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Mining for the Backstory

Backstories aren't just for the rich and famous. Everyone has a backstory.

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Sometimes the backstory is more interesting than the main event. That is, just because you’re promoting one thing—your services, your store, your book, whatever—it’s often something in the background that eventually gives you traction.

Here’s an example: In today’s Wall Street Journal, there is a fabulous piece titled “The Funny People Behind the Famous Ads.” You know the chatty chick in those Progressive Insurance ads? Well, one of her favorite places to be is on the stage doing improv. And how about that guy who used to squeeze the toilet paper? Turns out this actor with 38 films to his credit wasn’t remembered for any of those roles. People have always associated him with t.p.

But backstories aren’t just for the rich and famous. Everyone has a backstory. Of course you might have to dig a little and once you find it you might decide that’s it’s not the kind of backstory that ought to be shared. But still, it should certainly be part of your PR strategy.

Here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about: for whatever reason, I seem to be one of the go-to people for my daughter’s friends preparing to graduate from college. They want to talk to me about the Real World, which is sort of funny to me, because I’m still trying to figure it all out, but that’s another story. Anyway, a few weeks ago I was talking to one of these young women and she told me about a couple of firms where she’ll be interviewing over spring break (See? Not everyone goes to Florida during spring break.). While we were talking I pulled up the website of one of the firms and started noodling around. One of the more interesting parts of the site was the section on the company’s pro bono work. I suggested that in addition to researching the standard stuff about the firm she look into some of the community work performed by some of the employees. That would give, I said, some of the firm’s backstory. It also could give her something to talk about at her interview, something that another competing candidate might not bring up.

The most important part about the backstory is making sure that it really is a backstory, something that’s been happening in the background. To make up a backstory isn’t a great idea. People can usually see through that kind of spin. You’ve seen it in the movies -- boy meets girl, finds out girl has special place in her heart for a certain animal shelter, and boy decides to become a volunteer at said shelter. Or something like that. It just doesn’t ring true.

What makes the WSJ story so compelling is the authenticity of the interview subjects. As we say in fiction, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Naturally, the backstory might be, for a time anyway, more interesting than the real deal, the main event. But that’s probably temporary. What’s interesting is when the backstory reels in the client or customer who happily sticks around for the main event -— your service, product, whatever it is that you’re selling.

For more PR tips, please follow me on Twitter @LeslieLevine

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