Earlier this year, Douglas Rushkoff published Present Shock, in which he describes a "distracted present, where forces on the periphery of our lives are magnified, and those immediately before us are ignored."

Twitter, email and YouTube are overwhelming us with an always-on reality. Distractions are at every turn. People’s attention spans are shorter. All while time is being compressed. We can watch an entire TV season in a weekend, and we are aware of atrocities half-way around the world long before CNN has set up their camera crews.

It’s easy to see how Rushkoff concludes we are living in a "post-narrative" world. Even if we had the time for stories, myriad distractions make it impossible to pay attention. I’'m not about to jump off the storytelling bandwagon; I believe human beings are fundamentally wired for and crave stories. Yet, as marketers, we ignore the realities of this presently-shocked world at our peril. Stories aren’t going anywhere. Even Rushkoff acknowledges the irony of making his case for the decline of storytelling via a very traditional form of narrative: the book. We do, however, need to reevaluate how we engage people with stories.

Seizing the moment

To work, stories require a captive audience. Today, distractions are only as far away as the TV remote or updated Facebook newsfeed, making it harder to pay attention to a linear story. With the collapse of the linear story, public relations professionals have to find a different route to audiences. It might be through games, or inserting our brands at just the right moment as stories unfold. We no longer have the luxury of time to thoughtfully react to events after they happen. Even a delay of a few hours makes it too late. We have to seize the moment and be everywhere people are.

That’s what Oreo did during Super Bowl XLVII with their now famous "You can still dunk in the dark" tweet just minutes after the lights went out in the Super Dome. (Oreo is a Weber Shandwick client, though this effort was with their social agency.) It’s how American Airlines (a Weber Shandwick client) was able to quickly get out the facts via social media after Alec Baldwin was removed from one of their flights for not turning off his phone. Instead of issuing a press release, they took to their own social media platforms with their story – blunting the impact of a very upset celebrity on their brand.

The most successful communications strategies now resemble moves in an interactive game instead of chapters in a story. Effective companies empower those making the moves (usually PR people) so they can keep up with the game.  

Real-time communications doesn’t allow for long approval processes winding their way up the chain of command. Companies need to be willing to go off script.  Everybody across an organization’s communications team must completely understand the essence of the brand and be empowered to act. Whether that’s a Tweet during the Super Bowl or a timely response to a crisis – the team must do so in a way that’s on strategy, on brand, and on time.

From brand to media company

In today’s "Right Now" environment, organizations must take control of their own story. A June 2013 Gallup Poll showed that fewer than one in four Americans (23%) are confident in newspapers and TV news. Brands can pick up where news organizations have left off -- effectively becoming media companies. That doesn’t mean simply publishing content. It requires a sophisticated construct that resembles a traditional newsroom -- an editorial team model that supports quick content development and predictable distribution to reach audiences at scale.

Turning a brand into a media company requires an overhaul of the traditional PR team structure. Many of our clients are making the media company transition -- hiring Chief Storytelling Officers and building editorial boards, news calendars and sites that resemble newsrooms instead of press release factories. 

One Weber Shandwick client, Verizon Wireless, has completely overhauled its communications department. They have all but eliminated the press release as communications vehicle of choice, yet they have seen increases in earned media. Another Weber Shandwick client, General Motors, is taking a similar approach.  Stories published on their media center are always accompanied by other rich media – making them more compelling, and shareable.

The innovations that have led to "present shock" have also created oceans of data – from website traffic to Tweets to location check-ins.  We can put those data to work for us for better storytelling. Data to a PR person used to be number of media hits – now only part of the story. We must think about data analytics less as backward-looking measurement tools and more as a creative force behind our stories – giving us insights into what audiences care about and what stories they will engage with.  Integrating analysts deeply into PR teams and making them part of any creative process will ensure our stories are on-target and timely.  

The whole picture: the whole story

In a "Right Now" world, companies can’t discriminate among the channels they use to tell stories. Public relations has always been about engagement – no matter what kind of form that engagement takes. As a discipline, we have to recommend the right vehicle to tell the story at the right time. We must resist the temptation to reside within our comfort zone – which historically meant operating through traditional media.  

Because of our channel neutrality, public relations can step into a leadership position with brands, which requires understanding the full context in which our clients operate. PR teams must therefore employ brand specialists, policy experts, and consumer marketers who have their finger on the pulse of cultural trends.  In short, PR teams have to see the whole picture. And they have to tell the whole story – across a variety of channels, geographies and communities. That requires analysts, writers, producers, designers, community managers, and media specialists – operating 24/7 – around the world.

Contrary to what Rushkoff might assert, the story is not over. In many ways, for PR, it has just begun. We simply need to recognize the myriad influences on people today and equip ourselves to turn the challenges of "present shock" into opportunities to tell better stories.

tim fry* * *

Tim Fry is the Chair of Weber Shandwick’s Global Technology Practice.