Each year, I require my public relations students to interview a practicing PR professional. As a class, we develop an interview protocol that focuses on what the students want to learn. It typically includes questions about advice for aspiring PR professionals, and insight into the desired qualifications and skills. In this year’s interviews, several professionals mentioned “creativity” as a desired skill – yet a discussion of the role of creativity in PR did not appear in our textbook.
Creativity is not often operationalized in PR, yet professionals recognize the need for it to be successful in the field. In a 2005 study, 96% of the 104 randomly selected PR professionals indicated they strongly agreed (67%) or agreed (29%) that creativity was important to the PR process. The study was centered in the United Kingdom, and the UK seems to be ahead of the US in embracing PR as a core part of the profession. The UK-based Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) offers a creativity toolkit – although mostly spearheaded by the author (Andy Green) of the lone book dedicated to the subject, Creativity in Public Relations. In the US, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) offers a webinar on the topic (although not based on the current science) and a few random articles in their publications and blogs. In a global study of PR curriculum, the only mention of creativity is that graduate programs reflected “more strategy and more creativity than undergraduate study” (p. 15). If PR professionals think creativity is important, why hasn’t it become operationalized, studied, and integrated into the standard curriculum?
One explanation can be found in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s systems view of creativity. (You probably know Csikszentmihalyi for his best-selling book Flow.) He contends that experts (the field) within specific and well-defined boundaries (the domain) determine whether a work is truly novel. For example, an oncologist’s new way of treating cancer can only be deemed innovative by other oncologists. In this way, only PR professionals deeply knowledgeable and in agreement about how to define creative practices within PR can render work “creative.” This causes two problems for PR. Because PR is a relatively new field, it still struggles with professionalism and an agreed upon knowledge domain. Although organizations like PRSA (established in 1947) and CIPR (established in 2005, with roots in the Institute for Public Relations established in 1948) have worked to advance the profession, there are still those who claim to “do public relations” who don’t abide by either organization’s ethics standards or best practices.
In addition, PR encounters a second problem when attempting to establish standards and practices. By the very nature of PR, the work is often directed at specific and targeted publics. These small affected pockets also serve as “field experts,” which means that PR experts alone are not judging the work, but the publics to whom the work is directed. For example, the Salvation Army’s use of “the dress” to raise awareness of domestic violence became a social media meme – so who decides if it was creative? Professionals in PRSA or CIPR? Professionals who work with domestic violence victims? Or the general public who saw and shared the meme through Twitter and Facebook posts?
To establish itself as a more serious discipline, (such as economics and marketing have in recent years), public relations will have to evolve in two ways:
1) PR professionals must establish a core knowledge base that is research-driven to create, what Csikszentmihalyi would term, a more tightly structured domain. He writes, “it is practically impossible to make a creative contribution without internalizing the fundamental knowledge of the domain” (p. 47).
2) PR professionals must continue to work to professionalize the field so that there is a clearly defined field. As Csikszentmihalyi writes, “a field is necessary to determine whether the innovation is worth making a fuss about” (p. 41).
One of the reasons PR’s evolution as a serious discipline is waning is because research efforts are being directed to specific social media tools, instead of at the broader knowledge necessary for effective management practices. Given this scenario (and I don’t see it changing anytime soon), I would encourage PR professionals and organizations to help create a “domain” and “field” for PR creativity, by starting in their own organizations. Consider the projects you completed in the last six months. What projects would you deem most creative and why? Describe what made the projects creative, and ask the people who worked on them to describe and share how they developed them.
If we begin to work at a micro level on assessing and addressing what creativity in PR looks like, then we can begin to develop boundaries for creativity (a domain) and experts (the field). This perspective can help us begin to develop a better understanding of how to operationalize creativity across the PR profession, how to study it, and how to teach it in the context of PR, because – as my students reported after coding their interviews – creativity is a sought after skill in public relations.