In this special edition episode of The CMO Show, Mark Jones speaks to Paul Holmes at the PROI conference in Portugal. Paul shares his thoughts on why authentic storytelling is critical to the success of a company.
Paul Holmes on authentic storytelling in PR
“A story is much more capable of driving a change in attitude or behaviour than mere facts.”
With over 30 years experience writing about PR, Paul Holmes has seen the same stumbling block time and time again, marketers seem to be more interested in facts and data than stories.
This has lead to many marketing agencies and content producers “playing defence”, responding and reacting rather than telling proactive stories about their company and clients.
“There’s a huge opportunity for PR agencies to communicate the idea of story as the primary narrative,” Paul said.
“We’ve seen a lot of evidence that a story is much more capable of driving a change in attitude or a change in behaviour than mere facts. I think as an industry, we need to get better at understanding what that means and how to implement it.”
So why isn’t the power of story being utilised to its full potential?
“It’s time to play offence,” Paul said. “Clients want us to get the story out and make a difference on a daily basis, not to wait for some crisis to come along. We need to tell our own stories, rather than waiting for someone to punch us and then reacting.”
The issue is that too many companies are run at the board level with little or no input from creatives, Paul said. Boards are full of lawyers and accountants, he said, but they are devoid of the creativity to drive a company’s branding.
“I think that the smartest companies today are balancing four things. The need to be financially successful, operationally sound, legally sound and then to understand the value of relationships. Those are the four components of decision-making inside companies”
“What worries me is that boards are full of people to speak to the first three things, but they’re devoid of storytellers, communicators and public relations people and even marketers. We need to get more of those people into the highest echelons of companies in order to understand and explain the value of true, authentic stories at the highest level.”
The misconception at the board level is that storytelling is optional. It’s only the storytellers and marketers that understand that business is not just a hard science. There are human, emotional, empathic and sympathetic elements to a business, and they need to be shared in order for consumers to engage.
“You need to tell stories that are shareable and repeatable – and true,” he said.
“You want other people telling your story too, other people advocating for you. You want other people telling their friends how great you are – that’s the most powerful recommendation you can get.” Paul said.
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Hosts: Mark Jones and Nicole Manktelow
Guest: Paul Holmes
Mark Jones: This episode of The CMO Show is brought to you by Filtered Media.
Nicole Manktelow: Telling your story brilliantly.
Authentic Storytelling: The sort of historical view that we wanted our stakeholders to be advocates for our positions has come to the realisation that you can’t actually ask your customers to do something for you that you won’t do for them.
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Mark Jones: Hello and welcome to The CMO Show. My name is Mark Jones and this week is a special edition of the show recorded in Lisbon, Portugal, where I’ve been attending the PROI Worldwide 48th Annual Global Summit, the PROI is a global network, in fact it’s the largest global network of independent PR companies, and Filtered Media is proud to be part of that network.
Mark Jones: Heather Jones, co-founder of Filtered Media and I have been here in a very beautiful part of the world and today, I had the opportunity to hear from Paul Holmes. He spoke at the conference and I interviewed him shortly after he spoke in front of a room of more than a hundred PR business owners. For those of you who don’t know who Paul Holmes is, he is the editor of the Holmes Report and the report cards, he’s chairman of the judges of the SABRE Awards and chair of various Holmes global and regional summits. He has spoken at these PROI events three times in the past, but today was a particularly interesting time. He spoke about the future of measurement in particular and how agencies can be providing, if you like, business impact results, showing the results of their work for marketers. He had some really interesting things to say about that.
Mark Jones: He’s a man who almost needs no introduction in this industry, if you like; he’s been around for 30 years. Those comments that he makes about the future of how to measure the results of marketing and PR activities is something that people pay a lot of attention. I had the opportunity to interview him about those things, in addition to our favourite subject, which of is brand storytelling — the idea that brands are able to produce content and be able to drive interest and growth in their brands by engaging the hearts and minds of customers through authentic storytelling, through the narratives that move people. We had a quick conversation about that. Without any further ado, here’s Paul Holmes.
Mark Jones: Thanks so much for the insights that you brought to your keynote this afternoon. I wanted to pick you up on one thing. You’re talking about the importance of brand storytelling, which is a big passion of mine. What’s the opportunity for PR agencies to communicate the idea of story as the primary narrative?
