Mark Henricks 25 Aug 2020 // 4:43PM GMT
Even without a global pandemic on a scale not seen for a century, 2020 has spawned more than its share of high-impact narratives. From the nationwide protests against racially-biased policing, to the pandemic-produced recession pushing the economy to historic depths, to mounting skepticism and scrutiny of the big tech companies and, last but not least, the nerve-jangling approach of a pivotal national election this fall, the year has if nothing else been catnip for news junkies.
All these phenomena have been distinguished by their depth, breadth and the stunning way they arose from modest beginnings to become extraordinary attention-grabbers. And, as is becoming clear, they are all to varying degrees entangled and leveraging each other to take still bigger slices of the public’s attention. With all this looming, as newsroom cuts continue, and events are canceled or moved online, the question for communications professionals is how to craft and present narratives that can compete.
One thing seems clear: No narrative can thread together all these storylines. Communications professionals differ as to which story is most important in their universe. But a key to successful storytelling in this environment is to focus the story on one or at most two of these. For Adrian Eyre, executive vice president for Method Communications, the main narratives clients are hanging their hats on are COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter.
“The appetite of most major publications is big”
“With regard to COVID-19, we saw a fairly wide range of responses across our client portfolio,” Eyre says. “But in general, we noted two distinct phases of evolution in corporate narratives. The first phase was an immediate pivot to directly address areas like the safety and well-being of employees, customers, partners and remote work policies. Then, once the dust settled from the initial shock of the situation, we saw many of our clients pivot again as part of phase two to focus on finding moments of relevance in the new normal. This is especially true among cloud, SaaS and PaaS companies who have a legitimate claim to helping solve the pain points of the pandemic - what I like to call the Zoom effect.”
“When it came to BLM, we saw a swift and sweeping shift in narratives across the board with a deliberate focus on taking a firm stand against racial injustice and committing to programs that foster the growth of DE&I within tech,” Eyre continues. “This is not only impacting immediate corporate and brand narratives, but also shining a brighter spotlight on the role of the chief diversity officer within organizations of all sizes.”
At cloud-based business software provider Freshworks, Vice President of Corporate Communications Parker Trewin says tying into the pandemic is the first choice for storytellers in search of an audience. “Obviously, COVID-19 is the story of the year and will continue to dominate the news,” Trewin says. “Narratives that authentically add value to this discussion will find an audience.” As a cloud-based solution, Freshworks has been well-suited to participating in stories about changes in work styles mandated by social distancing, Trewin adds.
Still, as the all-COVID-all-the-time hyper-focus on pandemic news has eased and the coronavirus has been pushed at least temporarily off the front pages, other narratives can influence storytelling. For instance, journalist Clive Thompson, who writes about technology for The New York Times, Wired and other publications, says the recent interest in diversity, equity and inclusion ginned up by BLM activism has encouraged scrutiny of tech companies. That’s a switch from the way tech has typically been covered, Thompson says.
“There was a lot of valorization of tech creators,” Thompson says. “The CEOs and young guys that made this stuff were very frequently covered in a very breathless and adulatory fashion. That began to turn in a big way around the 2016 elections, largely because a lot of everyday people started to realize that a lot of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter but also places like YouTube and Reddit, were responsible for seeding a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories into the electoral cycle.” As a result, Thompson says, now technology coverage is likely to include explorations of social and political implications of new technology instead of focusing exclusively on features and markets.
If it sounds like this year has been hard for journalists as well as corporate storytellers, that’s accurate. Financial Times correspondent Patrick McGee, who covers Apple and other U.S. hardware companies from San Francisco, says he was puzzled at first about how to report on his beat in the context of the Black Lives Matter upheavals. “The only hardware story was using drones to monitor the protests,” he says now. “I had two or three sources that were dealing with a few other things and then others wrote about it and I felt like I missed the boat.”
Despite the swirling news mix that is challenging even media veterans, there is room for ordinary business-to-business technology coverage, including product announcements that can’t be tied to COVID, BLM, Big Tech, the economy or the election. “The appetite of most major publications is big,” observes Thompson. “They walk and chew gum at the same time. They cover stories that are about what they consider to be the civic and social problem caused by tech and also about whether there is a better email app out there.”
“We’ve found that people are looking for bright spots, wanting to see momentum and success in these uncertain economic times”
Across the board, the stories most likely to cut through the clutter today are those with social impact. “With the ever-changing media landscape and fewer reporters to cover any given company or topic, we're finding that the narratives gaining the most traction are those focused on what a product or solution enables at a much broader level beyond the product itself,” Eyre says. Strictly product-focused stories, he says, are as likely to get spiked as covered.
And don’t be tone-deaf enough to fail to account for the reality of the media business today. “Right now, most stories in B2B are about managing through COVID-19 or planning for post COVID and the economic uncertainty that is ahead of us,” says Julie Kehoe, chief communications officer for cloud services company Domo. Whether or not you can connect your pitch to one of those narratives, Kehoe suggests being sure you have a fresh or even surprising angle that will drive engagement for the journalist as well as your brand.
Address the stress on newsrooms by, first, doing your homework to develop an angle that is likely to appeal and, second, presenting the media contact with as well-packaged a story as possible. “As a PR organization, we have to do more of the lifting and ensure that the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed,” Trewin says. That includes having data to support the thrust of the story as well as an angle that stresses the impact on end users and society.
Trewin says there is room for reporting positive developments, but it has to be handled sensitively. “We’ve found that people are looking for bright spots, wanting to see momentum and success in these uncertain economic times,” he says. “Yet, it’s important to be mindful that many others are experiencing tough times. While it’s okay to show progress, now is not the time to spike the football.”
Timing is probably more important than ever today. McGee cites the case of a Peloton competitor that reached out to him the day the faddish exercise equipment maker’s earnings were being reported. This enabled him to write a piece that wasn’t just a rah-rah about Peloton but pointed out that the entire sector was doing well. “Anticipate the stories in advance,” McGee says. “Try to think about what a journalist is up to.”
"We are all challenged to be more empathetic, more authentic, and more human, which is a positive outcome from the current pandemic
All in all, it seems likely that current events will affect the way events are reported and brands communicate their stories in an enduring way. Eyre says that communication professionals should realize that, thanks to the events of the past six months, things are going to be different from now on.
“On the corporate side, I think we're going to see much more mission-driven narratives that align with the world views and core values of their customers,” Eyre says. “And this includes every sector from consumer to enterprise tech. This will then inevitably have a direct impact on how media will need to cover these brands moving forward.”
This is not necessarily a bad thing. “In general, I think we are all challenged to be more empathetic, more authentic, and more human, which is a positive outcome from the current pandemic,” Trewin says. “At the end of the day, communications is about people communicating with people and meeting their needs. With COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, those needs go beyond basic security and safety concerns and extend to their well-being and emotional needs as well.”
Future storytelling isn’t going to be all about feelings and getting back to basics, however. Also important will be trying new and different ways to get stories in front audiences. For instance, Kehoe says, “When it comes to media coverage, I expect we’ll continue to see more reliance on corporate marketing paid programs, like sponsored editorial programs to get corporate narratives associated with trusted third-party media brands.”
Eyre applauds B2B communicators who are thinking about reaching new audiences in new ways. And while they’re at it, he advises re-focusing entire organizations toward an outside-in view rather than an inside-out view. “Too many B2B companies are still too focused on what they want to say to the world,” he says, “rather than thinking about how what they have to say fits into the world around them.”