I recently had the opportunity to speak with one of my favorite local storytellers and communications leaders, Hanson Hosein. Between directing the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program, running Media Space, shooting an award winning independent film, and leading Four Peaks – Hanson is one busy man. Huge thanks to Hanson for taking time out of his schedule to provide insight below. A coworker previously recapped some learnings from Hanson’s recent SAL lecture and this Q&A provides some deeper insight on the relevance of storytelling in the PR industry and the ways in which communications continue to evolve.
In lectures and presentations, you talk about the convergence of journalism and marketing. Expound upon the future outcome you envision and overall impact this will have on the PR industry.
The “storyteller uprising” that I refer to in my talks is predicated on a simple foundation. We’ve seen an explosion in the wide availability of cheap communications technology (cameras, smartphones, social media distribution networks), combined with a breakdown in business models for media organizations that have traditionally enjoyed an institutional lockdown in communications. Suddenly, anyone now has the opportunity to create a trusted relationship through communication. And that “trust” is no longer relegated to brand names in marketing or journalism. Anyone can establish that trust by creating a powerful narrative, and then by interacting on a regular basis with those we seek to engage with our story.
What does this mean for PR? Traditionally, PR served as the intermediary between companies seeking to sell something (a product, an idea) with professional media outlets. In many ways, PR had to learn journalistic skills to do its job well, in addition to understanding the marketing side. Now, those professional media outlets still retain some value, but there’s also this remarkable opportunity for us to engage people directly. No one really likes to be “spun,” “messaged” or “marketed” to – and younger people are increasingly becoming savvy to that. So if you’re going to expect anyone to pay attention to what you’re saying, you’ll need to create valuable content, with a voice of authenticity that is relevant to people’s lives. Who says that this needs to continue to be the exclusive preserve of journalism or marketing? Public relations at its heart is about engagement – it just needs to learn a few more reflexes and reconsider its own business.
In other words, PR can think more expansively now – it can push into advertising and digital marketing agencies’ territory. And it can help build direct, trusted relationships around media and information. Ultimately this means a title shift for the industry along the lines of “Engagement Management” or “Trusted Communications” (the funny thing is that “Public Relations” is probably most apt now – but it’s a tarnished term in the average person’s eyes). It’s a huge opportunity to create a one-stop shop for clients if done strategically, entrepreneurially and with an eye on tight budgets.
Content. Content. Content. We’re in a transformative period where the notion of active content creation is flooding mainstream. Can you provide a couple of examples of the type of content that’s recently caught your eye or regularly breaks through the clutter?
Clearly any powerful story cuts through the clutter. That’s why we’ve been so rapt with attention over the people’s uprisings in the Middle East – we can relate to people who rise up against oppression. And those people are creating content on a regular basis through online video and social media channels despite the best efforts of repressive regimes to lock them down. I’ve also been recently impressed with car companies like Ford and Hyundai: their engagement strategies (the Fiesta Agent program was brilliant), combined with bold narratives really catch my eye. But even here we need to take a step back when we think about “content.” It’s not just about the quality of what these companies are communicating….their success also comes in the products that they’re creating – which are obviously industry-leading. In other words, your communication strategy itself doesn’t win the day. The content itself has to be good. People see through crap more than ever today.
A couple of years ago, I wrote this post around skills needed to compete by young PR pros. With digital continuing to play a larger role in all overall strategic communications plans, what advice are you delivering to your students to prime up for a competitive job market?
The deep economic recession has forced us all into the ROI (Return on Investment) age. In other words, we think twice before we expend any energy or resources on a particular endeavor until we’re sure that the value proposition is a good one. I believe the same holds true to the education that we offer: we just can’t take for granted that professionals are going to want to plunk down their money and take whatever we have to offer. We need to work harder to prove the value proposition to justify their money and time. This requires nimble, entrepreneurial thinking on our part, and an ability to provide high quality educational content.
The same holds true for what our students need to do to get a job. They need to show that they have a specific, unique skill set (storytelling, social media skills, a keen understanding of engagement in the digital age), but that they’re also capable of stretching for the task at hand. Everything is changing so fast that to profess immutable expertise – and to hang your hat on that – is almost dishonest. Rather, we should all be prepared to do what it takes to accomplish the task with consistent excellence. Our students who are finding great jobs are those who have demonstrated leadership abilities in the communication field, along with a strong sense of the practical.
As a master storyteller, what are three core components that you look for in any good story?
(1) A clear narrative with a memorable, emotional punch.
(2) Creative, non-distracting production qualities (or compelling visuals)
(3) A desire to engage beyond the beginning, middle and end of the narrative itself.
You’re helping lead collaboration of Seattle’s top technology innovators through your Four Peaks Salon. What local storytelling or innovation trend are you most excited about?
I love the confluence between community engagement and technology in our region. It’s what sets us apart. We like to connect – online, and in-person through events. And there are so many local developers who are creating new platforms to facilitate those connections to bring together the real and the virtual in a way that allows us to capture the moment of that connection, and to have it lead to something meaningful even after the event is over. That’s what we’re focused on with Four Peaks – to create that connective tissue that enables amazing collaborative work to emerge from those surprising human connections.