Paul Holmes: I think there’s a huge opportunity. I think first of all, we’re seeing a lot of evidence over the last few years, and a lot of sort of formal study of storytelling that shows in terms of cognitive science and how it impacts people that a story is much more capable of driving a change in attitude or a change in behaviour than mere facts. I think as an industry, we need to get better at understanding what that means and how to implement it. I said earlier that I think as an industry we’ve often … and this maybe goes against the stereotype of PR, but I think we’ve often been much more interested in facts than stories, we’ve often been much more interested in data than stories, but I also think that because we’ve been, as an industry, certainly inside organisations, we spent a lot more time playing defence and responding and reacting than we have telling proactive stories about ourselves and our clients. We need to adjust, sort of proactivity level. We need to understand that clients want us to play offence and get the story out and make a difference on a day to day basis, not to wait for the crisis or some issue to come along.
Paul Holmes: We’re beginning to see this in terms of the way companies are taking the lead on social responsibility issues, on political issues, on social issues, whether it’s the #MeToo movement; or LGBTQ issues; or in America, immigration; all of those issues, diversity and inclusion. Companies are beginning to tell their own stories rather than waiting for somebody to punch them and then reacting.
Mark Jones: I’ll jump in there because that has been the major narrative. You mentioned to P to P as, if you feel like, a shorthand for all of the technology and new channels that have been growing. Brands have understood now that they can tell the story. It’s not just the exclusive domain of media or influences, right? But they’re not doing it all that well yet. Just connect that sort of narrative with this idea that storytelling at a board level can become something they can get their heads around.
Paul Holmes: I actually worry about the board level. One of the things I said in the room that I think is very important is that I think that the smartest companies today are balancing four things. They’re balancing the need to be financially successful, operationally sound, legally sound, and then to understand the value of relationships. I think those are the four components of decision making inside companies. What worries me is that boards are full of lawyers, they’re full of accountants, they’re full of people who have operations experience. They are the opposite of full with storytellers and communicators and public relations people and even marketers. We need to get more of those people into the highest echelons of companies in order to explain the value and understand the value at the very highest level. We need people to understand that true, authentic stories that are about the culture and really about the culture and the values of the organisation.
Mark Jones: How do PR people make that work? Because if I compare to management consultants that are very good at appealing to the wallet aspect of boards, the financial aspect, what’s the lever to pull, or the emotional connection that boards would have with this idea of authentic storytelling, which can seem kind of almost sort of optional?
Paul Holmes: It’s soft and nebulous and …
Mark Jones: Yeah.
Paul Holmes: I think we need to do two things. First of all, the thing that we understand I think as communicators, you as public relations people or brand storytellers, is that business is not just a hard science, that there is a human, emotional, empathetic, sympathetic element to business.
Mark Jones: Which is the defensible aspect of PR?
Paul Holmes: I think that the sort of historical view that we wanted our stakeholders to be advocates for our positions has come to the realisation that you can’t actually ask your customers to do something for you that you won’t do for them. I think the baton has been passed to the corporate communications department. It’s our jobs to advocate on behalf of our consumers, employees, shareholders, stakeholders, generally. I think you can make that case in the boardroom. But then we have to get better at demonstrating that when we do that, it really does have a lasting impact … we were talking about peer to peer, right, and so one of the things there is that you want other people telling your story too. You want other people advocating for you. You want other people telling their friends how great you are. That’s the most powerful recommendation you can get. You need to tell stories that are shareable, they’re repeatable, and only true stories are shareable and repeatable.
Mark Jones: Right, because they’re true and we can get behind them. You touched on that because measurement is the big thing in marketing and comms circles, and this advocacy piece is the end game in terms of how we expect customers to behave. How do we reposition PR agencies as effectively, these advocates for NPS, as you spoke about, the net promoter score? Is this where we’re going and what we really need to get behind?
Paul Holmes: I think that there are a number of alternatives that are being presented right now, all of which are better than what we’ve historically done, which say we … you know, we created this many clippings and we reached this many people and we got this many news stories. But I do believe that the ultimate objective is to create advocacy and to reduce whatever the opposite of advocacy is. There’s a PR agency out there that calls it “badvocacy” which I hate.
