Paul Furiga and John Durante Q&A
I’m delighted to bring you my first double Q&A and the longest one I’ve run — with Paul Furiga and John Durante of WordWrite Communications.
Q&A with Paul Furiga and John Durante:
Q: If you could identify a person or organization that desperately needs to tell a better story who or what would it be?
A: First the legacy carriers of the domestic U.S. airline business (not Southwest), who constantly strike us as desperately needing a clue, and perhaps even remedial training in how to communicate with stakeholders in all corners. As shifting economic and social conditions have strained that industry, too many carriers have gone out of their way to publicly convey panic (It’s one thing to make a boneheaded move to charge extra for checked baggage, but now you’re going publicize it?) This industry seems to have completely lost its sense of what is potentially valuable to the market and too often communicates in ways that suggest it really doesn’t care what its audience thinks. The American auto industry is another example. The big companies are experimenting with social media, for example, but it’s hard to be authentic and to promote your fluent storytellers when, for example, the CEO of GM is sacked by the government. Now what do you do with his blog, which was supposed to tell the GM story and reconnect with the audience? The story of the auto industry CEOs traveling to Washington early on in the auto crisis is an easily remembered and inauthentic story. It’s clear that the auto companies and their many internal and external communicators either didn’t understand the danger of a story involving flying on private jet to beg for taxpayer money, or they didn’t understand the power of a story at all.Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field?
A: John and I initially came at this from what would appear to be conventional avenues. I had been a journalist for two decades before going into public relations; John had been a market researcher and marketing strategist for a variety of organizations. We both learned that the “story” is the cornerstone of influential and persuasive communication. Using stories to drive communications meaning has drawn us to a wide range of PR and marketing ideas.
Q: What brought the two of you together as business partners? Did you both support the idea of storytelling for business when you started or did one of you have to “sell” the other on the idea?
A: (While John is an important collaborative partner, for the record, know that John is a consultant currently engaged by WordWrite and at the present time does not possess a financial equity stake in WordWrite nor StoryCrafting.tm)
I had collaborated with John on a number of other projects through a third party. From that experience, I knew he could help me when I was ready to flesh out the Storytelling idea for the agency. I called him, he was available to take work on the assignment and I did have to sell him on the idea — for about a minute!Q: How did you go about developing your StoryCraftingSM service? Talk about the process and how the ideas developed.
A: Even before I formed WordWrite, I knew that I wanted to develop a distinctive service based on the power of storytelling. I had tons of ideas as to why storytelling was important to public relations from my previous journalism experience, but knew that as an agency product, I needed a structure to help clients understand the power of storytelling, to help them develop their own unique story, and then tell it. Early on all of this was just offered up to John — lot of mental dumps from me, lot of reading by him where I wanted John’s perspective and advice about how to turn this into a viable agency process. His forte is candor and analytical thinking, and that’s what I knew he would add could help bring the needed operating structure.
And away we went — meeting weekly just the two of us for about the first six months, during which we took the idea and created a process: engagement time frames, number of client meetings, methods to canvass market data, how to make the clients accountable, pricing, results measurement, you name it. We laid all this on the table in preliminary forms. We really did hit on a complete process early on with definable time frames, price points, client work steps, even meeting agendas. Naturally we started to refine, share with WordWrite staff, friends and clients, and we collected responsive ideas that brought us where we are today.
Q: Paul, it is easy to determine how your journalism background fits in with PR, but how does journalism inform the storytelling side of your work? How about your political background; does that inform your storytelling work at all?
A: Great journalism is all about great stories. I was reminded of that again recently with the passing of Don Hewitt, the creator of the CBS News show, “60 Minutes,” and so much television journalism history. In a remembrance piece broadcast by CBS Sunday Morning, Hewitt said again and again that he had one guiding principle to journalistic success: “Tell me a story.” I agree. The memorable stories are the ones that unfold with the technical qualities of great stories. I’m not saying all journalism should read like immortal fiction. What I am saying is that great journalism employs the same storytelling techniques that produce great literature. I have learned the same is true in public relations.
As for my political experience, I had the great fortune to work in the U.S. Senate for a brief period for a thoroughly decent man, late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, himself a former journalist and the author of more than a dozen books. He understood the power of story and the importance of stories that move people. Washington, of course, is filled with storytellers. It was there, while in the Senate, on Simon’s 1988 presidential campaign staff, and later, while covering Congress and the White House that I truly learned that inauthentic stories may sound great at first, but as soon as the lies are discovered, there’s hell to pay. It’s a Washington story that’s repeated again and again. When this happens, as Shakespeare wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…” In the midst of it all, there are those who tell authentic stories and thus, enjoy authentic success.
