How to use Creativity in PR and what others could learn from the public relations industry

As a PR practitioner, a major part of my job is to facilitate creativity in PR. We develop creative ideas into workable, multichannel communication strategies. I’ve developed this guide based on 25 years experience in the PR industry. working across consumer PR, b2b and corporate.

There are plenty of more thorough resources on all the techniques and tools that this guide covers but what I have tried to do is condense the information down into the bare essentials.

Even in PR, creativity is such an under-valued attribute and can easily be damaged or inhibited if not well managed.  Creativity has to be nurtured and while I do believe that creativity is in some way ‘caught not taught,’ there are ways to learn how to improve creativity and there are techniques that can be adopted to enhance the creative process.

Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s start at the beginning.

The definition of creativity in PR

The definition of creativity is the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.

Often in PR we are looking for both creative ideas to inform media relations, social media and content but also a broad creative theme that helps us build a wider strategy. A creative theme in PR is:

An overarching “big concept” that captures attention and communicates a message in an original way. It is a unifying theme that can be used across all propositions, campaign platforms, marketing disciplines and a wide variety of audiences.

Why is creativity useful in PR

Creativity is a problem-solving tool to help PR professionals achieve their communication objectives. Often what our clients try to set out to achieve is very similar. “Sell more widgets” or “drive more footfall.”  These message needs to be communicated in original and new ways that are linked to the values and purpose of these organisations and its target audience.

The challenge is how to do this creatively and strategically. Most people who work in the creative industries have all heard the clichés that there is “no such thing as a new idea” and “talent borrows, and genius steals.” While there is some truth in these generalisations, I’d like to take this moment to debunk both of these points of view. 

Creativity is infinite.

Creativity in PR allows brands and businesses to engage with their audience in new ways never thought possible.

In particular creativity is useful in PR because:

  • Creativity wins pitches
  • Creativity gives us the ability to out-manoeuvre competitors, who often have bigger budgets
  • Creativity is the hook that can tie the tactical back to something more meaningful and strategic
  • Original discourse will earn more attention – i.e. media coverage, social shares, discussion in day-to-day life
  • Creativity which is well targeted touches audiences emotionally
  • Emotional connection will influence and impact audiences in ways which we hadn’t thought of before
  • In the age of AI, automation and algorithms, creativity is the fundamental human trait that keeps us connected to each other.   Be it in art or our work, without creativity we contribute little of true value.

How to be more creative

While some are naturally more creative than others, there are ways to learn to be more creative and there are tactics that you can use to help you come up with more creative ideas.

Later on, I will outline some tools and techniques for creative thinking that will help you be more creative. We’ll cover robust and time served processes, including mind mapping, thinking hats, checklisting, fishbone diagrams and the Five Whys.

There are also problem-solving tools that help us prepare for brainstorms and interrogate briefs, allowing our ideas to be more focused and to help deliver a better outcome.

These techniques are really the big concepts that will help you – but there are also some little pointers that can be useful:

  • Find the right amount of risk to take for you and your business. Brands often don’t like to take risks, but some are willing to take bigger risks, especially the challenger brands.  Risk and creativity are the subject of much conversation within the PR industry..  Some side with Oscar Wilde in that “an idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all” while others are more risk averse. Clearly the level of risk taking depends on the brief and the client.
  • Planning and advertising planning techniques are an important part of effective brainstorms. We touch on a few planning techniques later on but in reality this is a big subject worthy of a separate discussion.
  • Take a creative course – there are millions available, especially those run by the CIPR and PRCA, but for those not within the PR industry there are also plenty of creativity courses out there that are not industry specific. There are training courses covering all the techniques that I detail later on.
  • ‘Manage’ those who kill creativity – this point is covered in the brainstorms section later on, but I think this rule also needs to be applied to your life. Create rules to stop these people from draining the momentum of creativity. Creativity is a delicate process and some people can, through no conscious fault of their own, limit creative energy. Make sure that everyone is aware that no idea is dismissed (and stick to this), and that those who may (sub-consciously or otherwise) hinder creativity are balanced with those who add to creative energy. The creative process needs to be curated, allowing naturally creative people to generate ideas without being inhibited by criticism or judgement. Be aware that sometimes creative people can be touchy when faced with criticism by people who just ‘don’t get’ their ideas, so control the narrative and save the assessment of which ideas will actually work in reality for later on.
  • Think like a child – This might sound ridiculous but being playful and pursuing fun or even ridiculous thought processes can stimulate ideas in others. What is more, when one member of a group is freeing themselves of adult and societal constructs, it permits others in a group to throw away the shackles of adulthood too and contribute in ways they thought impossible.  Don’t worry if you often procrastinate, I find that some people just work in different ways, as long as you are productive in the long run then you’ll be fine.
  • Work with other people – other people help us build empathy for different audiences and identify new thought patterns, which heighten our creative thinking processes.  Seek out creative minds and allow them to nourish your creative energy. It is not a coincidence that we like to hang around with like-minded people. Creative people tend to gravitate towards other creative people. Artists and musicians especially will collaborate more readily because they tend to understand the process, and while artistic differences can occur, being around other creative people will make things happen. 
  • Avoid the grind and allow your mind to wander – much has been said about the concept of “the grind” in entrepreneurship and business. The grind is seen as a badge of honour, where working every hour under the sun is lauded and downtime is a sin.  In my experience I find that the grind can wear you down and cause burnout. I also know that creativity often happens within the first hour of the day and the shorter the working day, the more productive I am. Allow yourself (a small amount of) free time in the working day to “play”, relax or procrastinate. This can stimulate creativity and is what a previous boss of mine called ‘isolation of inhibition theory’, where we isolate ourselves and go and procrastinate in some way to allow our thoughts to form in the back of our minds and create an ‘Eureka’ moment.
  • Write your notes down, no matter how silly or poorly thought through the ideas. Often a poorly thought through idea can enrich or even lead to another stronger and more robust creative theme. Paperback note pads are great for scribbling on, even if we now spend most our time hammering away at the keyboard of a laptop.
  • Allow yourself time to consume art and media, from the highbrow right down the frothy and trivial. Art can help us see the world in a different way. Some might think art can be pretentious, but it allows us to see the world through the eyes of others – which is key for brainstorming ideas to suit different audiences.  Art is everywhere: galleries, libraries, music shops, fashion, gig, food, product design to name a few. 

Techniques and tools to aid creative thinking

This section of the guide will teach you about creative thinking tools and techniques to apply to your PR practice. While brainstorming is a fun and fairly loose discipline there are a number of techniques that we can use such as mindmapping, checklisting and the famous Six thinking Hats, created by the distinguished Dr. Edward De Bono. You can read all about these techniques in the post below. Many of the techniques were developed by industry, including engineers and quality improvement professionals, There’s lot to learn by looking outside of the public relations industry.

Brainstorming for PR professionals

In this section of the guide we’ll cover off advice on how to run a brainstorm. Creative PR professionals will learn how to apply structure to a session, helping improve overall productivity. There are rules to follow, advice on who to invite to brainstorms and also information on where to hold them and how to facilitate a good idea generation session.

There is lots of solid advice that is often skipped when we become more proficient at brainstorming but actually there are steps that shouldn’t be glossed over. Enjoy.

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