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Unit 4: Understanding the creative process to generate ideas
The importance
of creativity to the
PR profession
Creativity is sometimes described as the life blood of public relations. It is
often at the core of big programmes, it wins awards for top practitioners and
clients are invariably on the lookout for the consultancies and individuals with
a creative reputation.
But creativity means different things to different people, and its reach can be
wider and more varied than we might expect. It can be used by people in all
types of organisations and industries.
There are a few big questions for anyone starting out in PR: What does it take
to be a creative thinker? Have I got creativity within me? Can creative thinking
be learned? We start by seeking answers to these and other questions before
we embark on the actual process of getting creative.
Unit 4: Understanding the creative process to generate ideas
1 The purpose of creative thinking
The purpose of creative thinking is to generate ideas and solve problems. It can
be used by individuals or teams, in all types of organisations and in all areas of an
Despite the diverse use of creative thinking and its purpose in idea generation and
problem solving, there is often a preconception in public relations that creativity is
just for the ‘promotional’ side of the profession. However, it has an important role
to play throughout PR.
Promotional activity
Promotional activity is the most familiar context for creativity. Product launches,
photo calls, events, announcements and many other promotional activities can be
made to stand out more and have greater appeal to their target audiences and the
media if a degree of creative thinking has been applied.
If the person, product or organisation you are promoting is intrinsically
newsworthy there may be no need for creativity. A simple announcement may
attract the media and all the attention that is required. Generally speaking
though, only A-list celebrities, heads of state and the subjects of a scandal fall
into this category. Everyone else needs to compete for attention, so their PR
representatives come up with original ways to be photographed, quirky news
angles and associations with celebrities.
Throughout PR and communication
Promotional activity aside, creativity has a role to play in many other areas of
PR including strategy, internal communication, nurturing client and media
relationships and even crisis management.
The development of a communication strategy and the methods you could use
to beat the competition could be likened to creating a battle plan. Many famous
battles have been won using tactics not previously imagined. Victory at the Battle
of Trafalgar, for instance, is attributed in part to Nelson’s creative thinking in his
departure from prevailing and orthodox naval tactics.
Creativity also plays an important role in the success of some large companies.
For example, supermarket chains use imaginative incentive schemes to invigorate
staff, making them feel like ambassadors for the store and getting customers
talking about the effects. While a crisis is clearly not the time for the most ‘wacky’
ideas that can result from creative thinking, crises nevertheless need the creative
thinker’s skills for anticipating media reaction, distilling information and having
empathy for those affected, in order to contain and control the situation.
4.1: The importance of creativity to the PR profession
Unit 4: Understanding the creative process to generate ideas
Beyond PR and communication
By embracing the benefits of creative thinking you soon realise how useful it can
be elsewhere in business, be it for new business opportunities, modifications and
improvements to products and services, career advancement and even areas such
as cost control. As an example, take the UK estate agency who took on a large
fleet of distinctive Minis to replace existing company cars. The move was a clever
use of the company’s advertising budget, but is rumoured to have originated in
the finance department. The new Mini was a premium-but-not-too-costly car that
could reduce costs while standing out from the crowd in their neighbourhoods –
especially once a special paint job was applied.
PR apart, all parts of a business need to be able to generate new ideas in order to
stay ahead. As Lord Saatchi, founder of legendary advertising agency Saatchi &
Saatchi said: ‘Creative thinking is the last legal way to secure an unfair advantage’.
2 Being creative
Anyone can be creative and creativity can certainly be learned, but to be a
successful creative thinker you need to accept that:
•• creative thinking is difficult
•• creative thinking is hard work
•• a variety of social factors can act as barriers to creativity.
Creative thinking is difficult
Creative thinking can be difficult because often, when we start to focus on a
specific topic, our brains tell us what we already know about that topic. The
problem can be compounded by the fact that we are predisposed to shut out
information that doesn’t fit our preconceptions. This reaction can be explained
by a basic defence mechanism that means when we take in information our brain
scans against memories so that we can act appropriately and quickly; for instance,
we know to run for our lives if we identify a dangerous predator. The trouble is that
this mechanism tends to automatically block out the fresh, different thoughts that
we need in order to generate new ideas.
