A Winter’s Tale of story-telling, organisational narrative and content marketing

Story-telling and organisational narrative have been discussed in relation to public relations for some time (see PR Conversations posts by Judy Gombita: Constructing the organisational narrative and me: Plotting PR narrative in social media). But it is in 2013 that the concepts have really gained a higher profile – making these the focus of post #10 in my 12 Days of Christmas series.

Ira Basen’s CBC radio documentary which Judy also profiled at PR Conversations (Exploring “A Brand New World” radio doc) made a connection to ‘brand culture’ from content marketing, brand journalism, sponsored content, owned/corporate media, and other such terms that have sprouted wings this past year.

In October, Robyn Adelson argued that PR agencies should lead on creative development on the basis of telling “more powerful stories, filled with emotion, tension points, and real, vibrant characters“. She, and other commentators, are advocating that PR is taking over from marketing in this regard.

The counter-argument is evident in the prevalence of the term “content marketing”, which is used by those working in a number of communications areas. I must say that I dislike this term as much now as when I wrote: Contending for content – PR, journalism and marketing (again at PR Conversations) in May 2012. Here’s a definition proposed by the Content Marketing Institute:

Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

Here, the purpose of content marketing is clear – it is simply attention grabbing ‘stuff’. Stuff, that seems to be proliferating – even polluting – the online environment. But there are two aspects of content marketing that seem at odds with the story-telling, organisational narrative dimension that I believe is more inherently reflective of public relations.

  1. The focus on brands as publishers – often in competition with traditional or new forms of more independent publishing
  2. Emergence of specialist content marketing agencies

The first idea which is essentially about direct rather than mediated communications isn’t really something new to PR as revealed in my series of monthly posts at PR Conversations taken from a 1948 book: Your Public Relations. PR practitioners, especially those with a journalistic background, can apply their story-telling abilities to ‘owned’ publications. Organisations can employee internal expertise or contract out the creation and publishing of self-interested magazines, video, news-driven apps and so on. Those with large and loyal communities, such as major football clubs have proven the success of this approach, see for example Manchester United‘s website and own television channel. Through social media, Coca-Cola has managed to create a large community – although of 78 million Facebook likes, only 1.3 million are engaged (talking) on the site.

The problem when this is seen as only as part of a marketing-strategy is that others are positioned as engaged only from the perspective of the organisation. The brand may own the territory on the face of it, but still needs to earn the acceptance, endorsement and willingness to share that are the core aspects of public relations communications. More importantly, when things go wrong, without goodwill, such communities can readily turn and hijack either the medium itself or set up counter-communities that draw on the powerful connections already established – with or without the organisation’s involvement.

My objection to specialist content marketing agencies (CMAs) is that they appear entirely tactical in their aims – which admittedly is what many clients want. So they are good at doing things – and generally are happy to pay for achieving specific aims. This approach is ironically evident in a sponsored feature: What does content marketing mean for the PR industry? via the Guardian website. The various opinions expressed here are not contentious in my view, and on the face of it, this is a pretty familiar style of article. But it is paid for by Outbrain – with a caveat that “all editorial is controlled and overseen by the Guardian”. Hence it is advertising, advertorial or sponsored content, not editorial.

Yes, it generates needed income for the Guardian, and perfectly acceptable copy (in this case), but it is another step in removing the more natural relationship approach that PR practitioners and journalists have developed. This is not in any sense independent information although it does reflect transparency, which perhaps it could be argued the traditional PR approach did not.

In other areas, the ethical aspects are more questionable with CMAs ‘seeding’ YouTube videos which involves paying for initial hits, treating bloggers as advertisers whose online space can be bought (or simply demanded for ‘cut and paste’ content), posting fictional online reviews (good or bad) and gaming social media popularity as examples.

The Content Marketing Association – strap line: editorial engagement for brands – states the industry is “now worth in excess of £4bn in the UK alone”. This values the nascent content marketing industry at around 40% of the £9.62bn worth estimated for the UK public relations sector (by the PRCA’sPR Census 2013).

Interestingly, it traces the industry’s history to the John Deere magazine, The Furrow from 1895 – although that is fifty years later than the employee publications that Kevin Ruck and I researched in our International History of PR conference paper: The rise and rise of internal communications.

The CMA clearly advocates a strategic perspective which it argues uses content marketing to “sell without the obvious sell. It forms a relationship between brand and customer in which the customer receives useful, practical and entertaining information in return for their undivided attention, attention that can last up to 40 minutes in a single setting.”

Whilst I can support the first part of this claim in terms of the benefits of relationship building, I question whether that is really done through attention grabbing activities – particularly where those are really about a subterfuge of selling.

To make a Christmas analogy, it seems that much content marketing is about the wrapping paper, the tinsel and the glitter – but uses this commercial narrative at the expense of recognising any real Winter’s tale that should be at the heart of any organisation’s story.

Undoubtedly this topic – and the dance of the story-tellers, organisational narrators and content marketers, plus the brand journalists and increasingly less-independent publishers – will continue into 2014 and beyond.


The above image is one of the wonderful Winter inspired creations of artists Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz who produce the most intriguing snow globes which invite you to expand on stories evoked by the surreal impressions contained (trapped, frozen?) within the glass.  I urge you to visit their website to look at more images, read the editorial pieces about them (http://www.martin-munoz.com/press.html) and consider the art and science of story-telling as more than content marketing.

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