Iliyana's Blog

Pull Audiences With Human Stories

[fa icon="calendar"] 28-May-2019 10:00:00 / by Mike Sergeant


This is a guest post by Mike Sergeant from Sergeant Leaders.

When I crossed over to PR after 18 years in broadcasting, I assumed that I would have to spend a lot of time ‘selling in’ stories to journalists. I absolutely dreaded it, and I was pretty rubbish at it.

The truth is that, when you’ve spent almost two decades slamming the phone down on PR people, the last thing you want to do is become one of those annoying flacks.

Having been on the receiving end of PR spam and cold calling, making a career out of persuading reluctant journalists to grant you a couple of column inches seems demeaning and depressing.

Plus, as a seasoned media professional, you only have a certain amount of capital (credibility), which can easily be wasted if you try to flog your best newsroom contacts underwhelming stories.

So, like many ex-journalists, I did everything I could to avoid writing press releases and calling flustered correspondents and editors. And a good thing too.

In truth, most career PRs have better contact books anyway. I knew a few people at the BBC; not that many newspaper journos.

But then I discovered I had something far more valuable than a media approach list (which anyone can pay for these days).

After 18 years in the newsroom and out in the field, I could spot and craft a good story.

I could write. I could make video. I could see the human-interest angle faster than many of my PR colleagues.

In short, I’d developed the skill of luring audiences with interesting and compelling content.

So, you can imagine my joy at reading Iliyana Stareva’s Inbound PR. Here was a philosophy that wasn’t about pushing material at journalists.

Instead the emphasis was on creating neat stories that pulled the audiences in. No more ‘spray and pray’ with press releases. No more trying to second guess the exact time to call a reporter when you wouldn’t get abuse hurled at you.

This was a better, more elegant approach to public relations, which seemed to align perfectly with my emerging thinking.

Stop trying to project your (bad) stories onto people. Instead, sharpen up your stories. Make them more compelling. Create wonderful content. Let the journalists come to you.

Inbound. I love it.

And, speaking as one of those former flustered reporters, it’s exactly the right approach.

Put all the emphasis on your stories and your content. Have an online newsroom that gives reporters the kit of parts they need to assemble their pieces.

Make it easy for journalists. Because (whisper it) most reporters are lazy.

Given a choice of companies to call for comment, they will go for the first one that springs to mind.

Given the job of illustrating their feature, they will grab photos from any firm that can give them more than tired old headshots.

When deciding who to book for the evening business programme, they will request the CEO who talks like a human being in a company video.

It’s not rocket science. And this is where my approach – that I call PR for Humans – comes into it.

The best stories are human stories. They are about people. Stories about organisations or legal entities (like companies, governments, NGOs) aren’t usually exciting or interesting enough.

We want the stories of the people working in those businesses and leading them.

We want the human stories: the characters, the challenges, the conflicts, the conquests. You can’t have great ‘content’ without human stories.

Investing in powerful, human storytelling is also, I think, the best way to build and protect reputation. Because this is my belief:


If life was a court case the stories wouldn’t matter so much. We would judge companies and businesses on the facts alone.

But life is not a court case. As audiences, we judge quickly using incomplete information. We fill in the gaps with story.

Think of the individuals and businesses that you have an opinion about. Whether you like them. Whether you hate them. Your view helps to determine their reputation.

Then think: how many exact data points am I using to form my views? Which solid pieces of information am I basing my opinion about X on? 1? 2? Maybe 3?

Audiences use shockingly sparse evidence to reach positive or negative conclusions about people, organisations, groups, institutions, political parties – you name it.

Through stories, our brilliant and maddeningly flawed human brains formulate views.

Stories are the shorthand in a confusing and complicated world. Throughout human history, stories have proved to be the most efficient and compelling way to mobilise audiences.

Those with the ability to assemble powerful stories, both fact and fiction, have changed the fate of nations and companies. They’ve hacked the path of history.   

So: here’s a good approach to PR. Use the human lens. Tell powerful stories. Draw reporters and audiences in, rather than pushing stuff out.

And - this is the icing on the cake - by pulling the punters in with your website and social channels, you can measure the impact of it all far more effectively. Digitally.

The Achilles heel of PR – shoddy measurement - is cured with digital inbound PR.

As for the hack-turned-flack’s agony?

“hello, I think I might have a story that could be of interest to you for tomorrow’s edition….”

Forget it. Create fantastic story content instead. Be proud. Lure them in. 


Topics: Public Relations, Inbound PR

Mike Sergeant

Written by Mike Sergeant

Mike Sergeant is the owner of and author of PR for Humans: how business leaders tell powerful stories. Mike is a former TV reporter and correspondent with Reuters, Sky News and the BBC – where he spent 13 years covering stories in 25 countries. He left journalism in 2014 and spent 3 years as a director at a corporate and financial PR agency before starting his own consultancy in 2017.

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