Marketers and public relations practitioners have long known that storytelling is critical to any campaign. Storytelling is about relating to people, about making a connection with your audience. PR has long been a text-based, word-driven method of communicating messages, but it’s no longer enough to simply broadcast these written messages. “PR historically has been about words—telling. Now it’s show and tell,” says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman in a recent AdWeek article.
I’ve read copious articles in the past year on the “new trend” of visual storytelling. Articles that point out we are a society of “visual learners.” Visual storytelling classes have recently been added to university course catalogs, professional development and continuing education workshops and webinars are abundant. Infographics have become a popular way to socially share messages in the past couple years. Some say this shift is due to how we consume information and communicate in the digital mobile age. But I say this is a trend that actually began more than a hundred years ago!
Over the holidays, my husband and I watched the History Channel mini-series “Mankind The Story of All of Us” that we had DVR’d. In the final episode, they talk about the Congo rubber trade in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s under King Leopold II’s dictatorship and the brutishness of forced labor. A common occurrence was to physically maim children as a warning to villagers. Enter Alice Harris, a British missionary, and her camera. (I know you were wondering where I was going with this J).
Brian Williams, of NBC Nightly News (and one of the commentators in the series) says, “The invention of photography and the means to get them in front of people held more power than its inventors ever imagined. Photos don’t blink and they don’t go away. Once you’ve seen that image, you can’t rewind.” Harris took hundreds of photos of the atrocities—photos which were then published in newspapers across the world, shocking millions of readers. These photographs were so horrific and communicated so broadly that it transformed public opinion and changed society, forcing King Leopold to quit the Congo rubber trade. I would argue that this was the beginning of visual storytelling—at least in the modern mass media age. (Visual storytelling actually dates back to more than 30,000 years ago with cave paintings.)
In addition, “Once you’ve seen that image, you can’t rewind,” Williams went on to say, “The expression ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ –that’s a low ball estimate. A picture, a good picture, is worth so much more than that.”
This is especially true in today’s digital age. As PR and communications professionals we are increasingly tasked with disseminating messages in a crowded online space. The content we produce must not only gain the attention of audiences – but keep it as well.
Like our ancestors, we must create stories that paint pictures – either via our words or via images – to sway public opinion and, perhaps more importantly, persuades people to respond to our calls to action.
Check out this BurrellesLuce Storytelling newsletter for more helpful tips.