Avoid the Imitation Game: Be Ready to Break the Rules

Guest post by Max Nelson of SalientMG.

This is a guest post by Max Nelson, comms lead at Maryland-based marketing/PR agency SalientMG.

It can be easy to fall into habits. Consumers expect to receive their news in certain ways, CEOs expect their PR departments to work in certain ways and the success of a particular announcement or campaign is measured in ways that ties back to these expectations.

Draft a press release. Write an accompanying corporate blog post. Pitch the reporter with whom you have the best relationship. Offer an interview with the “go-to” executive. Tweet a link to the story. Look at hits/impressions/shares.

There is essentially a checklist to follow in today’s PR world, and the result is work that, when you step back and think about it, is incredibly formulaic.

There is nothing wrong with following this checklist (no one has ever gotten fired for recommending Business Wire), but as an industry, we have to acknowledge that our methods haven’t evolved much in the last decade — and we shouldn’t be afraid of taking risks.

This is also true of the larger marketing world: there’s a reason short animated videos don’t have the same impact today that they did five years ago. It’s the same reason that the majority of infographics no longer catch our eye (or generate much interest from press). And it’s why QR codes are no longer featured within every ad.  Too many things look the same, and too few people take real risks. Imitation can be a form of flattery, but we can’t fall into the habit of “imitating ourselves” and just copying what has worked in the past.

Good PR is about creating and controlling a narrative about a product or company, and at the heart of it, it’s really about storytelling. When I think about an example that speaks to the power of being different, I don’t actually think about a marketing or PR campaign but a master storyteller: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan.

In her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan tackles the issues of aging, family, and how relationships can change over time. In one particularly well-known chapter, she tells a story solely using PowerPoint.

goon squad

Here is a link to the chapter online: http://bit.ly/1J0lCB3

The chapter is unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and it does a tremendous job of communicating emotion in an unfriendly format.

I see two important lessons we can take from this chapter:

  • First—it shows the power of being different. The rest of the book is told as a traditional narrative, so, as a reader, the section in PowerPoint immediately catches your attention. It even physically engages the reader by requiring them to turn the book on its side in order to be able to read the slides facing upwards. I would imagine that when many people speak about this book to friends and family, this chapter is one of the first things they mention.
  • The second important lesson is that Egan uses the new format to convey themes and emotions in ways that are not possible via traditional prose.  One of the major themes in the chapter is the power of pauses, and Egan is able to literally bring this to life by introducing slides with no text on them (which make the reader pause in the middle of the story). Additionally, Egan uses shapes and structures to symbolize the chaos and confusion in certain relationships, creating a classic example of “showing and not telling.”

Egan herself has said that “writing anything successful in PowerPoint requires that you break down a particular thought, or fictional moment, into its basic structure, and then illustrate that structure,” and this point is another example of how she used this new medium to her advantage.

By forcing herself to think about fictional thoughts and characters at this deep, fundamental level, she is able to bring them to life in unique and compelling ways.

So should companies start releasing their earnings announcements in PowerPoint? Probably not, but thinking outside the box like Jennifer Egan did can be incredibly useful.

The best approach for each particular company announcement will depend on the story, the audience, timing and much more, but no matter what decision is made in the end, there should at least be conversations about what release strategy makes the most sense.

Knowing the rules and traditional methods is valuable, but being tied to them can be ineffectual. Breaking them can often be the answer to helping your company achieve results.

max nelson small headshotMax Nelson is the Communications Lead at SalientMG, where he works with the company’s diverse client base on PR strategy, media relations, executive visibility, speaking engagements, and bringing messages to market that will impact core business objectives. Before joining SMG in late 2013, Max was the Senior Corporate Communications Manager at Millennial Media, where he created and led internal and external global communications.