Group Gordon’s Julia Levine draws lessons from commonalities between screenwriting and PR.
Public relations shares some commonalities with other industries, including with film. Professionals in both screenwriting and PR are storytellers and, if they’re good ones, adept at communicating ideas to achieve specific outcomes. Read on for a few PR tips from the screenwriter’s handbook.
Just about the first thing you’ll learn in a screenwriting class is three-act structure, the narrative foundation dating back to Aristotle that undergirds most movies in theaters today. Creating an outline for a script sets a writer up for success, forming a roadmap that guarantees the story will have a strong beginning, middle, and end. It also makes plot holes, lack of obstacles, and other issues apparent, so that they can be fixed early on. This structure both provides a sturdy container to populate with details that bring the story to life and acts as a big picture reference in moments when the writer has to make a choice – Does a character do x or y? Should a reveal come through a flashback or dream sequence? – to ensure continuity with the character objectives and themes that drive the story.
An emphasis on structure is also instrumental to effective PR. Instead of a three-act outline, PR professionals develop a strategic communications plan that assesses where the client is, where they want to be, and how to get them there through a tailored PR program. By doing this kind of targeted planning which focuses on end goals, rather than simply executing a variety of tactics that may or may not be effective, PR professionals can optimize their efforts to maximize impact for clients. A communications plan also provides a resource to reference if crises emerge, so, if the client is faced with an unexpected challenge, rather than reacting without thinking, there is a foundation to return to in order to stay on track and strategically handle any issue that may arise.
Any good screenwriter knows that natural sounding dialogue is all about the specifics, and no two characters should sound quite the same. A character might stutter, interrupt others or be interrupted, lie, or use unusual syntax or speech patterns, just like real people. But scripts aren’t solely about dialogue. Other aspects of a screenplay are also crucial to making the story feel believable, compelling, and complete. On the page, the location, time of day, and physical descriptions of the characters, settings, and actions play a large role in how we imagine the story in our mind’s eye. Each of these details either helps create a cohesive, engaging narrative or detracts from one.
Attending to the smallest details with intention is something we can bring to bear on PR work as well, whether thinking about how to share information about a client’s new program or project, how a client can offer expertise to elevate their media profile, or how to move the needle when advocating for a specific policy outcome. Once the overarching communications plan is complete, the devil is in the details when it comes to execution. The words we use to tell our clients’ stories should be clear and concise but also specific. For example, tweaking the language or subject line in a pitch to appeal to reporters on two different beats can determine whether coverage will follow or whether your email will languish in an inbox. Likewise, it is the precise details a PR professional might employ in talking points for an interview or speaking engagement that will make the client shine and bring their story to life.
Ultimately, a script is not meant to be read on a page but seen by an audience. Viewers go to the movies to be taken on an emotional journey, and the screenwriter, along with all who work on the film, are shaping that journey, moment by moment, with each choice they make. Placing a sad scene next to a happy scene might create tonal dissonance that serves the plot or might confuse audiences and jerk them out of the mood the screenwriter is trying to create. By considering how viewers will feel as they watch, screenwriters can hit their intended emotional and thematic beats in ways that affect viewers long after they leave the theater.
Screenwriting and PR both require a deep level of consideration and respect for one’s audience. Every communication, internal or external, has an origin and a recipient, and it is paramount to be mindful of who may be reading a news story, reacting to a staff email, or viewing a social post. Though it is impossible to predict exactly how a message will be received, your tone and treatment of the subject matter will affect your audiences. With all PR, especially crisis work, putting yourself in your recipients’ shoes before you hit send can be the difference between angering key stakeholders, losing their attention, or engendering goodwill and support.
Screenwriting and PR are both all about the story, and with careful planning, attention to detail, and key audiences in mind, PR professionals will be equipped to tell their clients’ stories with ease.