What’s the problem with PR – technique or creativity?

Poor technique is easy to fix. Creativity is more of a problem.

I sometimes get asked for advice by PR practitioners who’ve been unsuccessfully pitching a weak idea. They want to know, for example, if they should have rung journalists more times to encourage them to use their press release.

Now, wanting to polish their technique is good. After all, too many PR practitioners simply blame journalists. They believe that their successes are failures in PR are down the random moods of the media – in other words, luck. So I welcome the question.

But the truth is that a really strong idea will tend to get coverage even with weak technique. A bad idea that’s promoted perfectly to a media outlet will always fail to get coverage.

A CEO told me that his ex-PR agency, a mid-sized one, had told him how they came up with ideas for his company’s press releases. The agency simply got him to comment on their other clients’ issues. This had the CEO talking in press releases about all sorts of irrelevant topics. It didn’t work: the PR campaign generated little coverage.

So can a lack of creativity be fixed? Well, not by a magic wand. Creativity requires knowledge, which provides a breeding ground for ideas to be born. It needs people to understand intimately the products they are promoting. To read or watch closely the media outlets in which the clients want coverage. To develop a strong general knowledge. And to study the great masters of public relations – such as Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays and Howard Gossage.

Why is knowledge so important? According to Jame Webb Young: “An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements”.

Steve Harrison, the former creative director of Harrison Troughton Wunderman, wrote a book on creativity, in which he said:

Be curious about the world around you. Read a different newspaper, drink in different bars, visit a new website a day, listen to a different radio station, eat at a different type of cafe or restaurant and book somewhere totally different next time you’re planning your holidays… and find out what makes people ‘tick’.

Amazingly, a university PR lecturer told me that none of his students ever read a newspaper. The brings up the question: how effective is someone going to be at creating stories if they don’t find news interesting?

Some PR people feel that because the internet has created a “long tail”, life can be easier. There is no need to worry about the gatekeepers of Big Media, with their supposedly indecipherable decision-making.

But this view is wrong, for two reasons. Firstly, big newspaper brands haven’t disappeared; instead, they’ve been creating huge global audiences online. Secondly, boring things don’t go viral.

Creativity is actually more important than it has even been, because people have shorter attention spans online than they did in print. Will the PR industry rise to the challenge? I don’t know, but those individual PR practitioners and agencies who place a proper emphasis on creativity will stand out.