Blogging and writing marketing

That Isn’t a Story

People say they want beer writers to tell stories, but what counts as a story, and what doesn’t?

People say they want beer writers to tell stories, but what counts as a story?

Some time ago, we spoke to someone at one of Britain’s biggest regional breweries who told us, off the record, about the personal reasons behind the company’s resurgence, which was pure drama, with something of the Thomas Hardy novel about it. We might yet cover it in a blog post or article but, in the meantime, we were struck by how little it is reflected in the official line which is all pride and tradition and shire horses and smiling blokes in blazers.

Then, last week, we got a PR email from a significant and interesting brewery. We replied and asked to be put in touch with the owner of the company, to whom we then addressed a few questions: Which other breweries inspired you? Has the new wave of breweries doing similar things to you been a challenge? There was nothing too probing — ‘How has your relationship with your mother influenced the company?’ — The replies we got, regardless of the question, all read like this (not an actual quote):

We believe in our company! It’s a great time for beer. We are very happy with our great quality beers and the delicious premium food, available at fair prices across all our outlets! We were inspired by our passion for beer.

Maybe it was all true — maybe this particular company is shiny and happy and no-one ever worries about a thing — but, if so, there’s not really much of a tale to tell.

A story is when something happens, for better or worse, that disrupts the equilibrium. It needs highs and lows. EVERYTHING CONTINUES TO BE LOVELY is not a narrative that would get you far in Hollywood.

Our advice to business people and their PRs is this: if you want to get written or talked about, overcome the instinct to whitewash. You don’t have to admit to a 20-year-feud with the head brewer down the road (although that would definitely be a story) — just drop the false smile, and share a little more.

And writers, of course, should resist the urge to jot down the tale as told — be a bit cheeky, ask a few impertinent questions, and look out for tell-tale twitches of the eyelids or balling of the fists.

17 replies on “That Isn’t a Story”

Story =
1. History/background
2. Crisis/challenge
3. Stakes
4. Way forward
5. Call to action

My old PR firm used to charge £10,000 for that 🙂

There was something quite interesting about the playing down of the key keg story the other week…

Isn’t part of the problem also that if you ask the right questions and if you post the actual story the next brewery won’t talk to you so openly? Given the number of PR parrots saying everything is fine, who needs real stories?

That’s true of most press-sector relations. I guess there’s a distinction to be made here (didn’t this conversation happen last year?) between 1. reporting, 2. storytelling and 3. PR puff.

No. 1 goes for the jugular and, while good relationships with insiders can help, will sacrifice those for The Truth.

No. 2, which is what we’re more interested in, can work on a semi-collaborative basis: we’re helping *you* to tell *your* story more honestly than you have done to date yourself. It doesn’t have to be a stitch-up, boot-in situation — just mildly challenging. Confessional rather than confrontational.

No. 3 isn’t any of those but I guess has its place, too. I reckon we’ve got quite good at reading between the lines in PR puff, especially when digested in bulk via an aggregation website like the one our chum Darren runs at Beer Today.

I think I am interested in 1.5. There is a gulf between going for the jugular and helping someone tell their story. The example I keep coming up with these days is the lack of actual objective description of the costs amortized over a life cycle of casks for aging beer. Every brewer I ask gives the “how dare you” stare. Another similar cost, a large format bottle, was praised by beer writers as being exceptional value and a stunning success. I confirmed quietly later from suppliers that the price represented a huge one time profit maker. In these cases, the lack of skilled reporting hurts the consumer and skews the market. At least there you have CAMRA playing some level of counterpoint for the beer buyer even if they are wandering a bit in the face of new challenges.

Brewdog are another subject where type 1.5 reporting really comes in handy – I’ve read far too many articles that take everything James Watt and Martin Dickie say at face value without stopping to wonder whether two famously canny brand-builders might not be giving a complete and balanced picture of their background, the running of their operation, the rest of the beer scene and the history of their run ins with CAMRA, Portman etc. Much better (and easier) to just buy the story you’re being told…

The reality is most breweries that have made it have nearly fallen over at least once. Brewing’s a bastard of a business due to the inability to expand as incrementally as one would want and the huge cost and risk involved in each major step forward.

Same goes for small, growing pub chains. That risk is why I decided not to try and build one!

Substitute “businesses” for “breweries” in that firest sentence and you’d be right too. Many shareholders/investors burn theirn fingers – a point not appreciated enough because nobody likes to talk about their failures.

I was thinking that this thread ought to trigger a book called “25 Ways Breweries Fail And How To Avoid Them”. Stonch’s “scaling up too fast too far” is one.

I used to work for the IT trade press (when there was one); almost every story was a good news story, partly because features often had a fairly close relationship with advertising (although everyone denied doing this, in between accusing each other of it). In those conditions you thank the Lord for anything interesting enough to write down, even when it’s just somebody expressing the same banal thoughts in slightly different language. I remember one phone interview I did from home, where it rapidly became obvious that the guy had nothing to say and intended to say it at great length. After a while I just listened for gaps and said “Mm” occasionally; he didn’t seem to mind. The phone was still attached to the wall in those days, and I remember experimenting with how far I could take the handset; I discovered that if I stretched the cable to the limit I could get into the living room, and I managed to put the TV on so that I could look at Ceefax to alleviate the boredom. You wouldn’t think it was possible to talk for half an hour without saying anything interesting at all, but let me tell you, it can be done.

Reminds me of the IT conferences to which my old firm was invited and, additionally, asked to sponsor. The sponsorship deals often included the award one wished to be given as a great surprise at the closing dinner / ceremony. Which of course led to the good news story, sometimes an exclusive to the sponsoring media outlet.

I can’t help wondering how often that sort of thing also happens with good beer one way or the other.

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