How to build creative PR campaigns

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After working in creative marketing and digital PR/SEO for about eight years now, I’ve had to adapt to a range of different teams with different creative needs. So I’ve come up with lots of strategies for keeping the creative juices flowing.

How to come up with creative campaign ideas

I started out in my early career by landing a job at an SEO agency as a link builder. In the early days of the industry, you could outsmart search engines by buying links and PR placements by the bucketload, and Google would think people were naturally talking about your brand. I would actually class that first job as an ad buyer. On my first day, I was given a list of clients and a list of websites with prices, and I was told to negotiate my way to as many placements as possible.

It didn’t last long, as search engines got a lot smarter and the algorithm could easily spot the badly spun articles and the sites talking about topics that didn’t have anything to do with their niche. This meant that we had to get creative—and quickly—coming up with stories that journalists and websites would want to feature to get us those links.

Since then, I’ve worked my way up to be the head of a successful creative marketing agency. Over the years, I’ve worked with everyone from small clients that sell printed t-shirts, to heavyweights like Ralph Lauren and HelloFresh. So here are some ideas for bringing your creativity into PR, no matter your business.

Start with the brief

I’m not the first person to say it, but it’s worth repeating: boundaries can actually boost creativity.

That’s why it’s so important to always have a creative brief. Briefs can come in all shapes and sizes, but detail is important. Here are a few things that are key to include:

  • What message do you want to convey?

  • What kinds of campaigns have you done before? What’s worked and what hasn’t?

  • What topics do you need to avoid, based on your audience?

  • What events, holidays, or trends are coming up that you could work with?

  • What are people talking about in the press right now?

This will give you a real solid foundation and saves a lot of time and creative energy in both the idea generation and validation phases.

Chunk your ideas

When you’re coming up with ideas, chunking helps you connect dots you may have otherwise not connected. I’m a visual thinker, so I love to get a huge piece of paper and some colored pens, but you can do this kind of exercise with a mind mapping tool too.

There are three parts of chunking:

  • Chunking up is identifying a broader topic that your business is part of.

  • Chunking down is identifying a more narrow topic—one aspect of your business.

  • Chunk sideways is identifying something that relates to your business.

Say you’re an expensive flavored gin brand. Chunk up, and you have alcohol; chunk up again, and you have types of drinks. Chunk across, and you might have parties or fancy restaurants. After a while, you’ll have a map of potential topics that relate to your brand. You can mix and match them, connect them, find opposites, do whatever you can to get some great ideas out there. Just from doing that mini-exercise in my head: this brand could do some research on the popularity of certain types of drinks over the decades to create a story for press.

Chunking is also great because it helps you avoid judgmental brainstorming. Because you’re going up, down, and sideways, you’ll get all the bad ideas out there, making room for the good ones. (I find if you don’t get the bad ideas out, they linger in your brain and block the good ideas!)

Trust science

When you’re in the ideation stage, your state of being makes an incredible difference to both the quality and quantity of ideas. Hack your brain waves and force them to be more creative. Here are some articles that can give you science-backed ideas for brainstorming: everything from taking a walk to being sure you’re working with a diverse team.

Validate and enhance your ideas

You’ve used all of these techniques to create lots and lots of ideas: now what? The for you in future stage is to leverage other people to validate and enhance those ideas. This isn’t a novel idea—even big companies like Pixar do it. In PR, we call it the “pub test” or an idea development session. It helps you not get too caught up in your brain and hear different points of view—which is crucial, since diversity is a huge boon to creativity.

You don’t need a Pixar-style panel of bigwigs to get this right, though. You can get a bunch of your friends and family members together and run your ideas past them over a nice cold glass of something. Just be sure that you’re asking a diverse group of people and not just a bunch of folks who will tell you your ideas are all great.

During these sessions, go big on the tweaking. If you have a great idea that’s not quite there yet in the development session, work with your team to dance around it a bit. For example, what if I thought about it in the past or in the future? What if I made it bigger or smaller? What about comparing it to something? What about turning it completely upside down?

I heard a great example of this on a webinar. A PR campaign by a children’s outdoor adventure organization did a poll on the average time children spend outdoors. A pretty simple idea, and relatively interesting. But it didn’t really kick off until they compared these figures with the amount of time prison inmates spent outdoors and found that the inmates fared better. Good idea, enhanced to be an incredible one.

Pick one idea to start

You can’t follow every lead, so which idea do you go with? I’m a PR consultant, so my clients get the final say, but here are some tips I have based on that experience:

  • Start by narrowing it down to three ideas, and then work with your team to pick one. Too many ideas can be overwhelming, so narrow it down before doing a deeper dive to pick one.

  • Of those three, make sure one is relatively safe and one is relatively innovative. That will help you be sure you’re not defaulting to one type or the other without really considering the alternatives.

  • Make sure you have a sense of how each of your top ideas would work. What would it look like? What are your ideal headlines? Where might you land press? You might even mock up pictures of publications writing about your story to give you a sense of how it would feel.

Now go launch your campaign: see what works and what doesn’t, and then be ready to get those juices flowing again.

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