People often ask how agencies come up with great ideas for public relations campaigns. Agency teams will answer this question differently owing to their unique sector experience and orientation, but there are commonalities. We have culled a top ten list of do’s and don’ts to help foster successful idea generation from some of the best brains in the business. We’re basing success on a few factors; our criteria include ideas that are on strategy, cost-effective, and attractive to media.
Sometimes the process can be daunting but it doesn’t have to be. Feeling creative? Let’s get started.
Do keep up on trends. Any successful PR person knows how vital it is to be on top of “what’s hot and what’s not,” and life in a 24/7 news cycle means that list changes and morphs on a dime. Remember Vine? The social platform for video-sharing was touted as the next big thing, until it wasn’t. Social media users are a fickle crowd, often more loyal to influencers than platforms. So it really pays to know where influencers are going next. Looks like Facebook may be a winner here, as it recently snatched Snapchat’s most popular features like filters and stories. To help keep current, check out sites like Trend Hunter — full of fun, new news on all topics. It also helps to track important industry verticals and follow the most relevant journalists on Twitter. It may seem like a full-time job to stay on top of trends but the time investment is definitely worth it.
Don’t auto-brainstorm. In a recent conversation with agency peers, a dirty little secret was revealed. The best ideas do not always come from brainstorms. In routine sessions participants may come unprepared or be reluctant to share, relying on others to do the heavy creative lifting. The meetings can be major time-sucks that result in little usable input. We offer two strategies that seem to work better in producing solid ideas. First, stick to small meetings of just a couple of people who know the account. This saves time getting up to speed and team members have more of a vested interest in developing a great idea. While it may be argued that “out-of-the-box” thinking comes from those not associated with the account, we find that is seldom the case. We also like asking team members to submit quick ideas through email or group chat. When the task is perceived as low-pressure, the responses are often more interesting. An attention-getting idea for a 3-D printing client came to us this way. In the lead-up to the Super Bowl, our team learned a 3-D printed brace was used in practice by an injured football player. Gambling on the possibility of a sidebar segment on player rehab technology, we put together a story pitch with strong visuals to help sports and tech press fill the airtime leading up to the game. The player in question ended up wearing the brace on game day and the media response earned us major points.
Do as much research as you can, and then do some more. Like any investment, it makes sense to analyze the pros and cons of a program idea before putting it into motion. It’s helpful to look for quantifiable past experience to help determine whether an initiative will fly. Another component is media response. We maintain relationships with journalists of all stripes, and that often affords the opportunity to run something by them for an unscientific, yet honest, assessment. Most important to determine is whether an idea will be meaningful to the target audience and affect behavior. Ideally, research should include persona mapping to develop a detailed profile of the people to be reached. Persona mapping takes all the demographic and psychographic characteristics involved to shape a profile that will help the team understand a target’s emotional drivers, needs, concerns and requirements. Once their behavior is better understood, proposed ideas can be more easily accepted or rejected.
Don’t be afraid to trot out the tried and true. In B2C PR, the tried and true tactics are often smart to pursue. These include celebrations of the biggest, fastest, smallest or (insert hyperbolic adjective.) Stories like that of the “world’s most expensive taco” crop up daily, and media never tire of them. The category can also include tactics that always deliver when well executed, like consumer surveys on hot topics from parenting to politics. In B2B PR, a strong point of view on an industry problem, a compelling vision for the future, or a prediction can be winning thought leadership ideas, with the right packaging. It comes down to knowing what media need and respond to, and following your instincts for a good story.
Do work backward. There’s a very smart exercise to be done when floating an idea internally. Gather the troops and look at the idea as if it’s already been implemented. Take stabs at writing up the dream media results and crafting the headlines that would spell success. If the idea can survive and thrive under this agency “stress test,” you may have hit paydirt. If it withers under this kind of scrutiny, it’s back to the drawing board. This exercise has helped our team rework plans, improve messaging and manage expectations for initiatives including panel discussions, surveys and blogger events.
Don’t let budgets hamstring your thinking. We’ve all been there. The PR team has come up with a spot-on idea that’s innovative and a surefire hit with media. But the price tag is too high. No one wants to see a good idea die, so a common strategy is to create a case for the idea and work to sell it in. Some ways to build that case include determining a realistic ROI on the initiative. For example, our team has sold in panel discussions and conference appearances by calculating the expected media coverage as well as placement of post-event thought leadership pieces. It’s also effective to calculate some of the fuzzier outcomes, like new relationships and ongoing goodwill with potential customers and influencers. Recommending a pilot program to test the concept on a smaller scale first can also help a client ease into a bigger budget conversation.
Do go through the calendar for inspiration. Each time we begin work on a new business assignment, someone is charged with determining upcoming red-letter dates for the company. A company anniversary, for example, can be a slam-dunk for industry press. But there are other reasons to consult the calendar. In addition to the annual holidays traditionally covered by media, there are the offbeat holidays from “Talk Like Shakespeare Day” to “World Sauntering Day” – whatever that is – that can occasionally offer opportunities for shared content or trending topic inspiration. In addition to annual time periods like back-to-school and summer vacation, look at popular awards shows, annual sports events or other important pop culture milestones. We like the way AMC is commemorating Gus Fring’s upcoming appearance on the AMC hit “Better Call Saul.” Also helpful? Look for moments with pop culture relevance to tie into such as Fashion Week or the annual release of the Pantone colors. Got any ideas for the color green?
Don’t try to stick a square peg in a round hole. In other words, don’t fall so in love with an idea that you try to force it to fit. Once the team has established workable criteria and proof points for what makes a successful concept, look for ideas that mesh well. And be sure to counsel clients that become enamored of ideas that miss the mark strategically and as media-grabbers. Recently a client with a security device contemplated staging an assault or pickpocketing at a trade show to drum up attention for its product. The team felt such an event would not show the device in its best light and could potentially backfire. We explained the downside of such a stunt and moved on to a more executable idea. But don’t throw out an idea just because it doesn’t work this time. Start a Pinterest or other file of good PR ideas and look at it often.
Do know that you don’t always need a Big Idea. Sometimes a smaller one can produce huge results. Just this week, United Airlines removed two young female passengers traveling on employee passes. The reason? Leggings, which were deemed inappropriate for employee relatives to wear while traveling on the airline. The story blew up, of course. And that was when the eagle-eyed Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing, tweeted a simple offer and struck PR gold. Puma put out the call for anyone with a United Airlines ticket to visit a Puma store and receive 20% off a pair of leggings. Simple, smart, and effective. The offer landed Puma in the fashion pages of the New York Times with a huge photo prominently featuring the brand logo. All this even though the brand had no new product offering or any news at all. Just a bit of positive newsjacking.
Do ask yourself “what would a journalist say?” We have touched on the importance of media buy-in, but it bears repeating. Whether it’s a story pitch, new product launch or other initiative, the PR strategist must think like a journalist. Start by determining how newsworthy the idea is by answering the following:
- Timing: why this story at this time?
- Significance: what does this story mean to my readers? Will it help or inform them?
- Proximity: is the topic close enough to readers for it to pique their attention?
- Human interest: does the article appeal to readers’ emotions?
Finally, be honest, use facts and figures, give clear industry insights with some sources and tell a story with a compelling beginning, middle, and end. And if you’re stuck for inspiration, remember this quote from John Steinbeck, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”