PR pros are key to telling a story

A famous quote from Don Hewitt, the legendary creator and former executive producer of 60 Minutes, goes: "Tell me a story."

A famous quote from Don Hewitt, the legendary creator and former executive producer of 60 Minutes, goes: "Tell me a story."

Years ago, when I worked for CBS News, those words echoed throughout the halls. It was the guiding principle that drove every news-magazine story from inception to air. Today, the storytelling concept permeates all forms of the news media, yet it is a concept that appears to be all too foreign to many PR pros.

TV is undoubtedly a medium that lends itself to creating emotional empathy, but print media also uses storytelling to frame much of its reporting.

Consider the first paragraph in The Washington Post's exquisite February 18 expose' of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center's outpatient care of veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carryout. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses."

Reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull wasted no time in introducing us to a soldier and telling us what his room looks like through his eyes, "He can see the bathtub on the floor above."

They could have simply described the room, but instead they introduced us to the man who lives in it. In short - they made us care.

My journalist friends often regale me with stories of being pitched by PR pros who simply don't grasp what they need to do a story, which is far more than just a good idea. Sadly, those are a dime a dozen. It's a human face that they need, a way to make readers and viewers care.
For the savvy PR person, that is a plus, not a minus. We simply need to understand what reporters need and then give it to them.

When I pitch reporters, I only do so after I know I can help them "tell a story," complete with the human faces that will bring it to life. I actually can see the finished story in my head before I ever pick up the phone to call a journalist.

Any reporter worth his or her salt will still journalistically vet the story and the people whom I suggest they contact. By giving them the people, however, I've saved them hours or days of work finding those about whom the reader or viewer will care.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, members of the Financial Planning Association offered pro bono financial planning aid to survivors and evacuees. The planners made certain that the survivors applied for all the federal money to which they were entitled. They then helped them apply for low-interest loans and taught them how to stretch every dollar until they could get back on their financial feet.

But I didn't feel I had a "sellable story" until I could tell reporters how one planner was helping the owners of a gallery for struggling African-American artists. At that point, I had a story worth telling.

It's a simple strategy: Find the story, then find the people, then - and only then - find the reporter.

Brad White is director of public affairs at the Financial Planning Association in Washington.

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