Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
October 27, 2011

Storytelling for the Digital Age: 2011 PRSA International Conference

Even though the PRSA International Conference was my 12th in the past 13 years, I was excited about this year’s theme of Envisioning the Future of Public Relations. As I’m a PRSSA mentor and adviser, and vice president of BurrellesLuce Media Contacts, the future of the profession is close to my heart.

One of the sessions I attended was led by my colleague Johna Burke, on the topic of storytelling and its importance in this digital age. I came away with two pages of typewritten notes, but here are what I believe to be the key takeaways.

Burke began by stressing that storytelling is the core competency in the public relations profession, next to great writing. She talked about this being the “Web 2.0” of storytelling. No more is it just local library readings, storytelling festivals and other analog channels. We now have multimedia, hypertext, social media, user-generated broadcast, etc. Public relations professionals must leverage the art form — make your story compelling, make it stand out.

Blasting your message out to the masses is not the way to reach everyone. The most important considerations:

  • Where is your audience? Target your story through the proper channels.
  • What matters? Understand who your community is and what they want. 
  • What is sustainable? Understand how your organization makes and spends money. Channel your resources in the proper way so that you aren’t wasting time and money talking where no one is listening.

In the spirit of being in Orlando, Burke referenced Walt Disney as one of the best storytellers of all time; he knew who his audience was. He knew that kids were his primary market, yet he recognized his secondary market was the parents (using allusions above the kids’ heads to amuse the adults). He also didn’t forget there’s always a tertiary market — audiences we may not have originally anticipated but who still matter and who take an interest in our stories. These audiences should be identified as they emerge. 

The key is to understand what your brand means. Being generic dilutes the message.

Public relations professionals must empower their audience by digging deeper, driving the story. She warns to beware of the desire to be the newest, coolest — using the “all sizzle, no steak” analogy. People see through this, and will not support long-time relationships, which is what you need. You do want to be relevant — visuals, videos, info-graphics are powerful, but don’t miss the opportunity to tell your story.

Tressa Robbins is vice president of Media Contacts for BurrellesLuce. Tressa is a regular contributor to BurrellesLuce Fresh Ideas blog, a member of the St. Louis PRSA chapter, Champions for PRSSA section member, PRSSA mentor and Professional Adviser. She recently served as a panelist for the PRSSA National Conference and speaks at the local and regional level. Connect with Tressa on LinkedIn and follow Tressa on Twitter @tressalynne.

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  • MyMediaInfo

    We had an awesome time in Orlando this year! Flying back to chilly Boston wasn’t much fun. Anyway, I think the balance businesses need to find is how to properly leverage all the tools at their disposal. Once a business knows what type of customer is mentioning their name and product, and in what capacity, they can they properly prospect for leads.

  • Bailey Carpenter

    Thank you Tressa for the great advice! I am currently a senior at The University of Alabama studying public relations, and I am also a writer/editor for platform magazine. ( We stress the importance of PR as a field that is constantly changing for the future, but it is so important to keep the “all sizzle, no steak” problem in mind. I love this field because it keeps the future in mind and consistently adapts to incorporate new technologies, and there is always room for new and creative ways of reaching audiences. However, there is such a thing as too much “sizzle”, and nothing beats good old-fashioned relationship building! Awesome post–it’s a great read for anyone in PR, but especially students like me.

    Bailey Carpenter
    Writer/Editor, Platform Magazine

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  • Jennifer Wong

    Thanks for the tips and the main take aways. I agree that the best way to get a message across is through story telling. I really liked your example with Disney, and I think the art of story telling was starting to get lost in the mass of messages. However, it’s coming back! Especially with Facebook’s Timeline feature that will be released soon. But I feel that the best way to connect a brand to a person is through story telling. No one wants to be flat out told anything, they want entertainment and whatever message they pick up from that won’t be off putting. Just like how no one wants to be advertised or marketed to, but they will accept it if it’s hidden behind a story, game or show.