5 PR Lessons You Can Learn from A Serial Obsession

Lauren Kaufman

If you’re anything like me or the other 5M people who have downloaded the podcast since it launched in October, you have a serious Serial addiction. As the fastest podcast to ever hit this milestone on iTunes—in just 9 weeks’ time according to Apple—Serial has quickly developed a cult following. The Telegraph called it the greatest podcast ever made, and each episode receives an average of over 1.5M listeners. Over 171K Redditors have visited the Serial sub-reddit, and the 15 year-old story of Adnan Syed and the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee has truly become a viral sensation across the internet, drawing attention from celebrities and influencers such as Kelly Oxford, Danny Zucker, Patton Oswalt, etc. Further, the podcast’s production team recently announced they raised enough funding to develop a second season of the show.

Clearly, the Serial team is on to something big. As I dug deeper and deeper into the conspiracy theories, memes and forums, I couldn’t help but wonder how the show was able to get consumers SO engaged, SO quickly, and began to think of what this means from a PR standpoint. Below, check out five PR lessons you can learn from Serial’s success:

Leverage Thought Leaders’ Experience: Sarah Koenig, the podcast’s host and executive producer (alongside Julie Snyder), leveraged the prestige and audience of NPR/WBEZ’s This American Life (TAL) to garner listeners and position Serial as reputable, top-tier news source. Serial mentions TAL throughout her website and podcast, reminding listeners about their affiliation. Leveraging the experience and qualifications of thought leaders, executives and spokespersons can help position your clients as industry experts. Affiliations and past experience can go a long way in garnering the interest of a reporter, as they recognize the value of these qualifications for readers. Ira Glass, the host of TAL, told the New York Times’ David Carr that his show took four years to reach one million listeners, while Serial, armed with the support/affiliation to TAL, reached this benchmark in just one month.

Tell a Compelling Story: A catchy headline isn’t enough. Give your audience the bandwidth to think for themselves by up-leveling your story beyond corporate messaging. Fit your company, product, or thought leader into the bigger picture, leaving room for conversation. A one-sided byline is not only biased, but uninteresting to today’s informed consumers who expect more of a conversation and two-way communication.

The Medium is the Message: Long before Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase in the early 60’s we’ve known the vehicle through which a story is shared has a profound impact on the way it is interpreted. Maybe a podcast isn’t the right medium for your client and their story, but in today’s media environment, there are so many different mediums to consider. From blogs to the ever-changing offerings of social media, take the time to research available mediums for your story to ensure it is well received. And if you haven’t considered podcasts as a venue for your clients, Serial has definitely brought them back into the spotlight. According to Time and a 2014 study by Edison Research, 39 million Americans listen to podcasts every month, enjoying six shows per week, on average.

Transparency is Key: Throughout almost every episode of Serial so far Sarah Koenig has maintained transparency. She offers qualifiers when inserting thoughts that could be construed as less than objective, and shares background on their team’s production fumbles. For example, at one point, when attempting to recreate the state’s timeline she says, “We tried this drive, twice we tried, in fact, because, full disclosure, the first time we screwed it up.” Transparency is key in public relations. Today’s consumers are armed and ready with the power to find out the truth, and can smell a cover up from a mile away. It’s important to remain honest, authentic and transparent in your communications.

Make it Mobile: Serial’s mobile website is one of the most impressive and dynamic mobile sites I’ve seen in a while. The audio player is intuitive, and each episode includes extensive background documents within its’ subpage so that readers can follow along while Sarah narrates. Mobile matters—make sure your content is adaptable and reflects the way consumers will experience it.

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