Creative thinking tools for PR

Creative thinking tools are techniques that help us through the creative PR process. They can make brainstorms fun and more effective be they for consumer or B2b / Corporate. There are lots of techniques and I recommend identifying one or more to use, before jumping straight into a brainstorm.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping

Let’s begin with a timeless classic. A mind map helps you record a brainstorm without worrying about structure. A mind map is a drawing representing ideas, words, concepts, or items linked to and arranged around a central concept or subject using a non-linear graphical layout 

It’s a visual technique that my good friend Paolo Feroleto opened my mind to with the work he conducts via Fero Studios. He is often hired to chair and host mind mapping sessions and draws out the findings. Too often ideas are not recorded properly and laying them out visually allows us to revisit them in relation to other contributions and collate and evaluate them. 

The Checklist

Much has been written about the checklist. It was first proposed by Alex F Osborn in 1957. He said that it was easier to tone down an existing idea with a new one. Here it is in full.  It’s a great way to really hone ideas from a brainstorm. 

Simply follow the checklist to refine your ideas.


Other uses? Can it be used in other ways?
Adapt? What else is like this? What other idea does this suggest? Does past offer parallel? What could I copy? Whom could I emulate?
Modify? New twist? Change meaning, colour, motion, odour, taste, form, shape? Other changes?
Magnify? What to add? More time? Greater frequency? Stronger? Higher? Larger? Longer? Thicker? Heavier? Extra value? Duplicate? Multiply? Exaggerate?
Minify? What to subtract? Smaller? Condensed? Miniature? Lower? Shorter? Narrower? Lighter? Omit? Streamline? Split up? Understate? Less frequent?
Substitute? Who else instead? What else instead? Other material? Other process? Other power? Other place? Other approach? Other tone of voice? Other time?
Rearrange? Other pattern? Other layout? Other sequence? Transpose cause and effect? Change place? Change schedule? Earlier? Later?
Reverse? Transpose positive and negative? How about opposites? Turn it backward, upside down, inside out? Reverse roles? Change shoes? Turn tables? Turn other cheek?
Combine? How about a blend, an assortment, an ensemble? Combine units?

An alternative to Osborn’s checklist is the SCAMPER technique by created by Bob Eberle and written about by Michael Michalko in his book, Thinkertoys. 

This uses:

S – Substitute – components, materials, people

C – Combine – mix, combine with other assemblies or services, integrate

A – Adapt – alter, change function, use part of another element

M – Modify – increase or reduce in scale, change shape, modify attributes (e.g. colour)

P – Put to another use

E – Eliminate – remove elements, simplify, reduce to core functionality

R – Reverse – turn inside out or upside down


The Six Thinking Hats

Thinking Hats

The Six Thinking Hats is a brainstorming classic written by a forward thinking chap called Dr. Edward De Bono.

De Bono discover that argument can easily become biased or confrontational. This means egos takeover, where the objective is simply to win the argument, not to reach the most elegant outcome.

The thinking hats technique is designed to make us think differently and with greater empathy. It allows us to see ideas from a different perspective.

A word of warning. While this technique is designed to build empathy and avoid arguments, it is derided by some and you might face some resistance from participants. As a technique it does work but it takes skill to manage.  The process of thinking like this is very time-consuming and some team-members will prefer to work alone.

How does it work?

Each thinking hat is a different way of thinking, giving you permission to look at ideas in a singular way.

  • White Hatthe white hat is data and insight driven. What does the data tell us about this idea and our approach to it?
  • Red Hat: this is the intuitive hat. What is your gut instinct telling you?
  • Black Hat: the black hat is controversial in brainstorms as this gives you permission to look at why the idea might not work
  • Yellow Hat: the yellow hat is positivity and allows you to press on regardless of negativity
  • Green Hat: the green hat represents creativity and idea generation
  • Blue Hat: the blue hat is the chair the person who controls the meeting.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a technique by Edward De Bono again. Not satisfied with his “hats of many colours” theory, he also hypothesised about lateral thinking.

His approach to lateral thinking involves a tactic to stimulate ‘blue sky’ thinking. It is designed to break traditional thought processes, interrupt norms and linear patterns that mean we often arrive at the same answer time and time again. 

Dr De Bono surmised that lateral thinking should follow these principles:

– be provocative, non-sequential, and non-logical.

– seek additional options, exploring unlikely thought patterns, and we don’t always need the right answer

– avoid patterns, structures and behaviours. Be deliberately arbitrary and unstructured

– be aware that the results of lateral thinking are unpredictable and will vary in quality and likelihood of success

Random Word Generation

Random Word generation

Random Word Generation is a very creative brainstorming technique. It is time to hold on to your De Bono themed thinking hats because creative thinking is about to get avant-garde. 

Random word generation is one of those techniques that takes a big mental leap but in my view this approach can be a good ice breaker ahead of some more serious brainstorming.  While this approach might not suit all workplace situations, random word generation can work especially well for more abstract and creative work.

Random word brainstorming is a simple technique where participants use a random word to generate new ideas. Participants are given a random word as a prompt and are asked to use the word to come up with an idea which is almost certainly going to be outside the parameters of what is normal.

