Edelman Academic Summit closes, but the story has just begun

Storytelling is both an opportunity and responsibility for communicators. It is what will continue to elevate the discipline and the business.

I truly appreciate the master class I was privy to the last three days at the Edelman Academic Summit, presented in partnership with DePaul University, which hosted the gathering in Chicago, and the University of Notre Dame.

Today's concluding session of an event whose theme was "Storytelling @ the speed of now," maintained the momentum of the preceding days by presenting more brands that shared both their tales and the innovative strategies employed to tell them.

Stephanie Moritz, senior director of social media, PR, and experiential marketing at ConAgra, spoke about her company's notable shift from a brand-centric philosophy to consumer-centric storytelling and community building. She added that testing and learning should be a huge part of your content-marketing strategy to see what stories will work best.

Justin Sikora, director of media and communications at Darden, emphasized the engagement element of social media by noting, "If a consumer reaches out to you and tells you a waiter treated them like crap, you have to respond and engage or you aren't doing your job." He continued by noting that being nimble enables instant engagement that can sometimes facilitate visibility for a brand it would never get otherwise.

IPOs present unique storytelling challenges. Hilton went public late last year. The company's EVP of corporate communications Kathryn Beiser spoke about the strategy of telling the brand's story when there's so much you can't say.

Employees are a key part of the equation, she explains. Getting them to realize the IPO is not the destination but a part of the journey is a major objective. A branding campaign was created for the IPO to make sure the entire employee base could really get behind this and celebrate. And on IPO day, Hilton turned the NYSE into a hotel. Employees were a central part of this effort, which truly activated the story for external audiences, too.

Caryl Stern, CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF, recalled emphasizing the importance of storytelling to the board upon taking the job in 2007. "Nobody knows what you do and you must tell that story," she advised them.

Tactically, a key strategy of Stern's was to get UNICEF to stop talking about statistics and start telling stories about children, often one child at a time because everyone can relate to that on an emotional level.

I found it apropos that the final session focused on the freshman class at Edelman because, as I type this at the event's conclusion, my head is overflowing with lessons learned about storytelling and the central role it plays in the modern communications function.

While the event's live gathering of professors was the immediate audience, every PR pro can benefit from what was discussed these last three days in Chicago. Above all, storytelling is both an opportunity and responsibility for communicators. It is what will continue to elevate the discipline and the business. As Richard Edelman noted in his opening remarks on Wednesday, the PR industry has to show and tell - for its clients, but also for itself. As I look back at the 2014 Edelman Academic Summit, that's the big story.

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