Gini Dietrich

Creativity in PR: Three Ways to Feed the Inner Beast

By: Gini Dietrich | February 5, 2013 | 

Growing up in the traditional PR firm world, I learned there were (at the time) two types of agencies: Public relations and advertising.

At the ad agencies were the creative guys. They were the ones who had the colorful markers and the cool computers and the fancy software.

They got to wear jeans to work and arrive late and stay late. They got to have three hour lunches, sometimes fueled by drinks.

After all, that all enhanced the creative spirit. Wasn’t it Ernest Hemingway who said, “Write drunk, edit sober?”

My perception of my ad agency brothers was exactly that sentiment. When I later joined an ad agency to start their PR department, I learned I wasn’t so far off. It was there I also learned PR professionals can – and should – be creative.

Sure, we’d had the really creative campaigns when I worked at the PR firm (hello Ocean Spray art tour and celebrity chefs cooking catfish), but the way we went about getting – and selling – those ideas wasn’t a standardized process. It was usually someone who had an inkling of an idea in a brainstorm and it took off from there.

Last November, the Holmes Report conducted a study of PR professionals to determine whether or not the industry  is creative enough to successfully sway marketing budgets and develop game-changing ideas on a consistent basis.

It revealed more than 50 percent felt PR creativity levels were “ordinary or worse.”

Ug! Stab in the heart! What is wrong with us? Why aren’t we seen as creative as the boys with the colorful markers and cool jeans? Why is the perception of us one of clacking women in high heels, short skirts, and Blackberry-carrying snobs?

I’m cool and creative! I have lots of colorful markers, spend more on jeans than on suits, and carry around my MacBook Air like it’s a baby. In fact, most in the industry are like me (darn that Hollywood for painting us differently!), but the creativity issue remains.

Amelia Torode, the head of digital and innovation at the Good Relations Group, says there are three things we need to focus on if we want to win a role in creativity.

  1. Curiosity. This one is easy. If you’re curious and have a lifelong quest to constantly be learning, you have accomplished the first step in being creative. It’s not that creative people have to drink themselves to death like Ernest Hemingway nor do they have to smoke a lot of pot to come up with the best ideas. Most are seemingly creative because they look and learn outside of their industry, which helps them develop ideas for their work. It’s like blogging. When you blog every day, you are constantly looking for content ideas, in everything you do. Curiosity feeds the creative beast.
  2. Constraints. This is an interesting one and goes back to what I was saying up there ^^^. Ad agencies have what’s called the creative brief. You cannot talk to an art director or copywriter until you’ve completed one so they can think about the problem within the constraints. The example Amelia uses (and it’s a good one so I’ll repeat it here) is to think about Michelangelo. What if he’d been told to paint whatever he wanted in the Sistine Chapel? He likely wouldn’t have come up with the masterpiece because the field was too open. Have you ever been asked to write a guest blog post for someone without constraints? It’s almost impossible. But when they give you two or three topics to consider, the ideas begin to flow.
  3. Conflict. When I went to work for the ad agency, I quickly learned it was full of conflict. You have the suits, the jeans, and the planners. Those three groups of people are all very different personality types, which leads to lots of debates (and sometimes downright arguments) and lots of hot heads, but that’s where some of the best ideas come from. In PR firms, all of the people are the same and we all think the same so it’s hard to have that conflict. Think about where you work. Are there other personality types who are willing to debate other merits of your idea? Find those people, throw them the idea, and open your mind to other possibilities. When you begin to disagree is where the magic happens. It’s not always pleasant and, if you’re like me, your cheeks may burn a few times a week, but it’s worth the pain in the end.

Because of my career experience, I never really considered myself a creative person. I’m much more analytical and love numbers too much. But I’m also insanely curious and, sometimes, even though I don’t think I’m being creative, because I have an idea no one else has had – simply from something I read or saw cross my stream – other people consider me creative.

What about you? How do you think PR professionals can steer their creativity?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • belllindsay

    Funny, I always say I don’t have a creative bone in my body. But I have always worked and been fairly successful in creative fields. I think I’m “brain creative” – I couldn’t knit a sweater or be one of those “crafty moms” to save my life – yet like you I’m curious to a fault and find nothing so joyous as spending a day brainstorming with others. I think anyone can steer creativity just by being open – read or watch something you might not normally be interested in, listen to conversations going on around you, keep your mind open to things outside of your comfort zone (hello, me and numbers! I’m trying I’m trying!). Many of my best ideas have sprung from the craziest of circumstances. Be open to those possibilities.

    • John_Trader1

      @belllindsay You bring up a good point Lindsay. Reading or watching something you normally aren’t interested in is a true creativity starter and can help fuel the creative synapses firing in directions you never thought were possible because you are so accustomed to operating within the confines of your own industry. The overused statement “getting out of your comfort zone” is so applicable for the creative fire.

