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The Power of Social Impact Storytelling in PR

In the right hands, stories have transformative power. They can give a voice to the voiceless, lifting vulnerable communities out of the darkness by calling attention to their plight. They can inspire thought leaders to leverage their platforms and enact meaningful change. But many of the traditional storytelling avenues — namely, the printed word — tend to bring scrolling to a screeching halt.

“In the Industrial Age, it took time to get the news,” wrote Anjali Sharma, managing director at Narrative, in a Forbes.com article published in May 2021. “But in the digital age, stories get published in seconds and can go viral in hours. This speed and complexity has left leaders with no time to bring people along on the journey.”

The ubiquity of smartphones and social media platforms have conspired to inundate consumers with a wave of daily content that can easily wash over them without making a lasting impression. But the best brands know how to expertly wield modern storytelling techniques that demonstrate their corporate social responsibility (CSR) without belaboring the message or appearing to chase clicks.

That’s the dilemma facing the business world today: How should companies go about integrating a socially conscious agenda into an established brand voice, and what are the best methods for authentically appealing to the emotions of a customer base whose collective attention span is verifiably shorter than it used to be?

Solving this issue requires a keen understanding of social impact storytelling, and it falls squarely on the shoulders of public relations professionals — the skilled communicators tasked with heralding a company’s triumphs and navigating its stumbles. The digital revolution has increased transparency, and with more exposure comes an expectation to put societal issues and the planet before profit margins.

A 2019 survey conducted by the insurance giant Aflac found that a majority of Americans (49%) feel it’s more important for a company to “make the world a better place” than to “make money for its shareholders” (37%). Social issues — including the ethics of corporations and social media platforms — are more pervasive than ever now that information moves at warp speed.

Indeed, the days of taking out full-page ads in newspapers and placing advertorials in magazines to amplify a business’ altruistic endeavors are dwindling. According to a report from online advertising blog WordStream published in May 2021, consumers retain 95% of a message in video form as opposed to 10% when their only option is to read it. The average viewer takes in 16 hours of online video per week — a 52% increase over the last two years — and in 2020, video traffic comprised 63% of the country’s mobile consumption.

Accordingly, the market for mobile video ads in the U.S. has seen explosive growth, with spending expected to eclipse $9 billion by 2024. But in an era of instant gratification and rampant multitasking, the time it takes to watch a video is still an important factor to consider. Vidyard, an online video creation service for businesses, found in its 2021 video benchmark report that over half of viewers will watch a video to completion provided it’s under a minute long. A key element of social impact strategy in PR is contending with viewer drop-off and mindless scrolling — two of the more stubborn obstacles to audience engagement.

Of course, other mediums besides video are gaining traction with consumers, and those, too, require a deft touch on the part of PR strategists. The advent of podcasts and other on-demand programming options has seen brands employ creative uses of audio storytelling. Immersive technology, such as augmented and virtual reality, is also on the rise. Companies are showing a willingness to cater to audiences congregating in new corners of the social media scene. The short-form video-sharing platform TikTok was the most downloaded mobile app in 2020 and socially conscious brands have already begun to flock there.

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What is Corporate Social Responsibility and How Does it Drive Social Impact Storytelling?

The first step in leveraging the relationship between PR and CSR is understanding the concept behind the latter. Corporate social responsibility refers to a company’s accountability and self-regulation in matters of social consciousness. No two companies approach it the exact same way; the best ones have a way of hiding the seams so that stakeholders and consumers get an immediate sense of how responsible a brand is and whether the sentiment is genuine.

It’s not just consumers who are more mindful of patronizing socially conscious brands. Job applicants are taking notice of CSR trends and plotting out their careers accordingly.

“The next generation of employees is seeking out employers that are focused on the triple bottom line: people, planet and revenue,” Susan Cooney, head of global diversity, equity and inclusion at Symantec, told Business News Daily in March 2021. “Coming out of the recession, corporate revenue has been getting stronger. Companies are encouraged to put that increased profit into programs that give back.”

In addition to ongoing corporate initiatives that reflect a brand’s commitment to CSR, such as fundraising efforts and staking out a signature cause, companies are apt to recognize contemporary social matters. Social media platforms tend to provide a fitting backdrop given their portability.

“With such widespread agreement on the need for CSR, the key question for communicators is not whether to promote a company’s initiatives on social media, but how,” wrote Ethan Andersen, the head of marketing and corporate communications for UBA America, in a Forbes.com article published in 2021.

Shake Shack’s “Stand For Something Good” campaign typically highlights the fast-food burger chain’s devotion to using humanely raised beef and organically grown produce from reputable farmers. But for Pride Month in June 2021, the company unveiled a touching TikTok video featuring a group of men known as the Old Gays to promote its limited-edition Pride shake.

@oldgays

Free, proud & gay as can be 🏳️‍🌈 @shakeshack #oldgays #shakeshack #shakeshackpartner #ad #out #free #proud #gay #pride2021🏳️‍🌈 #lgbtq #fypシ

♬ original sound – The Old Gays

One by one, the four men detail their journeys to acceptance while sipping the colorful beverage inspired by the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s a sterling example of combining social impact strategy with a popular social media platform to seize a storytelling opportunity that underscores a brand’s value system.

