Brainstorms and Creativity in PR

Brainstorming is the most common problem solving technique used in PR and business. It is commonly used but often misunderstood. Even in the creative industries, brainstorms are often great and but can also sometimes be ineffective.  I will be covering off everything that you need to know about brainstorms – the good, the bad and the ugly – to limit the number which end up being ineffective.  Hopefully you’ll be able to apply this thinking to your creative PR and communications, or maybe you work in another industry and are just interested in our approach to creativity.

There are many ways to run a brainstorm and the biggest mistake people make is just jumping straight in. While just brainstorming with no preparation can deliver results, we can get so much more out of this process if we prepare.

Rules for brainstorms:

  • Spend time analysing and discussing the brief.  Make sure you are fully prepared ahead of the brainstorm
  • Refine the brief, spend time using the problem solving techniques, such as those identified earlier (Fishbone Diagrams, The 5 Whys) beforehand
  • Focus on segments of the brief, brainstorm the audience, their needs, the location, the stakeholders and what matters to and interests them
  • Record these processes and thinking. It will make great content for your strategy
  • Don’t be judgemental. No one knows where a good idea is going to come from
  • Encourage the most out-there thinking and thinkers. A wild idea will take you to new places in your thinking
  • There is no such thing as a bad idea
  • Refine and improve the ideas of others
  • Focus is key. It is easy to get excited and procrastinate or go off topic (but don’t be judgemental or critical)
  • Try and chair the brainstorm so there is one idea is proposed at a time
  • Try to be visual. Draw, sketch and take notes
  • Try and get down as many ideas as possible. Quantity and momentum are important

Spending time on the brief, insights and planning is an important part of a brainstorm. If you feel that certain insights are missing, feel free to postpone the brainstorm and go and find out the information that you need.

Many of us have chaired brainstorms before and sometimes you get ideas that are just poor, or you know won’t work.  This is where the skill of the chairperson comes to the fore. The idea mustn’t be rubbished but the brainstorm must be carefully and sensitively steered in the right direction. Use coaching techniques – ask questions rather than simply say that the idea won’t work.

For example:

  • Don’t say: “your idea won’t work because I have done this before and it failed”
  • Do say: “do you think we can shape that idea given that consumers might not behave in this way?”

Physical environment for brainstorms

Choosing a location for a brainstorm is important and while the right one can be inspirational, the wrong one can really backfire.

A brainstorm can simply be run as a huddle around a desk in an office. However, brainstorms can also expensive processes which drain man hours, so taking time out to run the brainstorm off-site can help remove distractions, inspire attendees and save money in the long run. It also gives the brainstorm the gravitas and importance that it deserves, meaning that attendees will take it more seriously and be more motivated to come up with ideas.

I strongly advise holding brainstorms away from people’s desks to avoid other distractions and interruptions – e.g. phone calls, emails and other colleagues. Not only are distractions a problem but often people worry about being judged by those not attending the brainstorm.

For me a private setting, away from desks is key but if you have time to go off site to an inspirational setting then great.

What type of people to invite to a brainstorm?

Choosing the right people to attend a brainstorm is important.  You need the best people there who will contribute the most.

Here are some suggestions of the types of people who should attend:

  • Creative, ideas people – the type of people who are full of ideas and will spark ideas in others
  • People from the target audience – people who know about or can empathise with this group in terms of how they might think or behave
  • Knowledgeable people or specialists in the field – people who have very specific skills or knowledge in the area you are brainstorming about
  • The chair of the brainstorm
  • Challengers – people who will challenge the people from the target audience group or the specialists to think outside of the box

Be warned, it is best to not judge a book by its cover. Often in PR the cliche is that the consumer PR team is the creative PR heartbeat of the agency and the B2B team are more strategic and somehow less able to develop good ideas. This is very far from the truth. Consumer PR, like any discipline, attracts all sorts of people. Yes, creatives flourish in consumer PR but so do organisers and people with sales skills. Very often the corporate team are not just creative but they bring a different perspective to proceedings,

In my opinion there are some people who you should not invite. These are mainly people who inhibit others’ capacity for ideas.  I personally think it is a very bad idea to have clients in a brainstorm. But the worst are those who are overly dominant, critical or negative.


How to facilitate a brainstorm

Facilitating a brainstorm is not easy. If you have followed earlier advice then you have already chosen the location and decided who to invite (and who not to invite), but there is plenty more to consider, especially in terms of how the brainstorm is led.  Here are some quick tips:

  • Set a time for the brainstorm. Make sure it has an end. An hour is more than enough.
  • The room set up is important. A circle is always the best lay out while theatre style seating is the worst.
  • Share the rules up front. Make sure everyone is clear.
  • Create an agenda – make sure the brief is discussed and any analysis time is allowed for outside of the brainstorm.
  • Set up a warm up activity if necessary to get the creative juices flowing and overcome any inhibitions.
  • Go around the room in order – this allows everyone to contribute, especially introverts who might find the process difficult.
  • Bring some sweets, cakes or beverages to keep energy levels up.
  • Allow a free time for discussion – this can be an important way to build energy and cross pollinate ideas.
  • The ideas are all recorded – someone needs to be uber-scribe.
  • Make sure there is a follow up meeting to go through the ideas with the three Rs (reflect, refine and reshape) in mind.

Other miscellaneous brainstorming tips

The biggest tip is to just get started and don’t take it too seriously, but don’t underestimate how much investing in the process can improve results.

  • Ask the right questions, keep them open not closed to stimulate discussion.
  • Try to become as well informed in the subject you are brainstorming as quickly as possible, beforehand.
  • Be open and aware of the room and the people in it. It is your job to keep everyone engaged.
  • Have fun. Don’t take it too seriously.
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