Lessons learned from must-see TV: Give an unexpected story, expect better results

Widescreen high definition TV screen with video gallery. Remote control in hand

For my wife and me—and more than 10 million others—Sunday night has become a ritual. It’s when we all give in to our addiction to AMC’s The Walking Dead. This must-see show rarely spends time on our DVR.

Good news for AMC and its advertisers, since there’s little opportunity to skip commercials. But why? And what does it have to do with PR?

Our love for The Walking Dead is the result of countless little things: acting, directing, fun and gory special effects, (zombies!). But, for me, it comes down to one big thing: surprises.

[Quick note: Past this point, there are a few “spoilers” for fans of The Walking Dead who aren’t as hooked and maybe missed Season 5.]


I became a viewer late, but quickly caught on to what to expect: gruesome scares, heavy human drama, and lots of important character deaths. In fact, Season 5 seemed to have characters dropping by the episode (“No! Not Tyreese! You bastards!”) Imagine the tension of the finale. Who would it be tonight? Certainly not Rick or Daryl, but maybe Glenn. (“Oh yes, poor Glenn. It’s gotta be Glenn.”)

Every turn we watched for this, but what we got was a rich twist. The show ended with everyone alive but emotionally scathed. Colour me surprised and addiction-fed, and cue the Jonesing for next season.

Enough! Translate this to PR

News works like this. And who loves a good story more than journalists? We could discuss in detail the elements that—like great actors and directors in TV—make for timely, relevant, and appropriate news. That’s academic. But the element of surprise can be overlooked, sometimes surprisingly often.

In technology news—and what stories aren’t at least brushed by technology—reporters are barraged with the newer, faster, bigger, and better. This is predictable, as obsolescence is expected (“No! Not my Samsung Galaxy S5!”), and twists can be few. Here, like great TV, we must look to human drama—how the service and product affects real people doing real things—and surprise. Going against the grain, possibly even if it seems counter-intuitive, gets noticed.

The great thing is we all love good stories, and journalists love a great story. Tell one, and they’ll come back and may even get antsy waiting for your next season (read: campaign).

Outside-the-box thinking is nothing new for many skilled communicators. For some, in fact, this blog may lack the element of surprise it’s preaching about. But remember, surprise may require embracing perceived risks.

You may launch a new app for smartphones that is simply amazing, but remember that the reporter saw something “amazing” earlier this week and will get another one in a few days. We all know it’s noisy, but just imagine how much noisier it is for reporters.

Remember, “tried-and-true” tactics have been tried. Is there something unexpected to say about your market? What’s really new? Not just faster, better and bigger, but what’s surprising? Maybe you have something unexpected to say?

Say you’re launching a productivity app for smartphones that, at the same time, could add to feelings of being hyper-connected. Certainly talk about the power of the app, but what about giving voice to the hyper-connectivity debate? Who expects a smartphone app developer to negatively speak out against smartphone overuse and, yet, it’s likely a bang on message in a discussion of real-world productivity?

Taking your story into unexpected places builds tension and creates an excitement that resonates—and virtually sings when well-executed—in both your delivery and with the audience.

Of course, the hyper-connectivity issue has been talked about for years, but sometimes surprises can hide in plain sight. (Anybody remember those Where’s Waldo books?) The principle applies across all industries, because they all have one thing in common: people who love stories write and curate the news.

Here is something unexpected: a blog from a writer promising “lessons” with little-to-no tips on how to write a story, but a challenge for your next campaign. How are you going to surprise people with your news?

About the blogger:
Lawrence Cummer, Technology Journalist 
Lawrence Cummer is a writer and senior communicator with nearly 20 years of experience in writing about technology for periodicals, business and communications agencies. He is former senior writer of the technology trade publications Network World Canada and Communications & Networking Journal. In addition, Lawrence spent more than eight years as a senior consultant at one of Canada’s leading mid-sized public relations firms, providing expert counsel and managing the day-to-day PR activities of Xerox Research Centre of Canada, and multinationals Enterasys Networks, Juniper Networks, Computer Associates (CA), as well as numerous local Canadian and niche technology clients.

Posted on: May 1st, 2015 by

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