Digital & Social Media

Creativity and PR, Strange Bedfellows?


Let’s face it: PR came late to the “capital C” Creative party. Having read the definitions of Creative in the context of different agencies, having looked at the work that graces the PR award show circuit (intentionally not including Cannes here), and having paid attention to the number of high-profile Creative leadership turnover at firms, there seems to be an issue.

Sure, plenty of the work from PR agencies can broadly be described as creative. But as far as institutionalizing it as part of the process, it’s fair to say that PR lags – with a few notable exceptions.

In another article, my colleague Bill Power looks to clear up the definition of PR creative. The industry’s lack of a consistent definition is one of the first areas to address to better resolve these issues, the lag.

It’s important to note: There’s NOT a lack of talent at PR firms. In my estimation, there are two contributing factors:

  1. PR generally celebrates and rears the generalist vs. the specialist. What client relationship manager (CRM) would say they are not creative, strategic and responsible client counselors?
  2. The focus of PR has been more tactical in nature. Even when driven by a “Big Idea” – given that there is often not an overarching visual manifestation of the idea – programs generally come together in the form of inter-related tactics. And there is not really a clear key performance indicator (KPI) that is associated with the quality of the thinking.

These barriers to creativity need to be overcome if the industry as a whole is going to compete for the attention and budgets of clients.

The good news is that the expected purview of PR agencies has evolved from amplification, impressions and influence to include a much broader range of expectations that leverage a much wider range of creative formats, including live events, cultural programming and sophisticated video storytelling.

The rub is that leveraging these new mediums and channels effectively requires a level of expertise and proximity to rapidly changing technologies and techniques that can leave the generalist woefully underequipped to be both the spokesperson for and driver of these types of initiatives. And agencies have responded by hiring this talent in-house. The issue this raises is how to integrate these new capabilities into the established process and culture of PR firms.

Our analysis leads us to believe that for creativity to flourish within the traditional PR agency structure, it will require revisiting the role of the traditional CRM. And evolving it from the singular voice of the firm – a role that plays all roles (creative director, communications, counselor, digital strategist etc.) – to something along the lines of a master integrator or convener of talent, where they bring the best and brightest from a range of disciplines directly to the client. In this new role, creatives – as well as firms’ other specialty capabilities – can find a seat at the table, directly interacting with clients and being staffed as team members vs. leveraged as internal service centers.

The other necessary evolution is a recalibration of the definition of success at the agency level. Too often, the time and attention that is devoted to the development of the thinking simply isn’t there. This seems partly driven by more aggressive timelines in PR (days or weeks, not months) and lower expectations for what suffices as the ideation process (the brainstorm). And it shows. The work (read, tactics) that arises from a weak idea, however clever, will never rise to the level of award-winning work. Not because the talent isn’t there, but the institutional attention is not there. Also, without a clear and definable KPI associated with the quality of the creative thinking and the work that arises from it, it’s not surprising that it lags. By way of contrast, advertising creatives are heavily incentivized to produce award-winning work as it translates into remuneration and market value, as are advertising agencies that trade heavily and invest heavily in their awards submissions.

Until PR firms truly value and enshrine a process that demands creativity and excellence in the development of the thinking and then measures and rewards that thinking, the thinking will get short-changed. This will require changes at all levels of the organization – from the recognition of the value of different and new types of skills and perspectives from outside of traditional sources, to the institutionalization of roles specifically dedicated to the process of idea generation. And that brings us back to the topic of creative. Whether we are talking about “Creatives” with a capital C or folks who just have it running in their veins, creativity and the creative process need to be valued, budgeted, staffed for and measured if it really is going to become a pillar of our industry.