A Strong Cast of Characters is Vital to Telling Your Company’s Story

By: Guest | April 17, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Brad Marley.

You can’t tell a great story without great characters.

Charles Dickens knew it.

Stephen King knows it.

Heck, even the dude who wrote “A Million Little Pieces” beefed up his life story to make himself more interesting to his readers.

While the premise of a story might be the impetus to take a book off the shelf, it is the characters that keep you turning pages.

And this idea of having a strong cast of characters is just as important in PR, an industry that is quickly being transformed from a group of news release-pushers into one of storytellers.

On the General Motors environmental communications team, every blog post, every podcast, every news release we write is another chapter in the novel that is the GM sustainability story.

But we can’t come up with all of this content on our own. If we tried, it would quickly turn into fluff. And nobody wants that.

So we turn to our cast of characters inside the walls of GM who provide us with a majority of the content we push out on a daily basis.

Almost like how a reporter cultivates their sources, we reach out regularly to the experts to see what they are working on.

One of our environmental experts came up with the idea to turn oil-soaked booms from the Gulf of Mexico into parts for the Chevrolet Volt. He’s the manager of waste reduction efforts at GM. His job is to figure out how to reduce waste. And he doesn’t do this for a paycheck; he lives it.

During a recent phone conversation, he mentioned he was hauling a five gallon bucket of coffee grounds to his car. He was taking them home to use as bedding in his landscaping. His division has a coffee grounds recycling program in place that prevents 3,000 pounds of coffee grounds from becoming waste.

His off-the-cuff comment about the coffee grounds became a blog post.

But if I wasn’t in regular contact with him, that story never would have seen the light of day.

Our stable of experts also includes a woman who handles all matters related to wildlife habitats on the grounds of GM plants, as well as a guy who handles everything related to solar energy at GM facilities, just to name a few.

They are vital to the story because they keep it moving.

From a public relations perspective, you must start thinking about identifying those within your clients’ organizations who can advance the overall story, because that’s the future of public relations.

[Corny phrase alert!]

And the future is now.

Make the effort to meet with the experts. Take them out for coffee. Pick their brains. Find out what makes them tick.

You might be surprised to find out their job reflects their passions.

If that’s the case, the story will practically write itself.

Brad Marley works for Mullen Detroit and spends all of his billable time telling the GM sustainability story. You can find him on Twitter at @bradmarley and at his blog. He tries not to take himself too seriously.

  • That is really cool! I love that! At Spin Sucks, Gini makes it about the readers as much as it is about marketing and PR. That is really essential so that people feel like they belong. There is no more boring thing in the world than listening to a windbag who does not care about who their buyers are. 
    Nice post. Going to share this one.

    •  @NancyD68 Thanks for the kind words! I agree with your stance that hearing people talk about themselves or their company gets old. It’s vital to connect with your audience.

  • I couldn’t agree more with this approach! We’re working on incentives (coffee, lunches, etc) to encourage our amazing social media analysts to begin blogging and capturing their ideas as they related to social media analytics. It can be hard to get people, especially those scared to write, enthusiastic about contributing but your examples illustrate how worth the time spent persuading others to get involved can be.
    Thanks for sharing. I’m going to send it around to the team!
    Jennifer @collectual

    •  @Collectual Thanks for the comment! That’s why we’re brought in: to uncover the stories and convince those who retain them that it’s a good idea to tell the story. Or that they’re not bragging, as is sometimes the case. I’m glad you found this valuable.

  • This is a great post and also interesting. First off most large companies have initiatives and people like you mentioned that rarely get recognized or shared with the public in any meaningful way. So I feel this definitely helps GM show they are more than cars and trucks.
    My one surprise is that the people doing this work and blogging aren’t GM employees vs their agency. With the resources that GM has I can see having you consult/strategy, but I think these people should be telling their own story and publishing it vs it being more a ‘news coverage’ campaign. Maybe it is and I read your role wrong and the blogging wrong (i need to visit and check it out). BTW I am a Mullen fan because of Edward Boches in Boston. So I know you guys do good work and this blogging campaign is really sharp and smart.

