Contrast, a Poor Man’s Failure in PR Storytelling

Look at the construction of any major feature story in Fortune, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Atlantic, Wired, take your pick.

What element is likely to underscore the narrative?

Here’s a hint. It starts with an “F.”

Failure (if you guessed frickinmess, you were in the ballpark).

Something going terribly wrong — the bigger the “train wreck,” the better. Forcing a company to experience pain in resolving the debacle makes for a good read. Patricia Sellers, a journalist at Fortune, articulated the appeal of this formula in an interview with the Stanford Business School. If you skip to 1:31 in the video, you’ll hear her frame the components of a compelling narrative.


Her closing comment (2:01), “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested,” puts the kibosh on most PR pitches. It’s been a long time since I sat down with a client CEO to discuss last quarter’s failures as potential fodder for PR.

Like never.

But contrast offers an effective option for PR storytelling.

If you think about it, the failure story at its core is one of contrast, failure vs. success. PR can apply the same technique in its communications. While contrast won’t deliver the drama of the failure vs. success story, it absolutely lifts the narrative.

The advertising folks get this.

One of my all-time favorite ad campaigns involved positioning the Rolling Stone Magazine as a good home for all brands, not just the radical fringe.

Perception_Reality 08-15

Contrast continues to be a go-to technique for advertisers like this ad for pistachios I just came across in Time.

Pistachio Ad - Time 12-15

And journalists have been shaping stories with contrast since the first copy editor screamed “don’t do dull.”

Last month I highlighted this example on CBS Sports.

Spieth Caddie 12-15

The contrast delivers a twist to the story since you don’t expect a “lowly” caddie to make more money than Mr. Woods.

Even if the contrast doesn’t jar, simply providing context can make for a more interesting read. For example, many of the stories on Alibaba’s performance during China’s Singles Day contrasted the numbers with Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the U.S.

Other times, the contrast can actually serve as the core story.

Consider this chart depicting the growth of PR jobs in the U.S. over a 10-year horizon.

PR Jobs 12-15

Naturally, publications covering the PR industry would jump on this data, but would a mainstream publication like The Washington Post report on this story?

Of course not.

But  check out the same data only this time with the addition of jobs for reporters/correspondents which in turn brings contrast comes to the fore.

Reporters vs. PR 12-15

Now The Washington Post has a story peg sure to generate clicks with the provocative headline, “Why the PR industry Is Sucking Up Pulitzer Winners.” Contrast makes the story.

Think of contrast in business storytelling as the difference between “what was” and “what is.”

Other contrast frames include:

  • Old way vs. New Way
  • Before vs. After
  • With vs. Without

Regardless of approach, the greater the difference between the two points, the more interesting to the audience.

One final thought —

Companies often miss opportunities for contrast in storytelling by deciding to not share the first component of the frame. They perceive the “what was” part as reflecting poorly on the company, so they don’t want to communicate this part.

Yet, this is exactly what often produces the “greater difference” (between the two points), which in turns shapes a fresh read.

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