PR in the Age of Visual Storytelling

On Wednesday, October 26, I’ll be speaking at the Visual Story Telling Summit in Miami. The topic is Public Relations in the Age of Visual Storytelling. This is part of the script for my presentation.

My session will (hopefully) engage you at a practical yet philosophical level. We’ll go over the above — how did we get here. We’ll talk about practical reasons PR and social media should embrace visual elements to better tell their clients’ stories. Finally we’ll go over some dos and don’ts.

I’m a public relations and social media marketing consultant as well as a photographer. So the intersection of marketing and visual story telling is particularly compelling to me.

Visual storytelling is what humans have been doing for tens of thousands of years. It includes oral and written stories using visual metaphors and through visual art meant to represent myths and legends, current news, personal stories, or anything the producer wants to share.

Throughout human history we tell each other stories, weaving images into our tales. Before the written word we painted pictures on cave walls. We looked up at the night sky and told each other stories about the patterns in the stars.

Even with the advent of written language, we still used visual metaphors and imagery in our stories. Think about a novel you read. Can you almost see what the author is describing? Can you see the light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock (hint: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”)?

Then along came cheap and easy photography. Now you could have a realistic representation of you or a loved one to share with family. Before going off to war, many Civil War soldiers would have their picture taken so in the event of their death their family would have something to remember them by. This was the first time common people could have a visual representation of themselves.

As visual imagery entered the digital age, it became even easier to take a picture and share it across social networks and through email. Everyone is a photographer. Everyone shares their photographs.

We moved from paintings on cave walls, to oral tradition, to the written word, and now back to primarily visual storytelling. We communicate with live video, memes, and infographics.

Public relations people are at the core story tellers. We turn our clients’ business into bite sized chunks of news releases, articles, backgrounders, white papers, etc. etc. We’ve moved from dial and smile, to faxing releases, to emailing, to reaching out to reporters on Twitter.

Now we have to think visually.

Why do public relations professionals need to know this? We’re all about the written word, right?

Because we are communicators and the language of the Internet is visual.

Today, the Web is mainly visual. Visuals are easy to share. They don’t require a lot of thought. There are plenty of statistics out there showing that visual content is read, shared, liked and otherwise engaged with at a far higher rate than text .

How do we incorporate this into our PR programs? By thinking visually. By illustrating facts and figures with infographics instead of bullet points. By including images and videos into our media outreach. And when we own social, use images and video in social media updates to increase sharing.

But just like when we all jumped onto the World Wide Web in the 90s, or into blogging ten years ago, there’s a lot we can get wrong.

It’s especially important that we have a strategy in place before we jump the gun. Just throwing memes out onto your Facebook page doesn’t do anything to create new customers.

We need to know what visual assets we have and have a plan to create what we need. We need a way to store, find and retrieve our visual content. So many companies have so much content spread out over multiple systems in different departments.

Most importantly, our content needs to match the intended message. Putting out a clever video because you think it will go viral doesn’t do anything for your brand if it doesn’t have a message.

I’m looking forward to meeting with other marketing and PR professionals to discuss this topic. Please check out the Visual Storytelling Summit web site and reserve your seat now!