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Collaboration: The Future of Social Purpose Storytelling

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Today’s complex and confusing media environment means that reporters and communications professionals must learn to work together to develop and deliver new narratives capable of affecting positive social and environmental change, according to the discussion at the Solutions Journalism Network event on Thursday at Edelman in San Francisco.

The Business + Social Purpose team hosted the event bringing together an eclectic group of journalists, strategic communicators, and some who have dabbled in both.

The environmental and social challenges of our time are many – whether it’s climate change, decaying ecosystems, growing global inequality, corporate corruption or disparities in diversity, among others – and the only certainty has become that we can’t really be sure about anything. With shifting political winds in Washington threatening to blow us even further off course, social purpose storytellers may play a key role in helping us stay true to our collective moral compass over the next four years and beyond.

img_4915-2“We’ve had to broaden our approach on how we think about storytelling,” said Emily Chan, a vice president on the B+SP team in San Francisco. “We are looking across the broad landscape where influence happens – not just media, but also things like online search and collaborative journalism. We are looking at all the different ways people consume information so that we can help our clients tell effective stories in that new ecosystem.”

Veronica White, another vice president on the B+SP team, concurred.

“Edelman was founded on PR, but it has evolved to become so much more than that,” she said. “Collaborative journalism is about looking at the entire ecosystem, often producing owned content that drives earned media coverage.”

Medium, for example, has become a potent storytelling platform which, when amplified by social and paid media, helps drive stories in the mainstream press and beyond.

From watchdog to guide dog

Anyone who has ever watched or read the news knows that positivity isn’t exactly a trademark of the mainstream media. With more things happening every minute of every day than could ever be reported, journalists are forced to pick and choose those stories which they think will resonate most with their readers – or, if you’re feeling cynical, those stories which will create the most shock and awe.

But solutions journalism isn’t about telling the stories we think people want to hear – it’s about finding those people need to hear. This can lead to more informative and engaging stories that attract new and wider audiences.

“A good solutions journalism story reads like a detective story,” said Catherine Cheney, a global development reporter at Devex.

In other words: it’s about rigorous reporting on how people are responding to social problems – and the associated results.

Solutions journalism, as its name implies, isn’t just about calling out problems – it’s about asking the right questions about the “do-gooders” to arrive at real and impactful answers. While this might just sound like traditional journalism, many in the media today have fallen into the mindset of being “watch dogs.” This can cause them to emphasize the problem at the solution’s expense.

“We would reframe the journalist’s role from watchdog to guide dog,” said Cheney. “Society needs guidance on how to respond to social problems.”

Journalists and strategic communicators engaged in solutions journalism shouldn’t just focus on good news, but measureable solutions. Actions matter more than intentions. And the issues must be relevant and timely.

It’s not about hero worshipping or extolling unproven ideas, warned Cheney.

The “how” rather than the “who”

Traditional journalism focuses on five fundamentals: Who, What, Where, When and Why. Solutions journalism adds “How” to the list.

But, when pitching stories to journalists, public relations professionals all too often focus on the “Who” rather than the “How.” From a certain perspective, this makes sense: public relations professionals are paid to promote their clients. But in doing so, they may be undermining their own efforts by turning journalists off to what otherwise could become a more meaningful narrative that pays dividends for the organization and society alike. In the process, both journalist and PR pro miss out on a golden opportunity for more effective storytelling.

“If PR and communications professionals pitching the stories to journalists looked at the ‘How’ in their pitch, it would set journalists up for success in writing that story,” advised Cheney. “You want to look at the results – even if it’s just early-stage evidence.”

While this doesn’t mean that character-driven stories are ineffective, the pitch must focus on the solution rather than the person or organization helping to bring it about. An effective pitch serves as a seed that a journalist can nurture into a stronger story.

And not all stories have happy endings – which is doubly true when dealing with organizations working on sustainability and social purpose issues. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth telling.

“When we look at how we want to frame a story, often we are looking for an area of tension,” said Edelman’s Chan.

Mike Hower is a senior account executive in San Francisco.

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