Q: John, how does your background in healthcare, pharmaceuticals and B2B inform the storytelling side of your work?
A: Really much in the same way that Paul’s background has informed his. Marketing strategy and research work is really so much about asserting the competitive business facts and then plotting marketing and communication activities from there.
At the dawn of healthcare marketing (circa 1986) this approach was essential and remains important today. The pharmaceutical world has largely forsaken this approach for “direct to consumer” marketing approaches that in my view has proven to be very dangerous to consumers. Our overall economy and health care delivery system is still digesting the negative impact of this paradigm. In B2B it’s different in another way where integrated marketing is still relatively new, poorly done and widely patterned after B2C approaches that really do not fit. In gauging these shifts over the years I gathered great enlightenment about stories and their marketing communications impact.Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: The speed of evolving technology and our “sound bite” culture has people begging for communication with context. Few communication styles suited for broad audiences provide more context and meaning than a well-told story with a beginning, middle and end. People want a hero to root for, they want action they understand, they want a lesson or moral to the story, and they want resolution. Thanks in part to technology and our global media culture, we are overwhelmed by communication volume and gimmickry. People are at a loss when trying to distinguish what’s real from authentic. And 21st-century technology has enabled people to punish those who intentionally lie to them. These are among the reasons that we believe authentic, well-told stories are an important way to help audiences re-order the fast-moving reality that’s engulfing them.Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: Wow, over the years there have been so many. Like a lot of guys in my era I was originally influenced by the work of Woodward and Bernstein in the Nixon years in journalism. Later when I worked for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois (an unusually decent man) I realized that authentic stories play a key role in true government and political leadership.
John’s path was a little different. His seminal storytelling influences came from kind of an odd group of folks: Edward R. Murrow, Bruce Springsteen, Marshall McLuhan, a range of social scientists and even Consumer Reports magazine. John still swears that for popular audiences, Consumer Reports does some of the best work in telling authentic stories supported by numeric data (a sub-area of storytelling John frequently works in as a market researcher).Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” What definition do you espouse?
A: We define a story as simply “contextual communication with a beginning, middle and end.” Additionally, in our professional practice of storytelling, we work only with clients interested in telling authentic stories. To us, a story must be authentic to resonate with an audience. It must be told by a fluent storyteller. And the storyteller must continually “read the audience” to assure that he or she is engaging the audience or audiences he or she is trying to reach. Only then can true communication result through a dialogue.Q: The culture is abuzz about web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: Web 2.0 and social media are tools — and as practitioners, we love using them. As communicators and storytellers, we recognize that a tool is still a tool. Or as Paul wrote in a recent blog, you can’t confuse the content with the pipes that deliver it. You need both, but at the end of the day, it’s the content and communication that matter most. We have little doubt, that if applied properly, good social media strategies can benefit just about any business.
You’ll see the entire WordWrite staff engaged in Facebook, Twitter, and other social media environments for both individual and client service reasons.
We also believe these media are important storytelling channels — to a point. Consider the Iranian elections in early 2009. An entire protest movement was heavily stoked by leveraging Twitter to mobilize opposition. As long as the story protagonist was “fraudulent election,” social media was influential.
But current social-media usage (and to some degree social media technological limitations) don’t do enough to create true story context. Twitter got Iranian protestors into the global consciousness, but then where did it get them? As the situation demanded more story context, social media lacked the “special something” to make a lasting and meaningful difference. Those qualities are lacking in the speed and scope that are social media’s strong points.Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?
A: There are examples everywhere of inauthentic stories being told to influence or mislead (this remains a significant and well-paid endeavor in the marketing profession, sadly) and we believe that for most businesses, such an approach is dangerous. True storytelling is not direct selling or promotion. It is honest, open dialogue about products or services that helps frame an audience’s understanding and response. For these reasons we’ve always thought it was essential to make stories authentic. God bless Seth Godin and his followers, but it strikes us as inherently dishonest to write a book that’s called All Marketers Are Liars and then twist that title with another bit of misdirection late in the book to say that marketers aren’t really liars at all, but that consumers are huge liars and that they lie to themselves all the time — and that marketers are only honestly repeating the lies that consumers tell themselves when buying clothes or cars. So who then, is the real liar in that scenario? It’s hard to judge but not hard to understand that praising lying is praising the telling of inauthentic stories. We’re not at all suggesting that when a client or company tells a marketing story that they shouldn’t tell it in a way that makes them sound good. It just means that, if the audience wants to check it out (and today, with the Internet community, they can), it better be rooted in fact and told in a way that’s authentic.Q: What future aspirations do you have for you own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?
