“It was a Dark and Stormy Night…” – How Social Media is Adding Color to Classic Public Affairs Storytelling


Nelson Fernandez is diversity chair, executive director and managing director of APCO Worldwide in New York.

The field of public affairs is serious business. The classic public affairs communication tool kit includes coalition building, expert/advocate education and mobilization, opinion research, stakeholder mapping and government relations. Sounds serious, right? But social media platforms – and those that allow video storytelling in particular – have added a bit of color to the toolkit allowing for more “issue-centered” storytelling. Even the field of public affairs has been turned on its head as stories about serious issues are being told in unconventional and entertaining ways. What can we learn from some recent examples of issue storytelling at its best?

One of the most talked about issues today debated by politicians on both sides of the isle is income inequality in America. I’ve read many articles on the topic – each calling for different social and fiscal policies to address the challenges – and they all contain pie charts and graphs that can be somewhat mind-numbing. Then I came across this YouTube video which was captivating, fresh and persuasive. It’s the structure of the video that catches you, providing a compelling case with dynamic charts that simplify and package the facts in ways that are easily understood. Very simply, it tells a good story.  Number of views: 41,088

Like gays in the military, Michael Sam’s coming out has provoked an emotionally charged conversation about gays in sports. Sam has been the topic of conversation by pundits, the media, coaches and players, and, of course, the fans. While some speculated on the negative impact his decision would have on the NFL brand, others argued that as far as the brand was concerned, the organization had bigger fish to fry. Perhaps the most striking story bringing this point to life is this video that uses humor and irony to make the point. It is, I would argue, a perfect example of how typical SNL-type sketch comedy can be used as biting social criticism.  Number of views: 952,677

Is there space for humor when it comes to an issue as hotly debated as climate change? Typically, climate change discussions take on a serious, almost lugubrious, tone. You can almost hear the deep, sonorous, god-like voice of the narrator as he begins to paint a picture of cracking polar ice caps, floods, fires and droughts and the havoc and chaos they will wreak as our planet’s food supply slowly diminishes.  Now, take a look at John Oliver’s response. “You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact.” His point: there really shouldn’t be one – a debate, that is – when it comes to this issue.  This is a perfect example of where tastemakers (or as we call them at APCO, stakebrokers) can take an issue and make it resonate – especially if it’s a fresh and amusing way to tell a story – even with a serious topic.  Number of views: 2,361,666 views

It used to be that a good story typically followed certain structural ideals: compelling characters, a journey taken, a moment of high tension or revelation, and a conclusion, of sorts. We’ve all heard great stories. Recently, you may have even experienced a story (notice I say “experienced” and not just “heard”) that took all of 30 seconds to relate to in one of the many social media platforms we use today to engage with our communities. Or, you might have experienced a story still in the process of being told across multiple platforms – first starting with an email from a colleague who asks you to check the article out online, then followed by a click on an embedded link in the article, which takes you to a video, then to a live conversation where you can share your thoughts about the video. And on and on and on. And like the game of telephone we used to play as children, something happens to the story each time it is retold, retweeted, Facebooked or Instagrammed.

Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s trends manager, gave a great Ted talk on why videos go viral. For him, there are three critical elements: tastemakers, communities of participation (or what we call stakebrokers), and unexpectedness. Stephanie Buck, Features Editor at Mashable, interviews the creative guys at Seedwell who list three characteristics that they believe are critical for videos to really go viral: theme, structure and tastemakers. At the heart of all of these is – well, heart. Viral video storytelling grabs you, connects, triggers and provokes emotion – any emotion – and is fresh enough for you to maybe even want to share it with someone. The theme or topic can be anything from cute kittens to climate change to a mini-documentary on human rights to a clearly crafted point of view on policy. In fact, the more unconventional and seemingly incongruous – in some sense – the video is, the more likely it will capture attention and be shared.

For those of us who are right at the intersection of corporate brand communication and public affairs, the fragmentation of media provides real (and underleveraged) opportunities to tell our clients’ stories in more creative ways. Social media channels and visual storytelling will continue to offer the most compelling ways to engage “communities of participation.” We shouldn’t be bound by the classic, conventional public affairs tool kit. Gone are the days where scoring an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper or Christiane Amanpour were enough for a client interested in discussing her (leadership on the) issues.  A recent article in the New York Times about Barbara Walter’s retirement helps make the point.

As the NYT article states, Walters is credited with helping women break through the stronghold that men had on the “big get,” also known as the interview with a famous or infamous personality which often led to confessions that were theatrical, captivating and surprising. We’ve all seen them and talked to our colleagues and friends about them. In addition to entertaining us, Walter’s interviews provided an experience that many of us shared, discussed and debated with friends and colleagues, in part because many of us were watching.

According to Jonathan Miller, author of the article, when Ms. Walters interviewed Monica Lewinsky in March 1999, nearly 50 million people were in front of their TV sets. Fast forward to our (post) social media age: Miller notes that when Anderson Cooper scored the interview with Donald Sterling, only 720,000 tuned in. Not only does this change in viewership illustrate the paradigmatic shift in power, which shifts control from the channel (literally, in this case) to the user, but it also illustrates how the fragmentation of media has created a level playing field for those who want to tell their stories.

Today, anyone can be an author, storyteller, or content creator, and he or she doesn’t even have to rely on words or text to connect. The implications for those of us at the nexus of public affairs, corporate brand communication, and stakebroker insights are remarkable: a healthy dose of creativity is essential – especially in the world of issues communication, which has typically been cautious about inviting creativity in. Opening up the door to creative insights will help our clients in public affairs more effectively communicate about their issues in this fickle, disruptive, and uncertain world.