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Beyond Words

Public relations embraces visual storytelling
  • August 06 2012

How did a small search marketing software company become the lead “analyst” on Facebook’s advertising potential? It used pictures for its PR.

In the days leading up to Facebook’s IPO, there was a great deal of debate around whether the social media giant’s ad platform was built for long-term success. This dialogue didn’t escape WordStream, a provider of pay-per-click and search services, which thought it could get a bit of publicity for a quick study it conducted comparing the value of display advertising on Facebook to that of Google’s Display Network. But rather than simply put out a press release, WordStream decided to tell the story via an infographic.

What WordStream wasn’t prepared for was the massive reception the infographic received. Initial pickups came from a Wall Street Journal blog and Business Insider, both of which linked directly to the visual. But as the news cycle around the IPO heated up with GM’s announcement that it was pulling its Facebook ads, the infographic—a graded comparison of Facebook vs. Google—went viral. In a matter of hours, many of the top news outlets, including USA Today, CNN, Fast Company, The Economist, Fox Business and more, picked it up. Within a week, a Google search yielded more than 13,000 news articles mentioning WordStream, many of them embedding the infographic and linking back to the company’s site.

While WordStream may have hit the perfect storm of media interest, the company believes that the infographic—and the ease by which journalists, bloggers and others could access and share the information—made it all possible. “If you look at the raw data we compiled, it’s incomprehensible,” says Larry Kim, founder and CTO of WordStream. “The fact that it was illustrated got the press pickups.”

WordStream’s experience points to the new world of public relations, where every picture tells a story. While PR has long been considered a word-driven medium, agencies and marketers are increasingly foresaking written communications in favor of more visual media. Infographics, videos, slideshows and various multimedia tools are augmenting or replacing traditional press releases and article placements.

“PR historically has been about words—telling. Now it’s show and tell,” says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “We’ve been about the work. Now you have to do the show.”

There are a multitude of reasons for this shift to the visual. In today’s media landscape, journalists and bloggers—not to mention social media sharers—have an insatiable appetite for content that is easy to post and will appeal immediately to their audiences. Quick hits such as infographics and videos meet these criteria. They often require little in the way of explanation, letting the pictures speak for themselves.

Edelman notes that consumers today expect this kind of visual storytelling, given the way they consume information online and on their mobile devices. Even traditional media—such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—regularly incorporate video and multimedia elements into their online reporting. Slide shows and listicles often become the most popular articles on sites such as Huffington Post or Business Insider. Agencies have to deliver information in a format that lends itself to this consumption, he adds.

At the same time, a clever visual can bring attention to information that otherwise would get ignored. “If it’s just a press release, it’s just another piece in the digital landfill,” says Brian Wallace, president of NowSourcing, which created WordStream’s infographic.

In fact, a June 2012 study by PR Newswire, based on its internal analytics, found that a text press release accompanied by a photo is 1.8 times more likely to be viewed than text-only, but a release accompanied by a photo and a video is up to 7.4 times more likely to be viewed.

PR communication has to work harder than ever before—everything has to do double duty. Press releases no longer just have to just grab the attention of a handful of editors. Instead, because they show up regularly in search results and online news feeds, they are likely to be read and shared by the general public—they have to feature tweetable headlines and facts, search-friendly links, compelling visuals, and be hosted on an easy-to-share landing page that shows up well on Linked­In or Facebook.

“With information so abundant and the attention of audiences fleeting, marketers and PR professionals need to make an instant impact to rise above the clutter,” says Todd Grossman, VP of MultiVu, PR Newswire’s multimedia and broadcast division. “Visual assets, which by nature are more appealing to the eye, convey information more quickly and more efficiently and add personality and context to a story. Visual elements are more easily digestible and more likely to be shared, extending the life of the story and driving earned media.”

Social sharing—whether done by a media company or by an individual—demands some kind of visual statement. Facebook’s internal analysis has found that posts that contain a photo or video generate 120 percent and 100 percent more engagement, respectively, than the average post. The phenomenal growth of Pinterest as a way to aggregate, curate and share graphic content is further evidence of the need to tell stories visually. Which is why brands themselves want to produce content that people are going to share. And that responsibility is falling to their PR agencies.

As a result, agencies have had to transform themselves from bullpens of writers to teams that understand how to tell stories across a variety of media.

