Symmetrical Thinking, the Art of Storytelling

As a preface to this post, I must state that it’s written with a focus on theoretical constructs and their relationship to PR for my master’s theory course.

If you dare challenge yourself to read this post, you’ll certainly become inundated with some old and new theory. The thrust of this post will be how Grunig’s Symmetrical Model of mutually beneficial relationships and Excellence Theory and Thomas Mickey’s Sociodrama play in tandem with the art of storytelling in the PR profession. We are, at our roots, storytellers who craft narrative in all shapes and forms.

This post is designed to reveal my thoughts on how several theories of communication can both diminish and enlighten the PR practitioner’s ability to weave compelling stories.

Some Earlier Thoughts

Several important pieces of commentary arose from prior class posts that I believe need to be shared again to set the context for this discussion. I wrote about how the brand persona has long been a powerful force in sales because it focuses on “creating a powerful brand narrative… the articulated form of the brand’s character and personality.” More recently, practitioners have realized the value of extracting this brand persona within storytelling to “drive the continuity for the overall brand message” and drive target publics to a specific action. (Crystal and Herskovitz, 2010)

As an advocate for the Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) model, I work to weave IMC into my client’s messaging and stories. Malcolm, McDaniel and Langett describe IMC as connecting a brand directly with the customer. They say that “IMC is a story or narrative that encourages action on the part of those within and outside the organization.”

Real-World IMC and Collegiate Experience

I previously discussed how my work with GE Lighting provided me with the perfect outlet to live the brand’s powerful persona and allowed me to craft compelling stories with human interest elements and depth. I mentioned how having all the functions, from product development to marketing communications, involved and working together, could ensure that the brand’s message conveyed its persona.

Persona-based storytelling, tied to the brand and executed within the IMC model, is a powerful set of tools to launch a successful brand. When Malcolm and Langett stated that IMC is dependent upon an “enlarged mentality” they were not kidding. IMC is one of the most challenging models to successfully achieve in any organization, because it requires c-suite and staff buy-in, support, imagination, and an attitude – as Malcolm and Langett would mention – that is similar to a “self-conscious pariah.” (Benhabib, 2000, p. 29)

Within the art of storytelling and IMC lies the discussion of Sociodrama, as discussed by Thomas Mickey. This theory is tied to Symbolic Interactionism by Mead and Cooley, and how people interpret and react to objects and symbols. This interpretation is based on sociology and how we are all “social participants in society… making meaning,” through language-based approaches. (Horn, Neff, 2008, p. 122)

I end my thoughts on persona-based storytelling and Sociodrama by saying that:

From feature stories to newsletter articles to social media posts, the art of storytelling is directly paralleled to Sociodrama and the sociology of the human race and condition. As long as we, as PR professionals, remember we hold the keys to reaching people and compelling them to act through words and visual imagery, we will have a special type of power that we must respect and take great care in using.

What are your thoughts on storytelling from this theoretical perspective? Can it legitimately be applied? If you’re not sure quite yet, read on and see what others and I think about the topic.

The Art of Storytelling from a Kent State University Professor

My Perspective on Storytelling

Crafting a powerful, compelling and memorable story is easier said than done. Only the best writers can compose a story that elicits strong emotions, while allowing the reader relate directly to the piece.

Using Grunig’s Symmetrical Model, which focuses on creating and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics, I find that it allows me to be able to flesh out more effective message strategy. When I am thinking about how the brand message and tone affect the internal and external audiences, I am much more effective in creating content and messaging that ethically resonates with both. The following is a video from Dr. James Grunig himself talking about the Symmetrical Model tied to PR.

‘‘ A brand narrative without a well-defined, recognizable, memorable, and compelling persona can become a series of disconnected adventures.’’ (Crystal and Herskovitz, 2010)

I have found that, when used together, Symmetrical thinking can open many new doors of thinking, such as brand tonality, voice, character, traits and personality. When I prepare messaging platforms I look to find the various perspectives Mickey discusses, including: interactional, interpretive and cultural perspectives. (Hanson-Horn, Neff, 2008, p.122)

It’s hard to ignore that Mead and Cooley’s theory of Symbolic Interactionism when I prepare messaging as well. Symbolic Interactionism “explores how people create meaning for themselves and the broader society… people actively create meanings of themselves and society through dealings with others.” (Horn, Neff, 2008) Mead and Cooley also suggested that “social research should take a humanist form and explore world views, cultures, and life experiences of different groups.” (Smith, 2001)

A Varied Approach to Message Development

When I develop messaging, I don’t just think of how the target publics would be affected by it, I look at how the brand – if it were a person – would interact with the publics. The brand persona, through symbols, personal traits and character are what connect people to brands. It’s akin to people relating to like people; but the other person is the brand in this case.

I work from this perspective when I develop messaging platforms. My content is driven by the creation of the truest brand persona, always acting the part. The key here is that the brand goes beyond the message. The employees, executives and closest constituents need to act the part as well. This is where Mickey’s Sociodrama comes into play. We are all “actors” in the literal and figurative sense, and must embody the brand. Whether it’s a customer service representative answering the phone or the CEO presenting in front of shareholders, the message and persona must be accurately portrayed. This is true IMC at its best with the core of Excellence Theory infused. I seek to find how we can use best practices for the good of the organization to bolster messaging that can live across the organization and compel my target publics to act.

This is how I ensure that the brand persona, character, and traits connect with the business objectives, goals and messaging. Get in the mind of the brand; live it, breathe it, and it will become part of people’s lives. The best brands, like Coca-Cola®, Hershey’s® and Jet Blue® do it extremely well; and that’s why they are worldwide business leaders.

Bibliography:

Web –

Print –

  • Hanson-Horn, Tricia and Neff, Bonita. Public Relations: From theory to practice. Boston: Pearson Education. 2008. Print.
  • Herskovitz, S. and Crystal, M. “The essential brand persona: storytelling and branding.”  Journal of Business Strategy, (2010): 31, 3.
  • Mickey, Thomas. Sociodrama: An Interpretive Theory for the Practice of Public Relations. University Press of America. 1995. Print.
  • Smith, Philip. Cultural Theory: An Introduction. Malden, Mass. Blackwell, 2003. Print.
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