Thoth winners and the art of storytelling

Thoth winners (l-r) Adam Shapiro, Jewel Jones and Juanita Thompson spoke at a recent IPRA luncheon.

By Jay Morris

In public relations, a good story wins the day every time. Whether it’s pitching to a reporter, making your case on Capitol Hill or influencing public opinion, a compelling personal story always trumps the dispassionate recitation of facts and figures.

At last month’s IPRA luncheon, Adam Shapiro, senior vice president at Lipman Hearne, credited good storytelling for the success of a Thoth Award-winning campaign his firm created for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. He stressed that PR practitioners need to be good storytellers and should always look for the “human interest side” of a client or issue.

“Look for unusual stories or contrarian views,” he said. “Think about the people behind the headlines.”

He gave as an example getting a Powerball lottery winner on the “Today Show” who had agreed to donate his winnings to establish scholarships for local high school Hispanic students. As a result of this segment, Chrysler decided to become a Hispanic Scholarship Fund donor and is now the Fund’s largest contributor.

In encouraging IPRA members to “think behind the headlines,” Adam cited advice from NBC News Correspondent Bob Dotson, who says any good story contains four key elements:

  • Scene setting
  • Foreshadowing
  • Conflict
  • Resolution

Adam said that every news story or marketing message, no matter how short, should contain these elements.

Of course, even good stories can miss their mark if they aren’t delivered by an appropriate spokesperson or if they fail to reach their intended audience. Building trust with an audience is absolutely essential, as evidenced in another Thoth Award-winning campaign by Senior Account Executive Jewel Jones and Senior Art Director Juanita Thompson at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide.

In their remarks to IPRA, Jewel and Juanita stressed the importance of understanding cultural values when targeting minority and ethnic communities. The two are the architects of the “Kidney Sundays” outreach campaign aimed at the African-American faith community on behalf of NIH’s National Kidney Disease Education Program, and they won “Best of Show” at this year’s Thoth Awards.

They stressed the need for authenticity and compassion in partnering with Black churches to explain the high risk of kidney disease among African-Americans. The Ogilvy team found success by encouraging church members to discuss kidney health in small group meetings called “conversations” where members could share stories and a volunteer, using a toolkit developed by Ogilvy, could provide useful information.

Juanita and Jewel also talked about the value of partnering with other groups and described how they leveraged the networks of the American Diabetes Association, Chi Eta Phi Sorority and BlackDoctor.org. By utilizing their partners’ channels, they were able to tell their client’s story to a lot more people.

Ultimately, good PR is about telling good stories that resonate with an audience. Quoting from the celebrated director Frank Capra, Adam noted, “Drama isn’t when the actors cry, it’s when the audience cries.”

Jay Morris is president of Jay Morris Communications LLC in Alexandria, Va. He is on the PRSA-NCC Board and can be reached at jmorris@jmcomllc.com.

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