Williams, Stewart and storytelling in journalism and public relations

Two developments in the world of journalism last week got me thinking about storytelling.

Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, was suspended for falsely claiming his helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq war. The credibility of the journalist, who’d won multiple awards and increased the network’s viewership, is now at stake.

And Jon Stewart announced that after 17 years of hosting The Daily Show – where despite disavowing the show’s seriousness, he was hailed as a voice of the generation – he plans to step down.

In an age when journalism is decried as a dying breed and old-timers advise young people to find something else to do with their lives (just ask any parent – go to law school, bubala!), Williams and Stewart were known for a distinguishing characteristic: authentic and personal storytelling.

Authentic and personal storytelling is what made them into brands, not just hosts. Given how overcommunicated the world is, it’s not a bad thing to have someone explain events in our own language and truthfully.

It’s not new, either.

Take the newspaper editorials that helped shape reforms in this country, from women’s rights to civil rights. Or the muckrakers, who exposed society’s ills while interjecting the “I” into their stories. Or literary journalism – the memoir, travel and food writing and personal essays, exploding in the last several decades.

That’s because everyone likes a good story. Our brains are naturally wired for narration. The way we tell our own life events can even impact our future behavior.

Once, as a reporter, I wrote what I thought was a pretty informative piece on Medicare reform.

The editor called me into his office and said the story was boring. Nobody cares about numbers, he said. Lead with the personal – like that elderly breast cancer survivor that can’t afford her meds (I mentioned her way at the end). Pretend you’re talking to your neighbor. Why should he care?

The editor wasn’t encouraging sensationalism or pseudo-news (Kate Middleton’s morning sickness, Kanye memes). Like Williams and Stewart, he knew readers are interested in both facts and emotion.

But as with Williams, I also found that journalism, the quintessential noble profession, isn’t without moral quandaries:

  • Like when a reporter sits in his office and covers annuities for hedge fund managers, rather than investigating the housing crisis and those responsible
  • Or when an editor kills an exposé about an advertiser, because if the story runs, the advertiser will get pissed and pull his money
  • Or when a reporter is a glorified ambulance chaser (I once had to call the wife of a prominent Silicon Valley philanthropist who’d been in an accident. “Ask the wife if he’s dead,” the editor told me. “Um, are you sure?” “Are you sure you want this job?”)
  • Or the question of objectivity, hardly possible when reporters have opinions and, balanced as they try to be, they decide whom to interview and which quotes and words to use
  • Or when a newspaper deceives the public about evidence used to start a war

It’s exactly because I wanted to tell authentic and personal stories, while continuing to serve causes I believed in, that I left journalism for public relations. In addition to survival, I wanted to make an impact by providing ongoing counsel, beyond just getting someone on the front page.

Unfortunately, PR has a bad rep: spin doctors in power suits and Twitter-obsessed millennials, making us buy stuff we don’t need. PR can be shady.

Take a Virginia yoga studio promoting a 20% discount on September 11 (9+11 equals 20, get it?).

Or the deceptive “native advertising” and clickbait, as pleasant as discovering a pimple on your forehead.

Or the sexist vodka ads, as I described in a post from a couple of years ago.

Or Microsoft spoonfeeding content to news organizations about its new hoodie-wearing CEO – with videos, high-res images and lists showcasing his humility and love of poetry. News organizations reposted the content without questioning it, only to find out the CEO was laying off 18,000 employees.

Yes, there will always be a difference between PR and journalism. Journalists are taught to report, rather than editorialize, to tell fact from fibbing, to give voice to the voiceless rather than the opposite. I learned this in a pretty standard way, first at a school paper, then as a local newspaper reporter and freelancer and later at a large newswire. There was a very short Russia stint in there.

But PR practitioners do not have to be gimmicky. They have an opportunity to inform the public about individuals and organizations that are doing something good and important, while practicing journalistic excellence.

They have an opportunity to go beyond dry facts and corporate-speak (“solutions for seamless integration of client platforms”) and show an honest, human face of an organization’s mission and individuals.

Publisher E. W. Scripps lived by a principle: “To make it harder for the rich to grow richer and easier for the poor to keep from growing poorer.” My title may have changed, but I still whole-heartedly believe this.

Sadly, idealism in public relations has limitations. A lemonade stand may have a moving story behind it, but Chevron’s PR machine pays way better (and hires more often).

But there are plenty of idealistic causes out there that need help. If Williams and Stewart’s legacy can teach us anything it’s that quality storytelling, when done authentically, personably and for the right reasons, is anything but a dying art.

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