CommonSense Blog

From Vonnegut to Chandrasekaran: Rise of the Corporate Storyteller

By Ryan Flinn | Mar 11, 2015

One of the things I expected to miss when I made the transition from journalism to PR was the part of my job where I got to tell other people’s amazing stories in my articles. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so concerned — more and more companies are realizing they can, and should, do this themselves as part of their public relations efforts.

A few weeks ago famed Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran announced he was leaving the newspaper after 20 years to form his own production company, partnered with coffee giant Starbucks. In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review, Chandrasekaran said he would focus on long-form “social-impact content,” such as documentaries on veterans. The collaboration sprung out of a book about veterans he co-authored with Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz , “For Love of Country,” published last year.

Chandrasekaran says in the interview he’s not going to do “PR or marketing work.” If the goal was anything but tell good stories, then it wouldn’t likely work anyway. People don’t flock to sales pitches; they want to be sucked into something they can’t look away from.

Credit: The Economist — http://www.economist.com/node/3353315

Blue chip companies, such as SAP, IBM and GE have realized this as well, which is why many of them employ “Chief Storytellers,” or people who’s main job it is to ferret out internal stories worth sharing externally. GE, in fact, was doing decades ago — in 1947 it hired a young journalist with a scientific background to hunt around their Schenectady facility for good stories to tell. That reporter was Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut, third from left, is taking notes during a VIP tour of GE’s Schenectady plant. The photo was preserved by Mary Robinson:http://www.gereports.com/post/78009878650/kurts-cradle-kurt-vonnegut-was-ges-pr-man

Vonnegut described his gig as “visiting the scientists and talking to them and asking them what they were up to. Every so often a good story would come out of it.”

Companies are waking up to the fact that the traditional approach to media relations — put out a press release, wait for coverage — isn’t as effective as it used to be. There are fewer journalists who cover much of the route business announcements that would have likely been picked up by some poor wire sod (like me) in the past. The Associated Press now has robots covering financial news; it’s a recognition that while these things are important to record in some neutral fashion, they don’t attract many readers (media outlets know now because they can count the web clicks). Better to have reporters focus on features, scoops and hot breaking news items.

Corporate storytelling shouldn’t replace legitimate reporting by independent journalists. But it can help a company earn more coverage by virtue of demonstrating it has something interesting to say.

A good example of this is Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, which started writing its own “brand journalism,” or articles with helpful info for patients. As a result of this effort, the hospital started getting much more attention from media outlets from bloggers to broadcast, according to Christine Kent, writing for Ragan’s PR Daily.

“We’re averaging nine times the media placements we’d get several years ago — but we’re also hearing from national media looking for sources on news that we haven’t pitched to them,” said Pam Barber, Nationwide’s director of media relations, according to Kent’s article. “That tells us that they’re seeing us as a trusted source.”

Since this is one of the goals of media engagement — raising your profile, gaining the trust and attention of journalists — it only makes sense that more and more companies will expand their storytelling efforts.