    •  @HowieSPM Thanks for the comment, Howie.
      Aside from the occasional press release that appears on GM’s media site, we try to act as a compliment to that or, in some cases, our own storytelling machine. While we do write blog posts that supplement press releases, a lot of the time we write stories that don’t warrant a press release. We feel that these are stories that need to be told to give the public the overall view of GM’s sustainability operations. Personally, I like to write the longer, feature stories, but those are few and far between. And if I can elevate the profiles of the people doing the work behind the scenes in the green community, I’ve done my job.
      Am I on the right track here? I hope you had a chance to read the blog to see what we do. I think I understood your question.
      And thanks for the Mullen love. I’ve only met Edward once, but I can’t wait to get back to Boston to pick his brain some more. He’s a very creative guy.

  • Woot for Detroit @bradmarley! Very smart advice here. Thank you for sharing.
    I love the example of how you created a blog post from a conversation about coffee grounds. It’s our job to have these conversations with people on various teams at the companies we work with in order to dig up the interesting stories that we can turn into content for online channels.

    •  @Nikki Little Hi, Nikki – thanks for taking a moment to comment. The only way we’re going to uncover stories like coffee grounds recycling is if we’re in constant contact with our people. And, speaking from the point of view of a word nerd, the headline possibilities with the word “grounds” in it were unlimited. I probably had too much fun writing different versions.

  • Hi Brad! Totally psyched to have your perspective here on storytelling. It’s my favorite part of my job, but we do have to realize, harvesting those stories mean you have to get up from your desk!! 🙂 They’re out there, for sure!

    •  @Lisa Gerber You make a good point. It’s so easy to get tied to our desks and hide behind email. It’s imperative that we get away from the office and meet with people, show our face, etc. I believe that helps to bring out the best stories. Thanks again for inviting me to contribute.

  • Really good stuff Brad… as a former TV news reporter, I don’t think enough people in PR realize how they can put what they learned in J-school to work for themselves in today’s quest for content.
    You really nailed it!
    –Tony Gnau

    •  @T60Productions  I’ve always secretly wanted to be a journalist, which is why this job is so appealing to me. And the fact that I get to tell stories for a living is not a bad gig, either. Thanks for leaving a comment!

  • This is great advice but in the UK people are little more reluctant to give up the goods – just trying to get staff to provide bios for our ‘About Us’ page is like trying to get blood from a stone. Any tips on soliciting information from your tight-lipped clients – on getting them to open up a little?

    •  @Approved PR Companies Show them our GM blog? Just kidding. Sort of.
      I understand the hesitance to talk about yourself. I mean, nobody is really comfortable doing that. But also tell them that they will be more appealing to their customers if those customers have a human face to rally behind. If they’re just a big corporation, they’ll come of as cold and intimidating. They need to add some warmth to the story.
      I hope this helps. Good luck!

  • Love love love this post. I just wrote a guest blog recently about the importance of telling stories and how people can provide unlimited content. I love hearing about how companies are managing waste and improving sustainability…and doing it in a way that focuses on the people behind the idea instead of tooting your own horn is brilliant. 

    •  @brittanybotti Brittany – thanks for taking a few moments to leave a comment. PR people are guilty of tooting horns, and sometimes it’s necessary. But when it comes to sustainability, we can be accused of greenwashing if we’re not careful. It’s a fine line, for sure. But if we focus on the people who are doing this great work, it’s genuine. And it’s a story that is so much fun to tell.

  • This is just such a great concept and I love how GM is embracing the idea of storytelling. I just had a conversation the other day with our director of optimization and online experience on blogging. He had said that he doesnt feel comfortable blogging and I told him what i tell a lot of people: you cant think too hard about it. Write about what you are passionate about. How do you optimize a website? What could we be doing better? what do you know that everyone else wants to know?

    •  @C_Pappas Blogging can be so simple, yet, so many people make it out to be too hard. When I meet with the subject matter experts, I know they have stories to tell. We just need to get it out of them. Over time, I’ve found that they are more proactive when it comes to sharing new stuff with us, but it takes time.
      Good luck with your endeavor and thanks for commenting!

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