A: At WordWrite, we continue to see long-term promise in storytelling. To a certain degree, when and how this unfolds is linked to where global society is headed with social media and at what pace. At some point, storytelling as we are discussing it here and the current use of social media are going to fuse in a way that, we believe, will require the classical tenets of storytelling, though altered by the delivery capabilities (and limitations) of social media tools. While we can’t predict how it all turns out, we feel deep within our bones that storytelling will be an essential element of success for organizations seeking to thrive in a digital era. “What does it all mean to me?” is a question we hear often. There is no substitute for a strong story in delivering an answer.
This thinking has fueled our development of StoryCraftingSM — WordWrite’s proprietary method of building an authentic storytelling platform for clients based on the fundamentals of their day-to-day business. We are very high on StoryCrafting as markets shift toward a greater demand for truly authentic communication (not merely “inauthentic authenticity”).Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came through a story or storytelling act?
A: The Southwest Airlines story is truly a story — in so many ways. One of the great successes of the company, in our view, is that it has successfully told many stories that reflect its evolution as a start-up airline that its powerful and heavily regulated competitors tried to strangle at birth. Many people know, for example, that the airline’s stock symbol is LUV. Like so much else in Southwest’s history, there’s a real story behind that. Early on, competitors trying to kill Southwest arranged sweetheart legislation that forced Southwest to fly out of Dallas Love Field, and not the much bigger (and better-connected) Dallas-Forth Worth airport. As a symbol of its spunk and its story, when Southwest not only beat the odds and its competitors to become a public company, it took LUV as its stock symbol, a symbolic storyline nod to its roots at Love Field. We could give you many more Southwest examples, but you probably get the point.
Q: If you could share just one piece of storytelling with readers what would it be?
A: Current uses of social media have focused largely on the wizardry of content distribution and redistribution. But comparatively little attention has been placed on the authenticity of content or the credibility of the storyteller within the social media realm. This is dangerous and social media users, in our view, need to begin to incorporate these points into their use of that media. The flip side of this caution is that this is where the opportunity lies in this digital era — employing storytelling in new ways that take social media to new heights, and storytelling to new success.
Q: Paul, you write in a blog entry that you are an entrepreneur partly because of your family. Some entrepreneurs might find that statement surprising because business owners often find they have less time with their families than before. How are you able to find that balance?
A: Several thoughts are relevant here. Obviously, a big one is that the mobility in information technology that allows us to do many parts of our work in non-conventional environments. Another is that my spouse and I both work at WordWrite and so I guess less collective time is spent on “downloading” the day’s business to one another.
But perhaps an even bigger point is how being a small business owner is changing. Small business ownership has been perceived as very high risk because the entrepreneur forsakes the relative security of an organizational job. I worked in many organizational jobs for a lot of years. In one of them, I actually became in expert in the communications surrounding mass layoffs. I was on-site one year for more than 5,000 layoffs. I learned then what many people are just learning now — that there is actually less “security” in being part of an organization than in writing your own story as an entrepreneur. Thus, the issues of family balance are not substantially different, and in many cases are actually easier. I can afford to be more flexible when it comes to family. Yes, like any small business owner, I burn my share of the midnight oil and occasionally am on the iPhone while attending a family function, but for us the balance issue has come pretty naturally.
Q: John, you wrote a blog entry recently about how Carl Jung recognized the importance of stories. Have you always brought Jungian psychology into your storytelling work or were theories about storytelling a more recent discovery?
A: Since my graduate school days I have always been familiar with Jungian psychology but it wasn’t until Paul invited me in to collaborate on our current project that I began to make the link. Over the years Paul have clearly remained passionate about the importance of storytelling so I started to mesh some of his sustaining ideas with some of older ideas I might have once known. That’s when the Jungian connection about the “collective unconscious” became obvious.
Q: Does the current state of the economy create a greater need for businesses to tell a great story? Does the economy change the way businesses should tell their stories?
A: Yes. And because of the economic collapse, and the lies it exposed, the stories, more than ever before, must be authentic. Consider just one aspect, the collapse of residential real estate. One way of looking at it is that too many people fell in love with inauthentic story approaches to supercharge consumer activity. I mean how else do you explain a household with a $40,000 annual income qualifying for a $400,000 mortgage?
This experience should prove to businesses that we must avoid these types of inauthentic stories. The experience also makes clear that we, as a society, must leverage authenticity to help rebuild communications credibility across vast sectors of global business. The professional storytellers who let their narratives spiral into a swamp of inauthenticity in the first place have much to explain. The retribution, thanks to the independent voice that electronic communication provides, is more swift and powerful today. Without an authentic response to the anger and venom of those complaining on Twitter or blogs or web sites, the price of telling an inauthentic story is even deeper.