Immersive Storytelling is the Future of Public Relations

By Julie Wright —President
Twitter: @juliewright


The future of public relations and journalism are two sides of the same coin, and both are experiencing powerful technological advances that are reshaping how the media and professional communicators tell and distribute stories. While these changes have disrupted old business models and best practices, they’ve also benefited people by making it easier to access and consume the news and content they want, whenever and wherever they want.

The next wave of innovation is immersive storytelling and it’s poised to take content producers and consumers well beyond the two-dimensional experience of today’s news reports or public relations’ white papers, case studies, press releases and b-roll.

What Does the Future Look Like for Journalism?

There are already more mobile phones on the planet than toothbrushes or working toilets. USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Associate Professor Robert Hernandez shared this insight to provide context during his opening remarks April 28 to the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2018 regional conference hosted by the Greater Los Angeles SPJ chapter.

The annual conference attracted hundreds of journalists from across the southwest to the Universal City Hilton, and (W)right On Communications was proud to sponsor Hernandez’s presentation, “What Does the Future Look Like for Journalism?”

Well regarded in media circles as an academic and as a veteran of web journalism, Hernandez urged journalists to become early adopters of new technologies and embrace it for storytelling. It’s a message that holds true for PR pros, content marketers and brand journalists concerned about the future of public relations.

Hernandez pointed out that TV took 38 years and radio 14 years to reach 50 million users but the web took only four, the iPod three and Facebook two to reach the same milestone. Technology is changing how we communicate and doing so at a breakneck pace.

On May 1, Facebook announced that it is introducing augmented reality into its Messenger platform. Soon, Facebook advertisers will be able to provide filters in Messenger that potential customers can apply to experience their product—like a new lip color, furniture or fashion—before buying.

On April 30, NBCUniversal and Google announced that they’ll be partnering to produce original virtual reality content for the NBC, Bravo and Syfy networks including NBC’s Saturday Night Live and Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules, which already has some 360 video available on YouTube. Will virtual reality content for NBC News be close behind?

My guess is that Hernandez would hope so. He urged news media to jump on these new technologies—including immersive 360-degree video, augmented reality and virtual reality platforms—and begin using them as storytelling platforms.

“If you think this is the final form, you’re fooling yourself,” said Hernandez of today’s mobile phones, mobile cameras and social media platforms.

The Future of Public Relations is Tied to New Storytelling Tech Too

Public relations professionals—particularly content marketers—should also be experimenting with these platforms and preparing for the near future of public relations where immersive storytelling becomes mainstream. We have the opportunity to adopt and adapt immersive platforms to communicate not just key messages but key experiences. Imagine how much more persuasive such tools would be in motivating a belief or behavior from your target audience.

And imagine how media outlets would appreciate content like 360 video or interactive augmented reality graphics to support a press announcement or event coverage.

With so much content competing to engage consumers and B2B customers today, it only makes sense that communicators adopt the most engaging and breakthrough new technologies to raise their content and messages above the din.

As Hernandez noted, for cash-strapped newsrooms, this technology doesn’t have to be expensive. He shared a VR tip sheet that includes apps to convert your mobile phone to a virtual reality recording device, several 360 video cameras and VR headsets at varying price points.

Hernandez heads up a VR journalism program at the Annenberg School, creatively named JOVRNALISM. He and his students have produced 360 video reports from places like Friendship Park at the border between San Diego and Tijuana and Korea’s demilitarized zone.

In this video, you can use your tablet or smart phone screen to explore a 360-degree view of the DMZ and listen while South Korea’s loudspeakers blast Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello” across the border.

Media outlets on the forefront of augmented reality include The New York Times. Hernandez cited their AR piece on David Bowie, which documents his costumes and style through the ages. Open The New York Times mobile app or navigate to their mobile website and search “augmented reality” on your iPhone or Android device to see and experience and be inspired by these incredible AR features.

Hernandez described AR as a “new type of journalism.” Here’s how The New York Times described it in their AR guide for readers:

“If photography freed journalists to visually capture important moments, and video allowed us to record sight, sound and motion, then our augmented reality feature goes a step further, making flat images three-dimensional. AR brings our report to you in a way that makes it more immediate than ever before. Imagine if journalists applied this technology to stories on the homeless and other topics where immersive technology can bring an experience to life.”

            – Your Guide to Augmented Reality in The Times

Imagine what content marketers can do when they deliver an immersive case study experience for their targets rather than another six-page white paper.

It’s not difficult to see how immersive storytelling could more effectively drive behavior change or swell a nonprofits’ donor rolls with an immersive public service campaign. Imagine using virtual reality to put your target audience in the passenger seat next to a distracted or drunk driver, in a homeless shelter, in an animal shelter or in a wilderness refuge being threatened by deforestation or climate change.

With augmented reality, imagine that for every donation of $100 to a wildlife cause, an app creates a 360 video of you surrounded by elephants at a watering hole or sitting with a panda bear in a tree and gives you the option to share it on your social networks. On the other end of the spectrum, picture an immersive corporate annual report that takes shareholders into the boardroom, onto the factory floor and into the field.

A new frontier is opening up that incorporates sensors with immersive technologies, says Hernandez. He has tried on a virtual glove that allows you to feel things in a 3D world—from a spider running across your hand to a cup of hot coffee. While this technology is still in the lab, it’s what’s coming next.

Hernandez didn’t omit the ethical questions that these immersive storytelling technologies prompt. In the immediate future, these technologies will be used to manipulate reality for “fake news” and misinformation where virtual reality cannot be distinguished from truth or actual reality. This is a scary downside, given how susceptible to fake news and conspiracy theories the public has shown itself to be.

Just like data privacy, cybersecurity breaches and social media bots; manipulation of virtual reality is another threat that communicators, journalists and society will need to navigate, but the sooner we adopt and become proficient in these technologies, the sooner we can put them to use for better storytelling experiences and the future of public relations and journalism.

“Content is king. This is still holding true. It doesn’t matter what technology we use. It’s how we use it to tell stories. It’s your attitude as a journalist and how you view that technology that determines the future of journalism.”

           – Robert Hernandez, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism

If your attitude as a communicator is one of curiosity and comfort with change (and I hope it is!), then immersive storytelling technologies should excite you about the future of public relations and the new frontiers they will open for our craft.

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