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Telling It Like It Is


Storytelling Is Our Oldest Form Of Mass Communication, And It Is Also The Hottest Trend In Public Relations And Marketing.

By Thomas J. Roach

Composing and learning stories is a cognitive process that helps us understand our social environment if not our very existence. Cave paintings told stories perhaps for people who had no other form of language. Bards like Homer told stories in the ancient world before the advent of writing. Our parents read stories to us as children, and as young students we read stories in school to develop our ability to communicate and reason.

The first book printed by the first printing press was the Gutenberg Bible with the story of Genesis and the prophets, four accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, and the adventures of the apostles. A few years after Gutenberg’s revelation of printing in Strasbourg, the first printing press in England was putting out Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Predictably, the main use of film and television has been storytelling. Radio was mainly preoccupied with storytelling before television became popular, and it has always been a main source of a kind of fact-based storytelling called journalism.

Social Media
The culture-changing communication innovation of our day is social media, and because it is a more complex phenomenon than its predecessors, it is embracing the human need for stories in a new way: social media introduces storytelling by accumulation.

There was one enduring way to recite the Iliad and the Odyssey, we have one version of the New Testament, and essentially one defining account authored by The Washington Post of the unfolding events known as Watergate. Historians may note alternate narratives, but the alternate narratives did not shape public consciousness and public opinion.

Social media is unique in the history of mass communication for two reasons:

  • It isn’t one innovation; it is an expanding cluster of new innovations.
  • A company doesn’t have to go through media gatekeepers to access it; anyone can put out a potentially viral video or email.

While it is true that newsworthy events are still defined by print and broadcast journalists, radio talk show hosts, and the occasional filmmaker, the majority of businesses do not draw the attention of mass mediators, and therefore they have almost complete control over the development of their public image.

The two main ways of developing a public narrative about a company used to be feeding stories to journalists and running ad campaigns. Today a story about company history can be posted on a website, it can also be told in pictures on Facebook or Pinterest. Blogs by employees can expand and continue the story, and the blogs can be enhanced with Tweets. Also, CEOs can follow the lead of Steve Jobs and give corporate culture­–defining keynote speeches to live web audiences.

Accumulation of Sources
The accumulation of many sources all supporting the same image is more influential than a story from one source. Many sources create the appearance of a kind of consensus, and unless we have personal experience to tell us otherwise, the consensus story is the one we believe.

Social media, then, by changing the way we communicate, creates an unprecedented opportunity for companies to tell their story. One thing that has not changed, however, is the people who are learning the stories. The trials of Ulysses, the bawdy Miller’s Tale, and the fall of Richard Nixon are all salient to contemporary audiences because while our technology has changed, our appreciation of character, our vulnerability to our emotions, and our ability to reason have not.

Companies should not be tempted to manufacture false images. A big but false social media footprint is nothing more than a big lie, and given enough time the public will know it. Socrates had good advice for anyone trying to tell a company story through social media. Fortunately someone wrote it down: “Endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”


Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at .