Anatomy of a PR brainstorm

The PR industry has long been touted as a shining light of creativity but, having gone to some three and a half years worth of brainstorms, I’m convinced the reason for this is the strict confines of our business.

PR, in most people’s minds, consists of getting journalists to cover stuff they don’t want to. We’re pretty much limited to marketing communications and media relations. So, when it comes to creativity, we’re pretty much constrained by our own mandate.

Just like advertising, where money is made not from producing the creative but from buying the media, PR’s bread and butter comes from the media relations and time billed against the activity (usually by fairly junior staffers).

So in PR, when it comes to creativity, it all has to feed into more time for media relations. If I’m right, and as always I welcome any and all constructive criticism, all brainstorms will sound fairly similar.

Here’re five ideas that no brainstorm is without:

  • Survey
  • Media Tour with…
  • Celebrity spokesperson
  • Event
  • Direct user engagement (tastings etc)
  • Partner with approriate non-profit
  • Product placement
  • Outrageous stunt
  • Name a day/week/month
  • Change a law

Bonus ideas I’ve been saying and hearing a lot more of recently:

  • Blog
  • Blog outreach
  • Podcast

Have I missed any? How would you encourage people to break out of the the constraints outlines above? Is this post even written on the basis a theory that has any merit whatsoever?


8 Responses to Anatomy of a PR brainstorm

  1. Colin McKay says:

    So – an agency’s profitability is based on thinking up the one big idea that will help it leverage a bunch of juniors through the door?

    If a brainstorm starts off with a discussion of tactics, is it possible to push really innovative and ground-breaking ideas?

    How does an agency prepare for a brainstorm? How do you stretch your horizon? Environmental scan? Media analysis? Who draws up the creative brief?

  2. Chris Clarke says:

    For a few consecutive brainstorms for about a month, Terry said “Let’s do a podcast” until it became a joke that needed to be said at some point for a laugh.

  3. David Jones says:

    I think you’re a little offside with “junior staffers” being where the profit is made. Media relations is an important deliverable for many clients, but no self-respecting firm builds its business on something that is becoming more and more of a commodity each day.

    As an SVP, the percentage of my time devoted to billing clients is lower than an assistant account executive, but the total fees would be still amount to more revenue. Our various roles on client work are based on where we each provide the most value.

    Colin is absolutely right that brainstorms are often badly run and more often than not are wild guesses at some sort of solution, which is not the point of the brainstorm.

    In my opinion, the brainer should have a proper brief and a format that stimulates ideas, thoughts, and a method for capturing all of them. I like to then take these often times random, disparate bits away and leave them to marinate. I have no illusions that a group of people who aren’t intimately involved on a piece of business can generate THE IDEA. But they can often times create the spark that stimulates a new approach, tactic, theme or point-of-view from me.

    If you recall, the last brainstorm we participated in together (brief and horizon stretching and all that) resulted in us getting selected to be one of the last two firms in the final round. And we didn’t pitch any of the things you mentioned, though I’m sure they came up in the brainstorm. (OK, we did include the obligatory whizz-bang social media stuff, natch.)

  4. Ed Lee says:

    Colin – definitely in one agency I’ve worked in. The bigger agencies tend to have a more holistic approach.

    Dave – I said ‘bread and butter”, not profit margins. As an aside, I can think of one very self-respecting firm right here in Toronto that has built its reputation on media relations.

    just as ad agencies provide more than just buying media space (planning, a/c management, creative, online etc) PR is, as I’ve always said, about more than reaching people through the media. Now more than ever.

    Bread and butter are (or used to be) basic living requirements. just as it would be hard to live on bread alone, it would be hard to build a business around purely executional items. looks like we’re in agreement that the value (or the honey) comes from the counsel we give our clients.

  5. […] hoping this isn’t the kind of “outrageous stunt” that Ed Lee was imagining in his post on PR brainstorming […]

  6. John Armato says:

    Interesting discussion all. Glad to see the topic on the table.

    The state of brainstorming in the PR world isn’t what it should be by any stretch. More often than not it could be defined as any time two or more people are gathered in the presence of donuts or bagels. I’ve been tackling this for a few years now. I have passion for exploring the creative process and am fortunate that FH has allowed me to develop my “Think Inside The Box” principles, which I use in trainings and in facilitating brainstorms internally and with clients. I discuss the concept of Think Inside The Box on my Web site:

    Here are a few things I believe:

    The point of a brainstorm is not to leave with a plan. Plan development has a broader arc than gathering smart people in a room for an hour. The point of a brainstorm is to generate a large volume of fodder for the planning team to work with.

    Brainstorms should be very focused. Define your problem/challenge carefully, pose a compelling, singular question and keep the group pointed toward that one question.

    Whoever’s running the thing needs to prepare. There should be a concise written brief that is distributed in advance. There should be careful consideration to the right mix of diverse perspectives invited to participate. Attention should be given to planning what approach the facilitator is going to take in the brainstorm itself. Objectives need to be clearly defined.

    Separate strategies from tactics. Brainstorming tactics without having identified strategies is a recipe for spinning your wheels. Creativity actually thrives on constraints and strategies by definition limit your choices. That’s a good thing.

    Beware the incest of ideas; reach out to different people for different contributions. Post the “standard” ideas (survey, road show, celebrity spokes, charitable tie-in, etc.) on a flip chart and let everyone get the usual suspects out of their system, then focus on other things.

    Don’t get suckered by the “no idea is a bad idea” adage. It’s a misunderstood guideline. A brainstorm is not an opportunity for pure stream of conscious discussions. If a line of discussion isn’t addressing the tightly focused question you’ve established for the brainstorm, there is no reason to indulge it. Freewheeling is great, essential, desired. But that freewheel has to spin around the topic at hand, not whatever comes to mind.

    There’s more to say, but no reason to believe I’m the one to say it. Besides, it’s 1:30 a.m. 🙂

    Thanks for an enjoyable discussion.

  7. A survey? That sounds like a great idea, I’ll use that one.

  8. No idea is a bad idea. Creativity comes in all different forms and but cannot always be inspired by a colouring book. 😉

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