as well, and the “American dream” is one of the greatest narratives in the world. It brings people of all nationalities together in a common sense of vision and hope embodied in the expression of being “The land of the free and the brave.” In terms of public relations, this narrative shows how stories can create vision and that the leaders are the guardians of that vision. 

In the SPEAK|pr Mastermind, which stands for Storify, Personalise, Engage, Amplify, and to Know, Storify identifies the need to create a narrative around a particular cause, and storification is central for companies and organisations to communicate around their core values. Seth Godin, a marketing guru, says that marketing is no longer about the stuff you make, but the stories you tell, and Park Howell talks about the Business of Story, so this idea of story and how it can lead not just companies but nations is very powerful. 

Elements of a story

First of all, every story needs a context. This could be the situation that existed before there was a disruption. After that, there was a solution provided by entrepreneurs, and they worked out how to solve problem and then built a business or an organisation in order to move all of the characters within the story along their journey. Regarding elections in America, Donald Trump is the disruption, and so Joe Biden talks about the need to unify the country and lead not just as a Democratic president, but rather an American president, and that the offices of a president are for the people, not for one party. 

There are a number of consistent patterns in stories, and the most popular are threefold. There is the fall and then the rise, such as in Harry Potter or The Man in a Hole. There is the rise and the fall, as in Icarus, and then there is the fall, the rise, and the fall, which would be exemplified Oedipus or possibly Donald Trump who has struggled, risen to fame, and then may struggle and fall again after these elections. These core story narratives are what all great stories and movies are written around and what Randy Olson then calls the ABT or ‘And, But, Therefore.’ This equates to a normal event disturbed by a problem, which was then provided with a solution. The solution is what organisations and entrepreneurs create to solve the problems, but when it comes to public relations and communications, that three-part story is only the framework; it’s not actually the detail.

Photos from Craft Your Content

When creating marketing materials and the narratives around businesses, one can make use of the different elements Park Howell has talked about, because they create the context, the vocabulary, and the framework for communications, be it public relations, advertising, social media, and so on. There is the backstory which is what was happening before someone decided to start a company. The second part would be the hero or heroine, and these are the people impacted by the problem that has arisen. The modern take on this story is that the hero in the business is actually the customer, the member of staff, or the partner, not the CEO, who is on a journey of discovery. The CEO is more like the mentor or the coach of the hero, but not the hero, in the same way that the President of the United States is not the hero. They are simply the facilitator. They create the structures and policies that enable  people to live out the American dream. Simply put, the hero in modern stories and in business are the people that the business serves, not the person who runs the business.

The third element are the stakes or what is at risk. This could be what the hero wants and what they’re willing to sacrifice for it because it has value to them. The next element is the disruptive forces or how a market has changed and what this could mean for the heroes. It talks about the ability of these disruptive forces to enact change or what people are going to lose if they don’t change, and examples of this are COVID, war, or political changes. The next elements are the antagonists. These are the people, policies, or companies limiting others from making the necessary changes which could be regulatory, technological, scientific, legal, or financial barriers. In a movie, these would be the bad guys. The next element is the mentor or the person that creates the organisation to overcome those challenges experienced by the hero, and it’s important to first recognise that each customer, member of staff, or partner is on a journey. When thinking about the communications activity and the narrative of the story, consider when and where the hero is in their journey from ignorance through to evangelism about the brand. 

Before that, the problem first needs to be solved with the help of an organisation’s products or services. The next part is to identify what victory looks like to the heroes, whether they’re standing atop a large mountain, collecting assets without stress, reducing their impact on the environment, whatever it may be. The heroes are on a journey, and the victory is when they’ve overcome the various challenges that the journey will have on its way. If one can articulate what the victory looks like for the heroes, then these become the images, words, graphics, and videos for marketing.

Emotion is the final part of the story. It talks about how the hero feels once they have fulfilled their journey or as a result of buying goods and services, and this helps the business craft that most appropriate public relations and advertising marketing content. This is why it’s important for the hero to be the customer, the team member, or the partner, not the CEO of the company. Therefore, as any mentor would know, the joy comes from watching the success of one’s mentees. That’s what the business of storytelling does. It casts these people as the heroes of the story.

Stories are created for the heroes

Storification of the business involves looking into the timing and breaking down the company journey into chapters, so that it can be articulated through the different formats of content. Companies often talk about the here and now but forget about the past and don’t project into the future fully enough, so it’s an opportunity that’s missed when it comes to communications. Communicators need to look at the journey and the company’s chronology in the context of where the business has come from and what was happening before for the business and for the market, the problem the entrepreneurs identified and why those people were not able to accomplish those goals, and the solution that the entrepreneur, the company, or the organisation has created. 

In the SPEAK|pr methodology, the first part is storify, which is done by looking across the different elements of the story: the backstory, the hero, the stakes, the disruptive forces, the antagonists, the mentor, the journey, the victory, and the emotion. It’s not supposed to sound complicated; it’s simply a structure one can follow when creating content. Many entrepreneurs have a product-focused approach to their communications, but it’s time to broaden the scope of the communications platform, so the content can be more expansive, more consistent, and also more engaging. 

Back in 1959, Foster Harris said there were three plots: the happy ending, the unhappy ending, and the tragedy. Obviously, everyone would want a happy ending for their heroes, and that’s possible by creating a narrative which shows understanding of what the hero is going through, a solution to help them along their journey to victory, and happiness in working together to ultimately convert these people into evangelists for the brand.

As business owners tell their story, they need to think about the journey in helping their clients and what can be done to facilitate that journey to make them into heroes. In doing so, the business will become an essential part of their lives. Storification is the first part of the five-stage methodology, and it’s the best place to start, because the product story itself is too limiting, but it also misses out much too much of the conversation. People need stories because it’s how they manage large amounts of information. It’s how they will get a sense of loyalty, and it will be that sense of trust in the individuals running the company that will create sustainable value and great communications content. The main message is that the American people are the heroes in this election in the same way that the customers, partners, and team are the heroes of the business, so create stories around them and make them feel special.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from BBC 

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