Creativity in Public Relations…& beyond

[I wrote a version of this post which was originally published in the Mount Saint Vincent PR students’ online publication Symmetry.]

Colorful CrayonsYou’d probably be surprised to know that Albert Einstein didn’t necessarily value knowledge above everything else.  He is often quoted as having opined:

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.  Imagination is more important than knowledge.   Knowledge is limited.  Imagination encircles the world.”

If Einstein valued imagination, which is the precursor to creativity, then why is it that when people in public relations or other areas of public communication think of creativity, they immediately think of the traditional “creatives” who are part of their team?  They think of the designers and other visual artists.   A healthy respect for the creative aspects of our strategic work can only result in more successful communication campaigns.

In the only book on Creativity in Public Relations, author Andy Green points out that public relations professionals today are offered millions of dollars world-wide to develop and implement creative public relations strategies – innovative and fresh solutions to communications challenges.[1]  However, there is almost no literature on the topic of creativity in public relations (except for Green’s book).

In addition, it appears that there is growing understanding  that “creativity” is one of the key behavioral competencies expected of PR practitioners by the industry. Planning, writing and evaluation are – not surprisingly – usually the top technical competencies expected.  However, I hear from employers more and more frequently that they are looking for other behavioral competencies in their new hires.  They’re looking for well-developed interpersonal communication skills, a bit of strategic business sense and – you guessed it – creativity.

Creativity, then, seems to be an important key to success in the professional practice of PR.  The question is: how do you cultivate it?

About eight years ago, I had a creative brain wave (actually, I have these brain waves almost every day, but I don’t necessarily follow up on all of them).  That brain wave resulted in me developing a senior seminar for BPR students on the topic of “Creativity in Public Relations.”  Through a series of eight interconnected workshops, we explored our own creativity and then learned to mine this part of ourselves to come up with new and innovative ways of approaching traditional public relations challenges.  Creative approaches are for strategy development just as much as they are for the visual design of an organization’s online presence for example.

I have to say that this was one of the most fulfilling courses I had ever taught since I came to MSVU in 1989 to teach writing.  I had the opportunity to share with students some of the ideas from writers whose work I had cherished all throughout my own career as a writer, professional communication strategist and university professor.  What I found out was that my students are a very creative bunch.  When asked what they’d be doing if they weren’t studying PR and could do anything they wanted to do, apart from travelling the world (which in itself contributes to creativity), the majority of the students suggested that they’d be actors, singers, dancers, painters, writers.  You get the picture.

I know that there is a tremendous vein of creativity that runs through the PR and communication students.  I only hope that this doesn’t get lost in the educational and work world.

Maybe it’s time to connect the dots between your personal creativity (or the need to develop it further) with the challenges and activities that are part of a career in communications.

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been more than 20 years since writer Julia Cameron published a book called The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity which became the seminal work for a renaissance of interest in developing creativity.  She introduces her work this way: “No matter what your age or your life path, whether making art is your career or your hobby or your dream, it is not too late or too egotistical or too silly to work on your creativity.” [2]

Over the years I’ve developed my own rules of thumb for creativity.

Here are my eight key characteristics of creative public relations (and other) professionals…

  1. Creative people believe in their personal creativity.
  2. Creative people are prepared to create at any time.
  3. Creative people pay attention.
  4. Creative people have broad interests.
  5. Creative people make time and space in their lives for creativity.
  6. Creative people remember what it was like to be a kid.
  7. Creative people are tenacious.
  8. Creative people are willing to take risks.

And, make no mistake…creativity can be learned.

 

[1] Green, Andy.  2001.  Creativity in public relations. 2nd ed.  London: Kogan Page.

[2] Cameron, Julia.  1992.  The artist’s way: A spiritual path to higher creativity.  New York: Tarcher, p. xxii.

The juggling act – PR professionals as the organizational conscience

by Jessica Bruce

[This is the final article in a series of twelve guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of their graduate programs.]

juggling

As I begin my career in the public relations (PR)  industry; I find it discouraging to think that the apparent general public consensus is that PR professionals are incapable of making ethical decisions. When I tell someone that I am completing my Masters in PR, they are quick to respond, “You mean your Masters in spin?”

