Creativity in PR - are practitioners successfully harnessing the power of storytelling and narration?


Creativity is a key driver for change. Yet, the nature of doing creativity in PR needs to change in order to be effective.

You’ll learn:
•    Growing complexity means traditional creative PR responses are increasingly inadequate to deliver ‘big multi-channel ideas’. You need strategic narratives
•    Creative PR people need to change from being magicians pulling rabbits out of a hat, to skillful collaborators, co-creators and master storytellers
•    Changes are paradoxical: you need more data yet more intuition

Traditional PR skills in news storytelling and media relations are insufficient for outstanding results beyond 2016.

Failure to adapt could witness public relations being marginalised with less influence, budgets or status, even subsumed within the growth of integrated communications.

The key drivers for change are growing complexity coupled with greater convergence of communications, along with the need for greater emotional connections within communications.

Add to the mix the need to tell your story through images / moving images, plus the growth of content marketing, and recognition of public relations’ distinct skills in managing wider relationships and building social capital - all this adds up to massive, yet achievable opportunities for creative PR.

The nature of the problems facing public relations is changing. Problems can be one of three types. Using the London Underground map as a metaphor, problems can be:

•    Zone 1 problems - with a neat middle and end
•    Zone 6 problems - more complex, yet still solvable
•    Zone 10 problems - issues that are off the map, unfamiliar, systemic, chaotic and unsolvable in isolation

Previously, much PR work was primarily of the Zone 1 type; a news release and photocall could oft suffice for an award-winning campaign.

Today, the typical PR programme has migrated to at least Zone 6 complexity: even the most basic campaigns require more. 

The media channels explosion has created infinite tactical opportunities for digital marketing, social media and content marketing. As creative guru Mark Borkowski observes: “Everything is blurred. It’s all about creating robust content to go through the channels.”

Ideas now need to be coherent and resolute across different channels and over longer time periods. We are now in the age of ‘big multi-channel ideas’ operating in Zone 6 or Zone 10 complexity.

The age of narrative

Most PR practitioners, from personal experience, fail to appreciate the distinction between narrative and story, assuming that ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ are added to a reality, like a veneer of packaging.

Narrative runs, however, like a thread through everything you do, providing a script for your past, your expectation of the future, to frame and define your story of now. Pearls in a pearl necklace are the stories, the string is the narrative, holding the individual pearls together to create a coherent whole.

Creative PR is now more than just creating a series of news stories. You need to listen out for, identify, nurture and amplify the inherent narrative within a reality. This puts you in the strategic driving seat of communications.

In a world of greater complexity, simplicity - not being simplistic - is at the heart of communications. Leveraging profound insights at a deeper, more emotional level, at the heart of your brand, creates more powerful engagement for your communications. 

Recent Cannes winners such as Always #LikeAGirl are part of a growing breed of campaigns that have a brand purpose - a sense of view that provide a narrative. This creates an emotional bridge to overcome barriers put up by increasingly cynical or commercial-wary consumers. 

But how do you find the purpose of a brand? 

Here, the graphic design industry has traditionally had an advantage over old school public relations. The talented designer looks at a single element to visually capture a brand’s purpose, unlike traditional PR focussing instead on a multitude of news story opportunities. 

Creative PR practitioners need to improve their storytelling skills by harnessing the ‘theme’ to a story - a one, two, three word emotional bridge that connects with the target audience. LINPAC Packaging for example, moved from being a packaging supplier to delivering ‘Fresh Thinking’.

Mememasters and collaborators

You don’t just need to emotionally connect with consumers but also develop broader engagement.

The ‘Pokemon Go’ craze reflects the growing trend for gamification. You don’t just communicate to, but participate with, and engage in common activity.

Creative PR professionals will also be greater ‘mememasters’ - creators of ‘sticky’, viral-friendly content. Why did the Leave vote win the Brexit Referendum? They had more powerful memes - messages that replicate and spread of their own volition. Remember #ProjectFear or #TakeBackControl? I suspect you can’t even remember the Remain campaign’s memes.

Responding to growing complexity the creative PR will need to be a better collaborator. 

The creative public relations practitioner needs to evolve, away from the brand archetype of a ‘magician’ - a lone ranger using their creative talents to pull the metaphorical rabbit out of a hat - to the brand archetype of ‘creator’, working in a more co-ordinated way with other specialists, creating powerful strategic narratives to deliver and achieve results.

The lone maverick will find themselves increasingly alone. The act of collaboration itself extends through greater use of community co-creation and ‘Brand Kultura’ - content independently created by a brand’s fan community.

Bad news on the awards front

Creative PR can also leverage greater results in parts where other disciplines cannot reach.

PR consultants have the distinct role of being corporate listeners. Counselling on the authenticity of a brand’s actions, building social capital, and earning trust all provide creative opportunities to achieve profound creative impact for an organisation or brand’s future. 

Unfortunately, for recognition-seeking creative PR’s, these are all areas which are Zone 6 or even Zone 10 in character. PR award schemes are inherently biased to reward work that has a neat beginning, middle and end in its story - the Zone 1 type problems.

The character of creative thinking is also changing, moving away from ‘dialectical’ thinking which operates within well-defined boxes or paradigms to more ‘dialogical’ open, free-flowing thinking. Creative mindfulness will increasingly be recognised as a key facet for generating new insights and ideas.

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable

The ability to be comfortable with paradox is a critical skill for creative PR. The author Scott F. Fitzgerald observed: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.”

The rise of big data and digital analysis rather than being inimical to original creative thinking can, instead, be the key for greater insight and greater creative accountability through better evaluation. As Rick Guttridge of Smoking Gun PR describes: “Ingenious insight requires intelligent measurement.” 

The ‘House of Clicks’ winner of Cannes 2016 by Swedish agency Prime is a good example of data-driven insight. The campaign engaged a team of data scientists analysing over 200 million clicks on the property website Hemnet to unearth what Swedes dream about in their future home.

Coping with complexity will necessitate more ‘painting-by-numbers creativity’ through greater use of checklists and the growing availability of Artificial Intelligence. Tools like Nuzzle can now identify the tastes and interests of your community to cultivate and curate new content for them.

The creative mind will harness both mechanical creativity as well as intuitively stretch new thinking to the further parts of their galaxy or the deepest parts of their soul.

Creative public relations has the opportunity to create a new narrative for the future of public relations. It could face a future of being marginalised, further down the pecking order or be in the strategic driving seat, directing and managing the corporate narrative and wider relationships. 

Creative opportunities abound. Will we take them?

Andy Green is a Brand Story expert and an associate director at four UK PR agencies, founder of social enterprise the Flexible Thinking Forum, and lectures on the Masters programme in Global Communications at Cardiff University. He is the author of 7 books on brand communications.

Twitter: @starts_story