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Storytelling: the core of PR

by Bailey Carpenter

Public relations students like myself tend to share certain traits: we’re decent writers suffering from a Twitter addiction, we utterly despise math and we tend to get too excited in the grocery store when we see good rebranding. We have also chosen to study and practice public relations because we are drawn to a field that is constantly updating and changing — offering us something new every day.

Both PR practitioners and students are continuously asking What’s the next big thing? What’s in store for the future of PR? As graduation approaches, my classmates and I become more and more obsessed with what the future of PR may hold and how keeping up with the future might give us an edge in the job market.

This year, the annual PRSA International Conference was themed “Envisioning the future of public relations.” The conference, held Oct. 15-18 in Orlando, Fla., featured presentations from more than 150 PR professionals. According to the PRSA website, these sessions aimed to help the conference attendees “learn the latest strategies in communications from the visionaries who imagine and create the most innovative techniques in the business.”

However, with all the hype about the future and “the next big thing,” it’s now more important than ever to remember the basic foundation of PR: creating messages aimed at target audiences that are conveyed after establishing relationships with those publics.

Johna Burke, senior vice president of marketing at Burrelles_Luce_, led a session at this year’s PRSA conference on the importance of storytelling in a world focused on digital communication.

In an Oct. 27 blog post Tressa Robbins summarized Burke’s session. “Burke began by stressing that storytelling is the core competency in the public relations profession, next to great writing,” Robbins said. “No more is it just local library readings, storytelling festivals and other analog channels.”

“Storytelling” may seem like a term that supports the idea that PR is “spin,” but in reality, PR practitioners do tell stories. They create messages and must find the right ways to relay these messages so that their publics will pay attention to them in a world bombarded with hundreds of media forms and constantly updating channels.

According to Robbins, Burke said the most important things to consider when conveying a key message are to reach your audience using the appropriate media, understand your publics and use the resources your organization provides in an economical way.

“Public relations professionals must leverage the art form — make your story compelling, make it stand out,” Robbins said. “Blasting your message out to the masses is not the way to reach everyone.”

Because the conference was in Orlando, Burke chose to use Walt Disney as an example of a great storyteller. “He knew that kids were his primary market, yet he recognized his secondary market was the parents… he also didn’t forget there’s always a tertiary market—audiences we may not have originally anticipated,” Robbins said.

It’s easy to lose sight of the message’s importance and the story behind it when you’re concentrating on getting that message across every possible medium.

“[Burke] warns us to beware of the desire to be the newest, coolest — using the ‘all sizzle, no steak’ analogy. People see through this, and will not support long-time relationships, which is what you need,” Robbins said.

While we need to remain focused on the future and adapt to the “digital age,” we also need to know when to take a step back and remember that those in public relations should always do just that — relate.


  1. Post comment

    Hannah, that’s the GREAT thing about PR – there’s always some new challenge right around the corner. You will never “know it all,” and will be continuously learning / being challenged.

  2. Post comment

    It’s interesting to see how PR is continually changing, even from my sophomore year to my senior year! As I come to the last stretch of my college year it’s frightening to think that I have only begun to learn everything there is to know about PR. However, there is a good point made in this blog: storytelling is the core of PR; I couldn’t agree more. If we should take anything away from what we’ve learned it needs to be how to tell a good story and write.

  3. Post comment

    Good comment, Toni. It’s a challenge, even for the seasoned pro, to keep up with ever-changing technology and platforms. One way to (try and) not get overwhelmed is to determine, “where is my audience” and go from there. In other words, if those that you’re trying to reach hang out on Facebook, or if they’re primarily on Twitter, or wherever – that’s where you need to be telling your story. Hope that helps a little! 🙂

  4. Post comment

    I thought it was interesting that someone would say that storytelling is a part of public relations, because it’s not necessarily two things I would associate.
    As a PR major I find it hard to sometimes juggle the different mediums, and methods of communicating with public because there are so many options. I think it helps to think of public relations as storytelling. Just as storytelling has changed over the years, beginning as something done verbally to something being written down, PR is constantly changing.


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