That society is generally skeptical of the behavior of PR professionals, and the subsequent lack of trust in public relations practices seems to be a consistent and on-going issue for our profession. The negative stereotype is that practitioners are unable or unwilling to perform what is often suggested as the dual role of both personal professional, and organizational conscience, and that the former outweighs the latter for most PR pros.

One industry leader, John Palushki has urged PR professionals to not only take charge of their dual role, but to facilitate the acceptance of these roles in the organization.  To use the wise words of Barak Obama (likely based on the words of Nelson Mandela[1]): “If not now, when? If not us, who?”[2]

This is a noble thought, but the road to ethical decision making is not an easy one for any professional, especially amidst competing priorities. To fulfill the duties as the conscience of an organization, one needs to be able to address any ethical mole hills before they become mountains. However, this is where simplicity becomes complexity and as professionals, we have more people to answer to beyond the general public – A.K.A The Boss. And therein is the dilemma that all people face: to do the right thing, or to do what you’re told.

Managing these competing roles is a daunting task, but fostering a culture of consciousness can ultimately protect your organization from needing to deal with potential ethical issues that may arise. An extreme example of the difficulty in accomplishing this can be found in the current Rob Ford situation: although many Chiefs’ of Staff and PR representatives recognized the potential ethical issues related to how the Mayor of Toronto operated, it appears many of them defaulted to the “do what your told” line of thought (most likely, however, following many attempts at fostering the other side of the coin, but not being able to create shift in organizational thought, with a resultant loss of confidence of colleagues and the public). For professionals who balance this dual position, research suggests that individuals have a broadened conception of their roles and responsibilities, including an eager duty to public interest.

If this is the case, then why are PR professionals not first-round picks for the position of ethical decision maker for most organizations?

The problem lies with the fact that most believe that the PR profession is built on simply acting in best interests of the organization (which is generally associated with ensuring financial performance) and neglecting an important constituency – the public. But are PR professionals unjustly getting a bad rap?

In a study conducted by Neil and Drumright reported in 2012 to understand the behaviors and decision making patterns of PR professionals as the organizational conscience found that PR professionals were very qualified and capable of providing ethics counsel on issues.[3] These issues extended far beyond PR responsibilities including such issues as security breaches & issues in human resources.

So, we’re capable – that’s reassuring. But how are we going to change the minds of the skeptical masses?

Statements like the “power for change is in the hands of the youth,” and “you can’t teach old dog’s new tricks” are oft- used clichés, yet speak to fact that changes in mass perception take time. Studies examining the education of apprentice PR specialists in ethics reveal that ethical instruction correlates with ethical awareness; graduate students demonstrated that those who were exposed to ethical education were more likely to; highly value ethics, identify ethical issues, and to have discussed unethical practices with other professionals.[4]

It seems like we’re on the right path: the notion that we are creating more ethically sound graduates suggests that one day we may live in a world where reliable ethical decision making and PR become an assumed or expected combination.

I do think we can change. As the research suggests, attempts are being made to equip our future practitioners with the guidelines and tools for effective, and most importantly; ethical decision making. Fulfilling the dual role as both PR professional and organizational conscience is not simply a fantasy, but a reality. Ethical education seems to be a strong indicator that as PR practitioners, we stand a chance of changing the dated stigma that, PR and ethics make for an unfavorable cocktail.

As Nelson Mandela famously put it: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Jessica Bruce is currently completing the last leg of her Master of Public Relations (MPR) at Mount Saint Vincent University. She hails from a small town in Prince Edward Island where she acquired her love for the beach, salt air, ocean views and most importantly, potatoes!


[1] Mandela, N. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nelsonmandelas.com/mandela-quotes.php

[3] Marlene S. Neill & Minette E. Drumwright (2012) PR Professionals as Organizational Conscience, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 27:4, 220-234, DOI: 10.1080/08900523.2012.746108

[4] ] Gale, K & Bunton, K. (2005). Assessing the impact of ethics instruction on advertising and public relations graduates. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 60(3), 272-285.