Cognitive aspects of creative thinking
There are two main cognitive aspects of creative thinking.
First and most commonly, is the theory of ‘left brain’ thinking and ‘right brain’
thinking, which stems from the work of Nobel Prize winner Professor Roger Sperry.
His ‘split brain’ research in the late 1950s identified that the left side of the brain is
responsible for logical, rational and controlling aspects of our thinking. The right
side, meanwhile, was said to control our inspirational and creative thoughts. It
is assumed that many creative people who choose to work as artists, musicians
and so-called creative ‘types’ in advertising agencies and PR companies have a
more dominant right side to their brains. Meanwhile, people who choose to work
in occupations such as law and accountancy are thought to have the left side
4.1: The importance of creativity to the PR profession
Unit 4: Understanding the creative process to generate ideas
predominate. Great advances are currently being made in neuroscience, with the
result that this interpretation looks increasingly simplistic. Many contradictions are
also emerging.
Second, is the concept of ‘multiple intelligences’, introduced by Howard Gardner
in the early 1980s. Gardner argued that the traditional view of intelligence
measured by IQ tests that centred mainly on logical and mathematical thinking
was misleading. Gardner identified eight different types of intelligence, shown in
Figure 4.1.1.
Figure 4.1.1: Multiple intelligences
Types of
Gardner believes that we usually have a preference for using one or two of these
intelligences, but that we can develop our abilities in all the others.
Drawing on both Sperry’s and Gardner’s theories, we can reach the following
conclusions with regard to creative thinking:
•• We need to use both sides of our brain to complete the creative process. The
right side is required when generating ideas (while simultaneously blocking
out thoughts coming from the left). The left is then required to process and
analyse those ideas.
•• A mix of different people with strengths in different areas of intelligence will
complement each other when contributing to the creative thinking process
because they can stimulate and help develop different intelligences in each
•• Different brainstorming methods are likely to be suited to different types of
intelligence. Individuals may have distinct preferred choices.
We all have creativity within us
While some people are inclined towards left-brain thinking, we all have creativity
within us. Disciplined use of creative thinking techniques allows everyone to
generate ideas. Think about children when they first start school – they are
probably fearless in their creativity as they set about painting pictures, making
models and playing make-believe games. However, as they progress through
school, the syllabus often becomes more restrictive and their creativity can be
limited. This limiting of creativity can be reinforced later in life, particularly in the
workplace. However, even the sort of people who shrink from a creative challenge
saying ‘I’m just not the creative type’ probably spend time and effort developing
skills, expertise and passion in a particular area, and it is these qualities that are
required to develop creative skills.
4.1: The importance of creativity to the PR profession
Unit 4: Understanding the creative process to generate ideas
Creative thinking is hard work
Creative thinking requires effort. Thomas Edison famously said that his inventions
could be attributed to ‘one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration’.
Creativity also requires time. To generate and develop great ideas you need to
invest time. For example, it typically takes a year to write a new series of a TV show.
During this time, writers will cast aside much of what they write in order to create
a decent script.
You need to generate lots of ideas if you are to end up with enough useable
material. Coming up with the raw ideas – however valuable they might be – is only
the first stage in the process as a lot of development work is required to refine
each idea.
How social factors affect creativity
There a number of social factors that can inhibit creativity. These factors are set out
in the following section.
General ignorance of creative thinking techniques and their importance is the first
and most common barrier to creative thinking. Many people have had little or no
training in creative thinking, imagining that they know how to do it instinctively.
However, they may have developed bad habits that could conspire against the
generation of good ideas.
Prejudice against creative thinking sessions
Key terms
Lateral thinking – a form of
brainstorming designed to force you
to approach your challenge from
completely different perspectives
and so generate ideas that would
probably never have occurred to you
Thinking outside the box –
another term for lateral thinking.