      • belllindsay

        @John_Trader1 @ginidietrich I watch documentaries non-stop – I’m a total science geek, and think in another life I would have been a marine biologist or an archeologist! That said, my curiosity about science, etc., makes me think about subject matter in a different light. If I want to eventually end up  talking about social media or PR, you can always start your story with “Did you know that at one time the earth had two moons??” – I love telling stories that people enjoy. Full stop.

        • John_Trader1

          @belllindsay  @ginidietrich If someone started a story to me with “did you know at one time the earth had two moons” my curiosity would immediately be piqued. Great example LB!

        • @John_Trader1  @belllindsay  @ginidietrich I really feel we do ourselves a disservice by believing that only hands-on, crafty arts counts as creativity. I have No artistic ability- my handwriting is barely legible, even to me, and I once referred to all visual arts as “the hand arts”- but I certainly view myself as creative, because the alternative is insane.

    • @belllindsay I don’t think you have to be crafty to be creative. Your writing is exceptional and it wouldn’t be that way without creativity…or curiosity.

      • @ginidietrich  @belllindsay Exactly!!!

  • bobbiklein

    I think curiosity is one of the most important tools to spark creativity. You are constantly learning about new things and finding a way to connect them to your field (i.e. a basketball game and finishing a project). The more connections that you put together for people the better, because you are finding another way to connect with them and may also be expanding their horizons.

    • @bobbiklein It’s like me and football…I’m always trying to apply a really good NFL coach to my own leadership skills. It’s the best way we learn!

  • LeonaHobbs

    I think many of the traditional PR agencies are limping along on the mass media model. Being constrained to old media would truly sap my creative spirit and passion for the business of public relations.

    • @LeonaHobbs LOL! You are SO RIGHT! It would zap mine, too!

  • Good stuff. I’m with @belllindsay . I have no musical or artistic ability whatsoever. I wouldn’t be considered a creative by many, but…I’m a brain creative and I love working in the realm of ideas. And as an academic, I love translating knowledge and delivering it to people in some creative way.

    • belllindsay

      @KenMueller Did you all just feel the earth stop spinning….??? Ken agreed with me on something!!!!! 😉

      • @belllindsay  @KenMueller Holy cow. I think hell froze over.

  • Hello Gini-love! For those who don’t think they are creative (you ARE creative), it might help to always ask “Yes, but what else?” When an idea is proposed, be the one to ask yourself or the group, “Yes, great idea….but what else can we do to give this more life for our clients or customers? What else would make it fun for them? What else would make this more interesting…more attention-getting…more memorable? Creativity can be learned!

    • @NancyMyrland That…and no idea is bad. I want my team to encourage ideas – not shoot them down – because you never know what will spark something else.

  • ElissaFreeman

    Couldn’t agree more! Now? We just need our co-workers and agency folk to BELIEVE that PR peeps can be creative. I think we’re still fighting that stereotype. Plus the point you make about the creative brief is a good one. Not all PR firms participate in this rigour…and it’s a must. It serves as the document that keeps you on track – so that even if an idea is crazy, as long as it fulfills the objective o the brief (and of the client) you have a much better chance of selling your idea.

    • @ElissaFreeman And the only way they’ll believe it is if we get churning out creative ideas that track results.

  • This is one of my pet topics, you know. 😉

    • @jasonkonopinski Thanks for letting me know.

  • It’s amazing how much trouble a little bit of curiosity can get you in… Like when Redbull wondered why you couldn’t have a dude jump out of a spaceship or when someone asked what comes between Brooke Shields and her Calvins…
    Appreciate the article Gini.

  • We mythologize creativity, to our detriment.
    If you’ve ever built a campaign, solved a complex client problem, or put together a meal using the slim pickings in your refrigerator and pantry because the week’s grocery shopping hasn’t yet been done (cough), you’ve done something creative. 
    Somewhere along the way from early childhood into adulthood, we’re convinced that we just aren’t creative – and that’s bad. 
    I don’t like to drop links in the comment section of blogs I read, but this post sums up my perspective on creativity:

    • @jasonkonopinski I know feel like DaVinci because of my ability to “make something from nothing” in my pantry – Thanks Jason! 🙂
      But seriously, you saying “we mythologize creativity, to our detriment” may be one of the best quotes on this EVER. It’s really easy to put yourself in a non-creative bucket. I know I am really guilty of this.

      • @jasonkonopinski “now” NOT “know” – darn it!

      • @katskrieger I write a zinger now and again. 😀

    • @jasonkonopinski Oh so you’re back with a real comment now.

  • When I did my time in a PR firm, and even these days with newspapers, the problem was never “creative.” We could come up with the ideas.
    It was through implementation of said idea that creativity faltered.
    Even today, I’ll come up with a great idea for a centerpiece. If I try to design it myself … whew. We’ll lose subscribers. However, we have some creative designers who can take my idea, which is certainly creative, and implement it.
    Too often, when we refer to creativity, we are actually talking about the implementation of creativity, not the ability to develop new, interesting or fresh ideas.