You might use a feeling or the essence of the word, the exact opposite of the word or just something associated with it. Think about what the word makes you think about and how can it be tied to the goal subject matter.

For example, I am about to brainstorm ideas for a new cactus brand that I am launching. I’ve picked the word “devil”. The devil makes me think of:

  • Manchester United
  • Satan
  • Religion
  • God
  • Hell
  • DJ Hell
  • Fire
  • Pitchforks
  • Evil
  • Bad things

Immediately a few ideas now jump out at me. Why not launch a new range of cactus plants called Pitchfork? Cactus are spikey and pretty evil as far as plants go so immediately, I now have a new narrative. Pitchfork Cactus, for those looking for a touch of evil in their plant repertoire! Stereotypes would suggest it sounds like a brand that might engage with men. From a graphic design point of view there are lots of avenues a logo could go down.

I know it is quite a frivolous example, but this technique immediately helped me come up with a new idea.

This technique could be a good ice breaker with newly-forming teams.

Picture Association

We are now getting more abstract. The picture association method of brainstorming is more relevant for designers rather than PR professionals looking for editorial or brand storytelling, but it is quite interesting and can be useful.

Pictures help creatives come up with new forms and shapes that help stimulate idea generation and early drawings and sketches.

This website really does a good job of explaining the process:

Warning, this approach is quite out there but as a former designer, I think this approach is a great way to get the creative juices flowing.

Problem-solving tools

Brainstorming is a problem solving tool but for me it is something that we do further along in the process of answering a brief. Before we come up with ideas we need to build a platform of informed insight which then becomes fertile ground for our ideas to grow in.

Many of these techniques help us analyse the brief, push back on the client for more information or inform our strategy.  There are many more problem-solving tools, but these are the most popular ones to get you started.

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys was created by a Japanese industrialist who preferred rolling up his sleeves and hitting the factory floor, instead of sitting in boardrooms discussing why a certain problem occurred. He liked to trouble shoot by getting ‘hands on’ and asking simple questions. In particular he’d ask “why?” five times.

Asking the five whys helps us to test out ideas and that might have been dismissed and refine them to perfection.

The process starts by assembling a team to tackle the problem, then spending some time on defining the problem.

Someone in the team needs to be the facilitator to keep the team on track. In defining the problem do remember that the key to problem solving and indeed brainstorming is a good brief. We have written in detail about the value of a good PR brief and have a free to download template here

We then move into the core of this technique asking the first “why?”.   For example:

Why can’t the client sell more cans of a new fizzy drink?

  1. No brand awareness
  2. Few retail listings
  3. Larger competitors outspending the brand
  4. Journalists don’t trust the brand
  5. No influencers sharing their experiences of the product

After this stage it is important to assign responsibilities to solve each problem and communicate these with everyone involved. Each of problems require a solution – via your brainstorm.

The parents among us might recognise this technique as quite childlike but actually it is an acute way to get to the heart of a problem. Do remember that this technique is not about blaming people – we are looking for solutions!

Be warned, it is a simple theory that is hard to perfect. I personally like this technique and if it is good enough for Toyota then it is good enough for me.

Fishbone Diagram

A Fishbone Diagram is also known as a Cause and Effect Diagram and is a very thorough and useful tool during the planning stages of a brainstorm.  A good brainstorm starts with a brief so before jumping straight into the ideas, we like to spend time interrogating the brief and understanding the problem. We often ask the client more questions and look for insights either independently or via the client or other third parties.

Insights can then help us brainstorm in a more strategic way. Time is spent listing out key categories of sub-problems or causes and then more time is spent identifying the actual causes of the problems. There are a number of tools that can then be used to discover proposed solutions (one of which is brainstorming).

This is a visual tool and works very well if drawn on a white board, note pad or represented digitally.

For example, a fictional managing director in a marketing firm in Hull has a problem. She needs to generate more leads for hr PR agency.

The sub problems for this are represented visually as the bones from the spine of the fish.

For example:

  • Marketing
  • Lack of demand
  • Lack of understanding of PR
  • Poor visibility of the management team
  • No community engagement

Following the fishbone diagram method, she would then spend more time, looking at the problem in more detail, writing down more ‘bones’, e.g.

  • Marketing – SEO, PPC, PR, thought leadership, events and conferences
  • Lack of demand – brands unaware that PR can be a solution for their problem
  • Lack of understanding of PR – brands not really knowing the true meaning of modern PR
  • Poor visibility of the management team – the team need to undertake more corporate profiling work and be more visible on LinkedIn
  • No community engagement – we need a better CSR initiative to engage with more audience on a “societal value” level

Pareto analysis

Pareto’s law was devised by Vilfredo Pareto, who was Italian and a busy man it seems as he was an engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher. He theorised that 80% of our results come from the first 20% of effort.

This makes complete sense. Anyone who has started a project knows that the hardest part is finishing it – so we should focus on the ideas that will deliver the greatest outcomes and which are the most worthwhile starting. In brainstorming this analysis helps us to decide which of the ideas in our brainstorms are the most likely to succeed. For example, if we have ten ideas that are solutions to problems, we need to prioritise those solutions that will give us the biggest return.  We can then spend more time refining and developing those ideas.

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