Brainstorming – the generally
accepted term for generating ideas,
sometimes called a thought shower.
Some people have a prejudice against creative thinking sessions, which may be
influenced by previous bad experiences. The misconception that creative thinking
is all about lateral thinking (or thinking outside the box) is a big contributor to
prejudices, not least because it seems to trivialise the process and easily gets out
of control if not facilitated by an expert.
Examples of rather crass (and ineffective) creative thinking ‘techniques’ and tools
•• a PR company who acquired a dressing up box
•• a marketing executive who took a ball to a meeting and instructed staff
to throw it around the room at random and whoever got hit had to say
•• a council that, when running out of money, issued its staff with baseball caps
emblazoned with the words ‘Thinking Cap’ and a toy that generated random
words. Staff were instructed to ‘use these to develop ideas for saving money’.
Lateral thinking has an important part to play within the creative process, but
you need to know how and when to use it. Within a properly structured process,
unusual exercises and props can have a place but require an expert facilitator to
control their use and plenty of time available to use them.
The important thing to remember is that bad brainstorming is much worse than
no brainstorming.
4.1: The importance of creativity to the PR profession
Unit 4: Understanding the creative process to generate ideas
Fear of new ideas
Some people have an active fear of new ideas. Change is often trumpeted as a big,
exciting, fresh start, but the reality is that many people are wary of change and feel
more comfortable with the status quo, even if they find it a little unsatisfactory.
The same applies to new ideas.
Need for perfection
Key term
Beta testing – the interim stage
of testing that software products go
through. At the beta test stage the
product will still have bugs, but the
release of the product to a limited
number of users allows these bugs to
be spotted and ironed out.
Some people have a need for perfection and find it very difficult to work with a
concept until it is fully formed. New ideas, however, require experimentation and
evolution, so this need for perfection can hinder their development. People must
understand that all new ideas require what the technically-minded might call
beta testing.
Organisational culture
The culture of an organisation can hinder its employees’ ability to draw on creative
processes in the workplace. Creative thinking is a useful skill for all employees,
not just those people whose job title defines them as creative. Encouraging and
supporting creative thinking will help all staff to solve problems, generate new
ways of working and ensure that new ideas come from all areas of an organisation,
not just the creative teams.
Ownership issues
Ownership issues can plague good creative thinking within an organisation.
People can be unwilling to adopt ideas created by others who they may see as a
threat. ‘Not invented here syndrome’ is another name for this phenomenon and
special strategies should be built into the creative process to avoid such problems.
As in life, stress can work both for and against the creative thinker. A calm, relaxed
and friendly atmosphere will usually support the generation and development of
ideas and is best achieved with a structured and disciplined approach.
However, some people thrive on stress and enjoy the challenge of a looming
deadline. Such people can be invaluable when crisis situations arise.
Inexperience or a lack of confidence can make it difficult for people to speak up in
creative thinking sessions. To encourage and support such people it is important
to apply and enforce the rules of brainstorming outlined in Topic Guide 4.2.
Group dynamics
Group dynamics may sometimes inhibit creativity if a few people are allowed to
dominate meetings. Ideas generated will soon start to feel ‘samey’ and others,
who may already lack confidence, will be afraid to speak up. The negative aspects
of a group dynamic can be minimised by following a structured and disciplined
creative thinking approach.
4.1: The importance of creativity to the PR profession
Unit 4: Understanding the creative process to generate ideas
Original ideas can be hard to sell
A truly original idea may be difficult to ‘sell’ to others simply because there is
nothing with which they can compare it. Even groundbreaking inventions, such
as the telephone, took a while to become universally understood and accepted.
Remember what Albert Einstein said: ‘If at first an idea does not seem absurd, then
there is no hope for it’.
Personal attributes for innovation
We have established that anyone can be creative and contribute to the creative
process. However, there are a few personal attributes that will help contribute to
success. These can be summarised as follows:
•• an open-minded attitude
•• a thirst for new experiences
•• an appetite for new and different media.