“This profession attracts people who love words,” says Kim Sample, CEO of Emanate PR. “We need to be more visual.” She notes that Emanate has had to look outside traditional PR circles to find the talent it needs to execute these kinds of campaigns. For instance, it brought in a film producer whose work has been screened at the Sundance Film Festival to focus on creating branded content and videos.


Portraying developments graphically

While infographics have a long history in print, their popularity online coincides with the rise of social sharing. “Simply put, an image that tells the entire story is more easily reblogged than an entire text-based article,” says Jason Lankow, CEO of infographic design house Column Five Media and author of the upcoming book Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling.

FedEx transported a pair of giant pandas from China to their new home at the Paris Zoo this past January—a classic PR opportunity. But rather than simply rely on a couple of photos and a press release, Ketchum, FedEx’s PR agency, created an infographic entitled “Pandas Land in Paris to Find Love,” that very quickly recapped the details of the program. It was one of multiple elements to the campaign—a traditional press release with photos of the pandas was issued, video of the plane landing was posted to YouTube and Fed­Ex employees involved in the program blogged about their roles. But the infographic—because it was easy to understand—helped drive the traffic to those other mediums, Ketchum notes.

Another key benefit of infographics—particularly for PR purposes—is to convey a complex topic simply. GE, for example, frequently has a story to tell about its various manufacturing processes and their impact on different communities. But as a company that does a great deal of heavy manufacturing—everything from jet engines to gas turbines to healthcare technology—it needs to find a way to communicate that information to the layperson.

“Visuals allow us to tell our story in a simpler and more compelling way to new and broader audiences,” says Linda Boff, global executive director, digital, advertising & design at GE. “By collaborating with a variety of leading global designers who really understand the meaning and implications of the data they’re visualizing, data visualization is an incredibly powerful tool.”

For example, this past April, GE Aviation wanted to communicate the impact of the rising number of foreign orders for jet engines on U.S. employment. Rather than simply put out a press release, Edelman, GE Aviation’s agency, put together an infographic showing the breadth of the impact. “By utilizing compelling data to visually communicate GE Aviation’s story to a broad set of stakeholder audiences, we have been able to successfully partner with GE Aviation to strengthen its legacy as an advanced technology company that is solving some of the world’s toughest aviation problems,” explains Erica Noble, SVP at Edelman.

Interestingly, GE believes that data visualization has become such a crucial communications tool that it created visualizing.org (with Seed Media Group), a resource for both the design community and the general public.


Leading with video

In the traditional PR model, video was often consigned to “b-roll”—stock imagery that could be used as background for a story. Today, video frequently takes the front seat of a campaign, getting the attention of the influencer and becoming the driver of additional earned media.

Last Thanksgiving, State Farm put out a video of actor William Shatner humorously warning about the dangers of deep-frying turkey. “Eat, Fry, Love” became the centerpiece of the insurance company’s PR efforts around the issue. Media outlets and bloggers were targeted and a multimedia news release was issued. People who came across the release were directed to a content hub that included additional videos and presentations, and generally bloggers picked up both the original video and the other assets. Ultimately, “Eat, Fry, Love” got almost half a million views on YouTube, and there was also a drop in fryer fire claims on Thanksgiving, according to State Farm.

As happened with State Farm, a compelling video has become a way for PR agencies and marketers to get attention for a brand or issue while creating the potential for a viral share. Frequently, it is the social media share—and the chatter that occurs—that can also drive additional coverage. “Video is social, something to be shared within the social sphere,” notes Edelman.

“Video has the ability to be more emotionally involving,” explains Chris Graves, global CEO of Ogilvy PR. Producing high-quality video has become a priority for the agency, and earlier this year it brought in veteran business journalist Betsy Stark, formerly of ABC News, as director of content strategy to oversee the creation of top-quality content.

The videos Ogilvy is producing—particularly those that fall into the business-to-business segment—aren’t necessarily for mass consumption, but are designed to tell a story in a more compelling way than print can. For example, for a program to encourage foreign direct investment (FDI) in Mexico, Ogilvy PR has created a series of video testimonials featuring high-profile business people—executives from Bombardier, Coca-Cola and Scotiabank, plus former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills—discussing the Mexican economy. The goal of the business-to-business campaign, explains Graves, is to counter impressions that Mexico is a dangerous place to invest, and instead show that foreign investors are not afraid of the country in a time when FDI is higher than it has ever been.

The key to a visual’s success, notes Graves, is no different than that of the written word. “Just because you can [create a visual] doesn’t mean it’s any good,” he says. “It has to tell a story.”