What can PR learn from Humans Of New York?

Earlier this month, Assistant Account Executive Rebecca Giarrusso, went to “Humans of New York: An Evening with Brandon Stanton”.  Here’s a recap of her top two takeaways from the event…

In case you haven’t been on Facebook in the last eight years (gasp!), and don’t know Humans of New York (HONY), let me give you a brief history.

In 2010 Brandon Stanton was a college dropout and bond trader living in Chicago. The pressure he felt at work made him buy a camera. He’d walk around downtown Chicago, on the weekends, photographing the city as a way to de-stress.

It wasn’t until he lost his job that he decided to move to New York and take up photography full time.

HONY started with a goal of photographing 10,000 New Yorkers. Initially, Brandon thought he’d plot them on a map, creating “an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants” – a census of sorts.

Brandon says “Somewhere along the way, I began to interview my subjects in addition to photographing them. And alongside their portraits, I’d include quotes and short stories from their lives.” It was the rawness of those stories that saw HONY grow into a blog and an international social media phenomenon.

From humble beginnings, HONY has amassed an 18 million+ (and growing) followership on Facebook alone. Some of Brandon’s achievements include:

  • Documenting the stories of people in more than 20 countries and creating a number of photo series;
  • Being a New York Times bestseller twice over; and
  • Producing a Facebook doco series.

At 33, that’s pretty impressive. And his success is only growing.

He’s another of those people that have gone from rock bottom to achieving greatness; leaving us all wondering (well me at least) ‘how the heck do they do it?!’.

But the more important question here is, what can PR learn from Brandon and HONY?

1. Take an opportunity when it arises

PR pros are all about planning, planning and then some more planning. In a perfect world, we’d set up a road map, follow it to the letter and achieve everything we set out to.

What would HONY be today if Brandon stuck to his initial plan; creating a New York City photo census? He certainly wouldn’t have brought ‘Humans’ to the world. He let the work grow into its full potential.

And that full potential was something he could never have anticipated back in 2010.

Had he sat back and waited for the idea (in its current form) to come to him, HONY simply wouldn’t exist. It’s about getting out there, getting started and letting the work take its own form.

Like Brandon, all communicators can be opportunistic and courageous enough to veer off the initial path when a great prospect presents itself.

2. Authenticity is more powerful than make-believe

Another important lesson we’re reminded of is authenticity.

Would Humans of New York be what it is today without it? The simple answer is no.

Brandon brings to light real human stories of joy and sadness, stories of success and failure and stories of extreme poverty and extreme wealth – with a side of micro fashion. Often more compelling stories than people could make up!

HONY doesn’t gloss over the truth in search of a story; it understands the real story is the truth. And the truth is often found in vulnerability.

What started out as a simple photography project has developed into a worldwide social movement – with thousands of pages now trying to imitate his success.

As PR professionals, we’re not saying emulate Humans of New York and achieve instant success – but we can take inspiration from it.