Mark Jones: Yeah no that’s awful. Detractors is the technical term, right?
Paul Holmes: Increases the number of people who are out there telling their friends how great we are and reduces the number of people that are out there telling everybody that they hate us. That seems to me to be something that you can do with your communications campaigns or the shareholder relations campaign, in the public affairs environment, in the brand marketing environment, and you do it through stories. You do it through stories that people want to tell about you, whether it’s a great experience on your airline or your hotel, whether it’s a product that they found a great way to use, or whether it’s just an interaction with one of your employees that went spectacularly well. You need to find ways to tell those stories. Of course, that means that you have to find ways to know about those stories in real time. You have to dig for those stories.
Mark Jones: Right, and that’s the data-driven storytelling thing, right? How do we measure NPS in a way that senior managers will understand and relate to?
Paul Holmes: Well I think you’re seeing NPS … there are a bunch of companies that have adopted it in environments other than this one, and have never thought about applying it to PR. When I read The Ultimate Question, which is the book that lays out what NPS is about, it became apparent to me immediately that it was a PR metric, that it should be.
Mark Jones: Yeah, like why are we not doing this?
Paul Holmes: I think we have to start by unravelling the affection that marketers in particular but a lot of people beyond the marketing suite, have for the current metrics that are being used.
Mark Jones: Reach.
Paul Holmes: Reach, impressions, whatever …
Mark Jones: Engagement.
Paul Holmes: Well, something like … I mean engagement’s better. At least you’re proving that somebody is interacting with you and that they heard the message rather than merely had that opportunity to see, that’s a weird concept. Yeah, I think we have to at least move them up the value chain in terms of metrics. The first thing is persuading them that the existing metrics just don’t correlate to business success. I know that there’s a lot of people who believe that NPS has a pretty direct relationship to future performance, there are some people who’ve called the methodology into question, that’s a hot topic. But the cause and effect relationship, as I would argue, clearer than it is for the metrics that we’re using today.
Mark Jones: Okay, but can we connect it to the digital marketing world where we say it’s in our ROI equation – dollars in, customer sales out.
Paul Holmes: Yeah. Clearly, that whole idea of content to commerce, of creating forms of content that lead directly, measurably to sales, I think is very important. I think it finally sort of puts the ROI of some PR campaigns into perspective. It’s very effective, everyone wants sales, but I think that focusing on that exclusively can be a little worrying because I do think that what we’re talking about here is long-term relationship building. The hint is there in the name. Public relations is about building relationship over time. It is not essentially transactional. It can be used for transactions, but I would argue that it is most effective as a long-term relationship building tool. We have to find a way to balance those two things.
Mark Jones: How do you think, and this is more a qualitative type question, but how do you think leaders in public relations, whether it’s internally or externally in agencies, can have more confidence about NPS for example or these types of measured business outcomes, have more confidence in the value that we bring? There’s this underlying paranoia. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Paul Holmes: I do.
Mark Jones: How do we get more confident about this?
Paul Holmes: I’ve been writing about metrics for 30 years, and for all 30 of those years, I have heard from people who are very focused on the measurement aspect of this, but there are people on the account side who are terrified of being held accountable.
Mark Jones: Right.
Paul Holmes: The only thing I’ll say is that I’ve been having conversations recently with some very sophisticated, analytics-based research companies. They are consistently showing that the value of public relations is much higher than we think it is, that professionals think it is. I’ve seen marketing mixed modelling studies from sort of top five marketers which show that advertising reached a point of diminishing returns, you know, $50 million ago, and that PR is still on that upward curve. The fact of the matter is that we should have more confidence in what we do. If we do it properly, it has a dramatic effect.
Mark Jones: Is this a sales problem? I don’t mean in terms of selling but the selling of the idea of PR. Does that make sense?
