How storytelling humanizes campaigns—and wins PR awards

by | Jun 4, 2019 | Analysis, Public Relations

I’ve been a judge for the Bulldog Reporter Awards for so long that I remember when a FedEx driver would deliver to me boxes containing hard copies of all the entries. Now I read everything online—just another example of how things have changed.

What remains, from year to year, are the qualities that make an entry stand out. The competition is extremely close. The difference between a good campaign and a great campaign is often the matter of a couple of points in two critical categories—strategy and innovation/creativity.

I’d like to give you some things to consider as you solicit business, win the contract and launch your next campaign.

Over the years, it’s become clear that public relations campaigns are as critical as is a lobbyist as a way to influence those in government. A well-executed PR campaign mobilizes people in ways that surpass the impact of a lobbyist working the halls of power, be it city hall, state capital or back in Washington, D.C.

Money used well at the front end—what are you trying to accomplish and what’s the best way to do so—leads to innovative campaigns that that build impact from the ground up. Each person influenced by that campaign becomes a lobbyist. That makes the power of each dollar spent incredibly effective.

On the consumer and product side, a well-executed public relations campaign results in more than profits. It creates goodwill and a lasting impact by reaching the heart of the intended audience.

And how does that work? By telling a story.

One of my favorite ads is from the Principal Financial Group.

Let’s be honest, that’s a dry and deadly client. What are you going to do? Build a campaign around a faceless entity, highlighting a slightly better rate of return than a consumer can get from hundreds of other companies that, at their core, do the same thing as Principal Financial Group.


And yet when the ad for Principal Financial Group comes on the television, I never turn away from it. I always get a lump in my throat. Why? It’s a story with a simple narrative arc well-conceived and told.

Bulldog Awards

A man is sitting at the computer, Principal Financial on the screen in the background, as he looks at the classified ads in a newspaper. He tells his wife he has “found his dream car.”

Next scene: The man and his wife are at the dining room table where his son tells his father that he’s been offered a new job in another city. He has to move immediately, and asks his father if the daughter, the man’s granddaughter, can stay with them to finish out her senior year.

Next scene: The with older man meets with his adviser from Principal Financial, and is told that “things will be tight, but we can make this work.”

Next scene: Girl interacting at home with her grandfather, and then they step outside and see a car in the driveway. The grandfather holds up a car key, clearly indicating the car is for his granddaughter.

“Grandpa, what about your dream car?

He shrugs. “This is my dream now.” They hug.

Tagline: Retirement dreams change.


No celebrity, no social media influencer, or reality TV star

Just a handful of characters, all clearly actors, who have the ability to be so real and vulnerable that they unlock the shared humanity in all of our hearts. And they make us care, in a deep way, about Principal Financial Group because they played roles in a well-created story.

When I looked at some of the key phrases I found in the entry forms in what turned out to be winning 2019 Bulldog contest winners, I found these phrases:

  • The unconventional way we chose to tell the story.
  • Minimal media training to the women who’d serve as spokespersons. Let them describe their experiences.
  • Conducted a series of one-on-one interviews to find the stories that were genuine.
  • 360-degree storytelling.
  • Tell the story.

One winning entry showed clear leadership when the firm told the client the idea the executives had in mind would not work and was a bit of a mess. That takes courage. The agency representatives explained why it would not work and suggested a campaign strategy built around “storytelling and emotion.”

The client agreed.

A successful campaign with great results. A happy client.

A Bulldog winner.

I’ve been blessed to participate on numerous Bulldog webinars where I focus on storytelling

If you want to know my background, Google my name—Tom Hallman Jr.—and also “like” my author Facebook page, where I share my stories and how I think about finding them. You can also buy my collection of stories—Dispatches from 1320—on Amazon.

Last year, Kaylyn Blackmore, a young woman out of college, and now a digital marketing specialist, participated in a session. She asked questions about storytelling as it relates to pitches and getting people in the media interested in who and what her firm was representing and promoting.

She later followed up with me, sending me an email to talk further about storytelling.

This field needs more people like Blackmore.

While writing this column, I reached out to her to ask about continuing education—exactly what Bulldog offers. She told me it is “absolutely necessary that we have continuing education for PR.” Without it, she said, those in the field “fall behind.”

As I said, she’s talented and has a passion to get better.

Best of luck to all of you.

And if you ever want to talk about storytelling—I teach storytelling classes; contact me at tbhbook@aol.com.

Tom Hallman Jr.
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author. He's been on staff at The Oregonian for more than 35 years and has published several books. His journalism and nonfiction narrative stories explore the significance of big moments and small and their impact on a life.