Some people will need to work harder to develop and maintain these attributes
than others.
Think about the personal attributes for creative thinking and apply them first to
yourself, then to your colleagues and other people you know. Who do you think
would make naturally good brainstormers?
Choosing your team
How you organise your creative team can have a significant effect on the results,
so it is important to consider it carefully.
A limit on the size of the team is important. As a rough guide, six people is a good
number as it is large enough to enable a variety of different minds and small
enough for everyone to be actively involved. Some people fall into the trap of
inviting anyone who might be around to take part, but this usually makes for an
unruly and unmanageable group and you end up having the ‘proper’ meeting later
You should aim for a good mix of not too like-minded people, and consider
•• a member of the audience you are targeting; for example, if you are
generating ideas for a nappy manufacturer, then seek the involvement of a
young parent or two
•• ‘non-experts’ – someone who is not a PR or marketing person who can add a
very useful sense of reality and force you to cut out the jargon
•• people with their finger on the pulse who know the latest in retail, films,
music, fashion, social media and so on.
4.1: The importance of creativity to the PR profession
Unit 4: Understanding the creative process to generate ideas
Above all you need your team to feel selected and valued. An email invitation such
as the one shown in Figure 4.1.2 may result in the meeting being perceived as
low priority. A much better approach is to decide who you believe would make
a useful contribution, invite those people individually and explain why you are
specifically seeking their input. They will feel selected and valued and understand
the specific role they should play.
Figure 4.1.2: Example of an
unsuitable email invitation
Re: Meeting
To: [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected];
[email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Hi guys,
Can anyone make it tomorrow night?
We’ll start about 6pm or as soon as Gary gets back from his
meeting. We’ll get some pizza in if it goes on too long…
Where to hold the meeting
One useful tip for any meeting venue
is to go for one that has plenty
of natural light. Nothing saps the
energy of a room more than a lack of
Two issues tend to be debated here.
1 The need for a ‘creative environment’. Some PR and advertising agencies set
aside a special room for creative thinking. They may be given names such as
‘the tree house’ or ‘the bat cave’ and can be furnished differently from a normal
office. However, this sort of dedicated space is not essential to the creative
process. A normal boardroom can be used just as effectively.
2 The issue of whether to hold a meeting on or off site. Provided that the session
is free from distractions it is not necessary to leave the office. However, in
some circumstances it may need to be held off site.
When to hold your meeting
There are no hard and fast rules, but early in the morning may be ideal as people
are fresh and, from a practical point of view, you will not be waiting for anyone to
return form other meetings. Holding the meeting during office hours also shows
proper respect for the project as it is not being squeezed in around other work
that is perceived as more important.
Essential equipment for your meeting
To run a creative thinking session you need:
•• a flip chart, or ideally two, with plenty of paper
•• different coloured pens
•• Blu-tack® – so that you can paper the walls with your thoughts and ideas.
4.1: The importance of creativity to the PR profession
Unit 4: Understanding the creative process to generate ideas
We shall look later at other useful items, including:
•• no criticism device
•• lateral thinking prompts
•• bank of case histories
•• coloured hats for evaluation purposes.
As a general rule, steer clear of anything involving technology. If you start doing
web searches as part of the process everyone’s brains soon slip into standby mode
and the energy ebbs away very quickly. Also, be rather strict about switching off
any personal mobile devices.
Imagine a topic you need to brainstorm and consider:
•• who you would invite to your session and why
•• how you would invite them to ensure acceptance
•• where and when you would run the session.
Produced by Pearson on behalf of the
Skills Funding Agency.
The publisher would like to thank the
following for their kind permission to
reproduce images: Monalyn Gracia/
Plainpicture Ltd.
Further reading
Gardner, H. (2011) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (3rd edition),
New York: Basic Books.
Hall, R. (2009) Brilliant Business Creativity, Harlow: Pearson.
Stewart, D. and Simmons, M. (2010) The Business Playground, London: Prentice Hall.
4.1: The importance of creativity to the PR profession