Paul Holmes: Yeah, look, I think a lot of the people, people of my generation came up at a time when PR was a fairly fluffy, nebulous, feel good kind of concept, and wasn’t necessarily expected to hold itself accountable the way that it does now, which is why, by the way, PR budgets went up and down like crazy and it was one of the first things to get cut when times were tough because nobody had ever proven the value. Now that there are people who actively want us to prove our value. Those people in particular are … I didn’t say terrified, but they’re very nervous, right? I don’t think they should be. I think we should all have a lot of confidence in what we do. I think good relationships are the core of business success today, and I think good PR programmes create good relationships. That’s a simple equation for me.
Mark Jones: What’s giving you hope and if you like, this enthusiasm for the future of PR, regardless of all the challenges we have?
Paul Holmes: I’ve seen not only … we’ve been talking about this for 30 years. In the last five years, I’ve seen more movement, more genuine investment in data and analytics inside PR agencies than I saw in the first 25 years combined. Do I think that we are as good at it as advertising and management consulting and even the digital and social agencies? No, I don’t think because I don’t think it’s quite as native to us as it is to them, but I think as data gathering becomes less expensive, you can do more of it with a PR budget budget that previously you can only do with an ad budget. I think in terms of realising that, they’re coming out with innovative ways of generating insights-
Mark Jones: It’s creating more opportunities.
Paul Holmes: I also think, by the way, we talk a lot about big data because that’s … you know, everybody talks a lot about big data, but one of the things that PR people can do that is not quite unique to us but is certainly an advantage for us is what I would call more intimate data. If you’re doing your job as a PR person, you’re immersed in the community that you’re communicating with. You’re spending all day listening to consumers, being part of newsgroups, chat rooms and email chains and blogs and … you’re listening to what’s going on in the community that you’re trying to communicate with.
Paul Holmes: If you really are immersed in that, you can come up with insights from real time conversations that don’t necessarily show up in the data until six months later. If you can combine those two things, understanding of data with the ability to really immerse yourself in the world, then you have a unique advantage.
Mark Jones: In other words, there’s lots and lots of opportunities that are coming in but at an increasing rate.
Paul Holmes: To take us right back to the beginning of the conversation — stories, you’re listening to stories. If you can take some of those stories and make them not just part of a five-person email chain or 10 people that are commenting on the bottom of the blog post, but you can turn them into something that has wider currency and becomes viral and spins around the internet and gets everybody excited, then that’s the ultimate goal today I think today in communications.
Mark Jones: A perfect way to end, Paul Holmes, thanks for your time.
Paul Holmes: Thank you.
Mark Jones: There you have Paul Holmes, a really interesting interview, I hope you enjoyed that. One of the things that sticks out for me is in public relations, there’s this enduring sense of what is the core value proposition that is brought to the market or is brought to businesses? A lot of people talk about the role of crisis communications and that’s certainly very important. There’s very few agencies that outside of the PR and communications world can really deliver value in crisis communications, so that’s a good thing.
Mark Jones: But I think this idea that Paul speaks about, empathy and the relationships between a brand and the stakeholders, whether they’re customers and partners and whatever, that idea that this emotional intelligence that is the glue in this mix, I think is a fascinating one that we really need to do a better job I think of understanding how to make that work but also what is it about having empathy if you’re a brand storyteller, if you’re in PR or if you’re in comms, how do you have that empathy and how do you turn that into tangible actions? Paul’s ideas around that, certainly a reminder of the importance of that, and probably, I would hope, a bit of an inspiration and a jog, this idea that we should go and investigate it further and do something about it.
Mark Jones: Thank you for joining us on this special edition of The CMO Show recorded at the PROI Worldwide 48th Annual Global Summit here in sunny Lisbon, Portugal. My name is Mark Jones, and we look forward to speaking with you next time when I’m rejoined by my co-host Nicole Manktelow. Until then, give us feedback and make sure you subscribe and download and do all those good things. Tell your friends about The CMO Show. If you have any CMOs and communications professionals that you think we should interview and speak to on this programme, please do send us a note. You can find us on the web. We’d love to hear from you. Until then, thanks very much.
Mark Jones: The CMO Show is a podcast produced by Filtered Media and a quick shoutout to our incredible team: Candice Witton, Charlotte Goodwin, Ewan Miller and Yael Brender.
Nicole Manktelow: And our engineering wizards: Tom Henderson and Daniel Marr.
Mark Jones: Thanks for joining us!
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