The decline of mainstream media titles in the face of the expansion of internet-based communications has been well documented. Less well documented has been the concomitant declining quality of news stories themselves.
At its heart, the news is a product which media companies sell and to which people have assigned a value expressed in paid subscriptions. Traditionally, the news has been produced by standards-based journalism that is, at least in theory, motivated by the pursuit of truth, resourceful in the use of research, informed by facts, governed by accepted standards and edited with balance.
The rise of digital communication has put the traditional news media at the eye of a perfect storm.
On the one hand, declining attention spans and ever-shorter deadlines increase the need for news outlets to report 'the facts' as rapidly and succinctly as possible. On the other, declining advertising revenues impact the ability and willingness of news companies to hire top class reporters and editors. Sensationalism, speculation and speed trump research, analysis and accuracy. The end result is a decline in editorial quality and a parallel decline in trust in the media.
Ironically, in an age of 24-hour broadcast news channels and 'always on' commentary via the likes of Facebook and Twitter, we have a lot more news but far fewer stories.
Stories, though, are important. They provide a way to tap into the subconscious mind and touch the feelings and emotions that drive our daily purchasing and behavioural decisions. Stories are part of the fabric of human communication and, when used effectively, are very powerful motivators and predictors of attitudes and behaviour.
Leading brand strategists have long recognised that messages woven into an ongoing narrative are more compelling and attract higher recall than messages pushed at an audience via overt communications such as traditional advertising. And yet the marketing conversation still tends to revolve around advertising and the role it has to play in attracting and retaining the new connected consumer.
Public relations practitioners, meanwhile, have traditionally spent their careers trying to convince executives that they should invest more in 'earning' editorial media coverage of their brands in news stories, rather than 'buying' paid coverage through advertising. Because people can readily identify ads when they see them - and we tend to think that ads are supposed to be present during times and places we expect them to be - they attach less credibility to their claims. But if they see a product featured in a news narrative, people are less likely to be suspicious and more likely to trust the brand messaging because it hasn't been visibly purchased.
When trust in media declines, though, the traditional wisdom is turned on its head.
If it is true that a declining media business can no longer generate an ample supply of compelling story content, then what is to prevent companies from generating that content themselves? If it is true that resource constraints are reducing media to an automated and uncritical B2C conveyor of pre-packaged marketing information passed to them by PR people, then what is to prevent companies from filling the void and communicating stories directly to the public?
The ability of modern corporations to build and enhance their reputations is no longer constrained by the traditional news media model. The modern corporate storyteller has access to a range of digital communications platforms that can reach audiences in many different ways and draw them into the brand experience in a way that the traditional media could never hope to replicate.
In many ways, the rise of digital storytelling is simply a natural progression for PR people. We finally have the freedom, the tools and the channels to communicate in the way that, at heart, we have always wished to. For many corporations, though, this new world is an intimidating place.
Granted, corporate digital storytelling is not without its risks; risks that more often send companies to the door of their legal counsel rather than to their communications teams. Lawyers are adept at limiting potential corporate liability in a court of law. The court of public opinion, however, is a very different place. In this domain transparency and public accountability are the watchwords and, when those principles are betrayed, the fallout can be immediate and unpleasant - witness the fate of iPhone 4.
Digital storytelling - and, by extension, brand storytelling - is not about messages, but rather about relationships. The scattergun approach doesn't work here. Instead, companies need to invest the time and resources to evaluate the relationships that drive their business, use the available channels to listen to the online conversation and then engage in a manner that is transparent, authentic and, above all, human.
This article was originally published in the 26 August 2010 supplement PR Communicated.