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Friday, January 19, 2018

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Selling a Story to the Press
Colin Rowan

June, 2007

Here are practical examples of how the story approach has worked when marketing complicated issues. At a recent storytelling workshop at the World Resources Institute, I presented the following example of how illustrating an issue through compelling characters turned a rather dry environmental issue into a colorful (and press-worthy) story.

The story is so engrained at Environmental Defense, where we developed it, that it’s simply known as “The Preacher and the Toad.”

First, the non-story version. In the 1990s, Environmental Defense invented a regulatory tool called Safe Harbor that works within the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It allows landowners to make changes to their land that would help endangered species without locking them into a lifetime of species management. For those of you not involved in species restoration, that’s a big deal. But it’s a pretty arcane subject, despite the program’s success. We wanted to get the program some media attention so that landowners (and members of Congress) knew how successful it has been.

Enter The Preacher. In 2002, a Baptist preacher and conservative rancher in Bastrop, Texas named Bob Long was poised to sign a Safe Harbor agreement with the federal government and Environmental Defense. Instead of pitching the facts and figures of the program, we pitched Bob’s story. And it took off.

First came this feature in the Houston Chronicle.

The Chronicle story spurred other similar stories in other media, including this NBC Nightly News story and this human interest story on Austin’s local NBC affiliate.

Then, when Congress started to gear up for an ESA debate, Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin came to Austin to interview Long and his Environmental Defense counterpart for this national story.

This simple story turned into a fundraising, lobbying and media relations tool for Environmental Defense (not to mention presentation material for me) and it’s still being used four years after we simply changed the storyline.

Why did it work?
1. The story is not about Environmental Defense. Stories are about people, and the more colorful the people, the more colorful the story. As the storyteller, you or your organization will be associated with the moral or lesson the story delivers. You don’t have to shoehorn your organization into the plot. There’s no I in “story.”

2. It contains the unexpected. A conservative rancher working with treehuggers? I’ve found that the only thing more newsworthy than a fight is when people who are supposed to fight find common ground.

3. It makes you feel good. There are plenty of endangered species stories that will make you cry. This one is an upper, not a downer. And people (donors, members of Congress, reporters) like uppers.

4. We rode this horse hard (and are still riding it). Good stories last. If you have an aging story about your organization that perfectly captures what you want your audience to know, don’t be afraid to use it.
Rowan Communications was created to help non-profit organizations and causes communicate more clearly and effectively. For more information, email Colin Rowan at


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