Last week I had the opportunity to attend a PRSA conference where Fred Cook, CEO of Golin, was the keynote speaker. One question plagued me that day: Why did public relations practitioners who attended the working sessions express concern about being labeled “creatives,” while inviting PR’s most notable creativity evangelizer to be their keynote speaker?
In two sessions I attended, the presenters noted that PR practitioners are often known internally as “creatives” or “idea people.” The inference was that being perceived as a creative was a bad thing; that PR wasn’t taken seriously; and that marketing departments were somehow the favorite child in organizations because they were more fluent in C-Suite Speak. Among attendees it seemed to be understood that creativity and the accountability were mutually exclusive – or at least perceived to be by organizational leadership.
It’s no surprise to those of us in PR that the profession has a PR problem – known for spin instead of sincerity and media releases instead of measurable outcomes. The reasons for this mis-characterization are based on the field’s historical roots in media pageantry (think P.T. Barnum); self-identified PR professionals who don’t follow PR best practices; and a misuse or non-use of PR practitioners by organizational leaders. I use the analogy of a parade to warn aspiring PR practitioners of leaders who hold a narrow view of PR. They use PR as the parade set-up and clean-up crews–asking their PR staffs to tie the pretty ribbons along the parade route and then handle the horse manure left on the road after the parade – all while they continue to march on without engaging the people who stand along the parade route. PR practitioners must educate their organizations, practice good research, planning, implementation and evaluation … and celebrate and encourage creativity.
Creativity in public relations is informed creativity. It is not shoot-from-the-hip maverick actions for short-term publicity. It emerges when practitioners deeply understand the organization’s mission and goals and also deeply understand (via research) their publics. Creative public relations practitioners create solutions that build bridges to foster meaningful encounters and exchanges. Today’s publics are busy and skeptical, and large organizations are structured and slow to respond. Creative public relations practices re-shape organizations to be more responsive and earn the attention of consumers–setting the stage for meaningful encounters and exchanges.
A recent example of creative public relations was Salvation Army’s use of the trending hashtag #thedress in a tweet to shed light on domestic violence. In this case, the professionals used a creative practice that von Oech deemed “the artist” that links two seemingly different ideas. The short tweet linked the difficulty of seeing the black and blue color of the dress from the viral campaign to the difficulty of recognizing the black and blue bruises, signs of domestic violence, and encouraged publics to slow down and consider the role of complacency in domestic violence. It set the stage for a meaningful encounter and bridged the gap between the Salvation Army’s goal of raising awareness about domestic violence and busy publics.
However, in public relations, creative solutions still call for measuring outcomes. PR practitioners must measure and assign value to social media sharing, media placements, sentiment analysis and changed attitudes and behaviors. They must ask the questions: what public was most open to engagement? What public was most resistant? How did the tweet influence those diverse publics? Did users of different social media platforms respond differently? In other words, PR professionals must be held accountable for their creative solutions – measuring their outcomes and incorporating those outcomes in the evolving process of evaluation, research and planning.
PR practitioners should embrace their organizational role of “creatives” and then share the outcomes of their creative endeavors in the context of the organizational mission and goals. In this way, they can continue to create ways to build better bridges that lead to more meaningful encounters with their organizations’ publics and with their organizations’ leadership.