News media consumers don’t have to look very far for bad or frightening stories. They have a harder time finding uplifting stories about people helping other people.
“Many of our colleagues don’t define local social repair and community-building as news. It seems too goody-goody, too ‘worthy,’ too sincere. It won’t attract eyeballs,” says David Brooks in his latest column in The New York Times. Brooks thinks that’s wrong-headed.
After attending a #WeaveThePeople conference in Washington, DC, Brooks encountered what he described as “some of the most compelling people I’ve ever met.” A former prison inmate who connects community members to health care services. A Texas man who assists people with spinal cord injuries. A former Army Ranger who suffered from PTSD, but now builds communities for veterans.
“Why don’t we cover these people more?” Brooks asks. Their stories are “emotionally gripping” and demonstrate how to turn vulnerability into action. Many of the stories, Brooks admits, “was uncomfortable and searing, but the discomfort broke through barriers and moved us closer.”
The stories have substance and include “acute observations” about how to heal, build community and win trust. Brooks believes readers would devour and value such stories, if they were told.
“Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that associational life is the central feature of American life,” Brooks says. “Somehow we in the media under-cover this sector. We barely cover the most important social change agents. These people are not goody-goody. They are raw, honest and sometimes rude.”
Brooks’ observation rings true in a wider circle than the news media. In public affairs, the stories that are told are more often just sterile, emotionless arguments coupled with slick slideshows. They can be true, even persuasive, but not compelling. They make a point, but don’t always talk about making a difference that matters to a community. They touch the surface, not the core.
“How did we in our business get in the spot where we spend 90 percent of our coverage on the 10 percent of our lives influenced by politics and 10 percent of our coverage on the 90 percent of our lives influenced by relationship, community and the places we live in every day?” wonders Brooks.
The same question should be asked of public affairs communications, with too much verbiage about process, too much focus on “benefits,” too much hype, too little empathy and almost no grit or social fabric.
Communities are unmoved by statistics, predictions and promises. They would more likely be impressed by tangible actions; promises made and kept; and raw, if uncomfortable, candor.
As weavers that Brooks encountered said, “Neighbors are people we practice doing life with” and “relationships move at the speed of trust.” Public affairs strategies should increase their focus on neighbors, relationships and trust, so they can tell stories that are authentic, believable and inspiring.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.