    • @ClayMorgan That’s an interesting point, Clay. Like I could come up with a creative idea for a skirt, but I’d need my mom to actually make it. I can’t use a sewing machine to save my life (much to her dismay).

  • So… this is really funny (as in, “what a coincidence!”) – but I saw a post on Facebook this morning, I can’t for the life of me remember in whose stream, but it shared a Steve Jobs quote: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”
    I read it and went, “That’s me!” While I’ve been very “obviously” creative in the past (when I acted, directed, etc.) the creativity was obvious. Now, it’s less obvious and for the most part, it’s funneled into client work – and that makes me proud. If I can come up with something that helps them move the needle – that makes me feel I did something worthwhile.
    But… enough with the reminiscences. The reason I brought up the quote (and my reaction) is that first, I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for when we ARE creative. We dismiss it, and say, “Oh, that’s nothing.” You know what? That’s NOT nothing. So let’s start accepting compliments when they are sincere (with humility, for sure).
    Second, I think we all have to find the kind of environment that lets our brains breathe, and try to get there at least once or twice every day. For those of us who work independently or run our own firms, it’s often easier, because we don’t have to go to a certain workplace, drive to/from work at a certain time, etc. But even for those who do, you can do it. For example, last year, when I was in a more conventional workplace, I changed my office around about 5 times. I’d go into work and they’d probably be wondering, what on earth is she going to do now. But I finally had it set up in a way that made me feel warm, welcome and cozy… including a potted palm with Christmas lights on it. Just creating that ambience (there’s that word again!) helped to make me creative.
    Sorry for the blog post as comment!

    • @Shonali LOL!! I seriously laughed out loud at the vision of your co-workers trying to figure out which Shonali office they’d see that day. That’s hilarious!

    • @Shonali I love the concept of “letting your brain breathe”. I know exactly what you mean. And sometimes, it’s also letting your brain turn off so you can allow a creative idea to make it through the “no nonsense filter”.

    • ElissaFreeman

      @Shonali You make SUCH a good point here – be creative is not “nothing!” Too many people take it for granted. It’s an important and sought-after skill. Ever been in a room with a group of people who aren’t creative? ‘Nuff said…

  • LouHoffman

    The one quality I would add to your list is courage.
    By definition, creativity means thinking of something outside the norm which can be scary, even for senior folks. It takes a certain amount of bravery to put yourself “out there.” I also think agencies should be considering how they build an environment that makes it as easy as possible to people to be brave.
    P.S. You ever notice not only are there sitcoms about advertising agencies, but they always work in cool buildings.
    P.S.S. I’m now ready to watch the Wizard of Oz

    • @LouHoffman P.S.S.S. Can I watch with you?

      • LouHoffman

        @ginidietrich  @LouHoffman Just follow the yellow brick road (sorry, couldn’t resist)

  • I love this post. I think one of the most important ways we use creativity on a day-to-day basis is in understanding our client’s businesses, industries and goals and then coming up with creative solutions to help them achieve their objectives. Creativity isn’t limited and can express itself in the development of strategy or business solutions. I am a creative at heart and struggled greatly in my agency years when the division between between the account side and the creative side (and advertising v PR) were solid and immovable. I am also insanely curious and that drive, coupled with a creative’s approach to life, keeps me hopping and offers benefits to those I work with. (I like to tell myself, anyway.) 😉

    • @allenmireles It must be a crazy house at your house with the two of you creative people in there.

  • PattiRoseKnight

    I have worked in PR for more than 30 years and I have had the honor of working with some of the most creative people in the field.  That’s my opinion.  I loved it when they left the door open to the conference room while having a brainstorming session.

  • Gini Dietrich

    I guess no one wants to be more creative?

  • Yvette Hamlin Pistorio

    Maybe they just don’t think they’re creative?

  • rdopping

    You have to be one of the most creatively minded people in this space. My field of view is not as broad as many of your colleagues but how many do what you do with social medical an example?
    Now that I have sufficiently brown nosed you into next week the best solution for me has always been finding conflict within the constraints. Breaking down those barriers and looking for new angles is not only exciting it’s fun. Just have to toss your ego out the door. Easy, right?

    • @rdopping How do you find conflict within the constraints? Talk to me about this…

      • rdopping

        @ginidietrich I’m just going to give up my trade secrets? For you sure. Shall I email you something?

  • See while you do have a healthy love of analytics and numbers, I have always thought you very creative, even before I knew about your colourful markers and jeans.

    • @RebeccaTodd Really? I guess I compare myself to my mom and my sister who are both off-the-charts creative. I’m average next to them.

      • @ginidietrich There are so many ways and means to express your creativity. While your blog posts may be non-fiction, your use of storytelling and language reveal your creativity.

  • Pingback: Creativity vs. Me-too Content Creation by @creativeoncall()

  • It is perfect time to
    make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I’ve read this
    post and if I could I desire to suggest you some interesting things or
    suggestions. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article.
    I want to read more things about it !
    2 latest blog post: ,

  • Pingback: How Film and TV Jobs Prepared Me for PR | Little Giant Life()