A Strategic Approach to Digital Storytelling for Social Impact

In 2014, the Rockefeller Foundation — a global humanitarian organization that has supported myriad causes for over a century — partnered with Hattaway Communications on a study used to develop a digital storytelling for social impact framework for businesses. After consulting with a cross-section of journalists, communications professionals, social media strategists and even government officials, the foundation arrived at five areas of consideration:

  • Strategy: In order to advance a company’s mission, storytelling objectives must be set and goals must be clearly articulated.
  • Capacity: Effective storytelling requires vision and craftsmanship, and recognizing the talent and resources needed to execute a plan is paramount.
  • Content: Stories for social impact must take audiences on a narrative journey, depicting people as agents of change and inspiring an empathetic response.
  • Platforms: Technology is a moving target. Businesses must adapt and bring the content where their audience already is. Elevated production value and cinematic flourishes, particularly in visual mediums, help distinguish stories in a saturated marketplace.
  • Evaluation: The tools exist to measure real-time success and they must be utilized for assessing performance and making the necessary adjustments to bring stories to the widest possible audience.

That same year, amid the streaming television boom, Chipotle — the fast-casual Mexican eatery with a stated mission of using only organically grown and sustainably sourced ingredients — effectively merged many of these elements when it launched a scripted series on Hulu.

The show, “Farmed and Dangerous,” was a sitcom that lampooned the industrial agriculture industry, aligning with Chipotle’s CSR initiatives. It took advantage of an emerging medium that was gaining traction with consumers, but it did so without being heavy-handed or overly promotional. The show made no mention of the brand, nor were any logos used. Audiences were brought along on a narrative arc that the show’s creators hoped would raise awareness for some of the company’s most deeply held beliefs.

“It’s a very effective tool for us to engage people who aren’t paying attention to these issues or who don’t know much about them,” Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s director of communications at the time, told USA Today in 2014. “The more people that understand food and where it comes from the more likely they are to make choices that are similar to the choices (Chipotle) makes.”

In the years since, audience behaviors and platform innovation have both evolved at a rate that’s hard to quantify, but the best brands are equipped to keep up. 

Caring and Creative Brands That Do Social Impact Storytelling Best

In addition to its findings on the CSR practices of other businesses, Aflac is among the corporations that makes its social impact strategy readily accessible on its website. The company annually self reports its progress on matters of inclusivity, pay equality and community involvement, among others. But first and foremost, Aflac’s brand identity revolves around its insurance products.

There are, however, brands that have found a niche by seamlessly infusing their values in a product line. Founded in 2006 by Texas-based entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie, TOMS Shoes championed the cause of donating footwear to children in need. For every pair of TOMS sold, the company donates a pair.

The signature slip-on shoes, which feature minimalist canvas designs, found footing with a younger audience that Mycoskie bolstered by telling the company’s story on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The company donated over 7 million shoes combined in 2019 and 2020, per its latest impact report.

“Human minds rely on stories and story architecture as the primary road map for understanding, making sense of, remembering, and planning our lives — as well as the countless experiences and narratives we encounter along the way,” Mycoskie wrote in his book, “Start Something That Matters.

Similarly, Bombas socks — a brand that’s seen a 46% return on ad spend thanks in part to its use of the Stories feature on Instagram — has donated 45 million socks with a 1-to-1 giving plan of its own since its founding in 2013. The company has a particular affinity for podcast ad reads, employing the effective storytelling maneuver of having hosts extoll the company’s virtues in off-the-cuff testimonials. By leveraging the popularity of the speaker with his or her audience and letting them share a personal connection with the product, the messaging doesn’t feel pushy or scripted.

“We have a story to tell,” Kate Huyett, vice president of marketing at Bombas, told Midroll.com in 2021. “It’s a little bit hard to believe that a sock could be that much better. So a podcast ad really gives you the implication of the host’s buy-in, where the host says, ‘I’m wearing these socks. They’re the best ever, and I never want to wear anything else.’ And it becomes a little bit more like a friend recommendation than a Facebook ad.”

In a masterstroke of synergistic audio storytelling, Zendium — a British toothpaste brand that touts a “more than clean teeth” mantra for “strengthening the body’s natural defense system” — launched a podcast in 2019 that put the brand’s wellness priorities front and center. The “2 Minutes of Zen” podcast features “quick and simple wellness hacks you can do while you brush your teeth, for a healthy mind, body and mouth.” The episodes are, in fact, two minutes long — the suggested length of a proper brushing session.

A Rewarding PR Career Path in Social Impact Storytelling

The power of social impact storytelling in the public relations field can’t be overstated. Appealing to consumers’ emotions through refined digital storytelling techniques is how the top brands cut through the noise in a crowded marketplace and establish a position of leadership. Many companies purport to have a socially conscious agenda; what sets the best ones apart is the ability to employ efficient and compelling messaging that fits in seamlessly with a brand’s established voice.

Sacred Heart University’s online master’s in strategic communications program helps graduates hone the necessary skills to become experts in digital storytelling for social impact. As North America’s first virtual reality enhanced communications program, Sacred Heart provides state-of-the-art technology to support various PR strategies, such as the Facebook Oculus Quest headset. Students also develop advanced multimedia skills — including an aptitude for HD video with the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite — to tell stories that engage consumers and instill brand loyalty.

An online master’s in strategic communication equips graduates with a comprehensive portfolio, preparing them for a variety of roles that tap into the relationship between PR and CSR. They are qualified to work as advertising, promotions and marketing managers, communications directors, PR executives and more. The self-paced, fully online structure of Sacred Heart’s program affords communications professionals the flexibility to tailor a schedule that fits within the parameters of their careers.

Learn more about how Sacred Heart University’s NECHE-accredited M.A. in Strategic Communication and Public Relations program features virtual reality in the classroom and other cutting-edge learning tools.