Monday, February 15, 2010


Chapter 37 in The Handbook of Strategic Public Relations and Integration, Clark Caywood, ed., New York: McGraw Hill, 1997


Behind every good public relations campaign is a "Big Idea," the creative concept that makes the message attention getting and memorable. Creative thinking that produces Big Ideas is important in public relations because PR messages have to break through the clutter of a busy media environment and impact on their targeted audience's opinions and attitudes. These creative concepts have to solve communication problems in an original way and be interesting enough that they captivate the minds of the target audience.

An example of a Big idea that captivated its audience is Snapple's Letters campaign, an idea created by the PR department at Kirschenbaum & Bond. The phenomenon behind this Big Idea is that people want ownership of Snapple and they are willing to write to the company about their relationship with this drink. The first unsolicited letters related how the writers feel--that they discovered it, they want to own it, and they are driven to share the news with others.

The letters gave the agency an idea for a campaign based on a Snapple employee named Wendy who receives the letters, reads them, and responds to them. The campaign features real letters from real people who have tried the beverage and love it. The television production crews travel to these people's home towns and film them there--a technique which could backfire when you put untrained performers on camera, or could be a stroke of genius if they project an infectious enthusiasm, as has happened. The filming also becomes a publicity event at the local level because the company involves the community in the release of the commercials. This incredible relationship evolved to the point that Snapple eventually was receiving some 20 boxes of letters a month.


Big ideas are designed to solve communication problems. If they are not strategic then they are not Big Ideas, but rather just random thoughts. There are two keys to effective public relations ideas: the first is that they must be inherently interesting and the second is that there must be some logical connection between the great idea and the organization's communication objectives. PRSA's Silver Anvil awards and inside PR's CIPRA (Creativity in Public Relations Award) are given to public relations programs that have successfully addressed some issue both strategically and creativity. Some of the winners will be used here to illustrate different aspects of Big Ideas.

The communicator's mission is to stage the Big Idea, to find an exciting new way of presenting an idea in order to communicate a persuasive message that in its strategic language may sound like a dull piece of business writin. Finding the brilliant creative concept involves what some experts have called "The Creative Leap." The difference between the dull business language and the Big Idea represents the "leap." Strategy statements are often outlines or platforms for in-house discussion and agreement--not messages that will persuade people about something and captivate their minds.

An example of a Big Idea that is on strategy is the PRSA Silver Anvil award winning celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Oscar Mayer Wiener jingle. Oscar Mayer and Ketchum Public Relations/Chicago threw a party for the song. Strategically the objective was to celebrate the jingle's position in American popular culture and strengthen the company's position as the favorite U.S. hot dog producer. When stopped on the street for an informal survey, consumers were asked to sing the jingle and the tremendous level of response and recognition was the basis for the celebration.

A musical media kit was produced which included a chip with a recording of the jingle along with biographical information on the jingle's composer and his small daughter, who sang the jingle in the first commercial 1963. A company wide employee party was held, along with a satellite media tour with the jingle's composer for TV stations in key markets. Generic sound bites were also taped at the party for inclusion in a short videotape which also included the shots of people on the street singing the jingle and a selection of the more memorable commercials featuring the jingle. The effort gained almost 29 million media impressions through more than 550 television and radio placements. But more importantly, each one reinforced Oscar Mayer's position as the leader in hot dogs.

What Makes an Idea Creative?

To come up with a Big Idea, communicators have to move beyond the safety of strategy statements and the traditional way of doing things and leap into the world of the untried and unknown. Once the Big Idea has been captured and successfully executed, it often appears simple--the obvious solution to the communication problem. But that's afterwards. New ideas when they are first being proposed are always risky.

Risk Crayola faced up to the risk of modifying a cultural icon when it "retired" eight of its traditional colors and replaced them with more vivid and contemporary colors that children liked better. To avoid an Old Coke/New Coke disaster, the Binney & Smith PR team established a Crayola Hall of Fame and inducted the old colors in a heavily publicized media ceremony which generated an average of 300 calls and letters concerning the "Crayola 8" each month from the media as well as Crayola afficionadas. The handling of the retirement party and the launch of the new colors won a CIPRA award in 1991. In an attempt to leverage the visibility, Binney & Smith decided to unretire the colors a year later and released them in a nostalgic "collectors series"tin. The relaunch of the colors was announced in a press conference and the media coverage generated almost 10,000 calls from consumers wanting to buy the commemorative tin. The low-budget $35,000 campaign, not only won a second CIPRA award, it eclipsed the previous year's effort which had impacted on sales more dramatically than any other promotion effort in Crayola's 88 colorful years.

Relevance Most public relations programs attempt to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. The goal is persuasion that results in some kind of impact on opinions. To have impact on attitudes, however, ideas have to have relevance, in other words, they have to mean something to the target audience. So relevance is an important part of the Big Idea in public relations.

Visa U.S.A. working with Lucas Arts Entertainment Company, developed a high-tech learning module for students called "Choices and Decisions: Taking Charge of Your Life.TM" This highly relevant effort for students to help them learn fundamental financial management skills was designed with the consultation of respected educators to help students manage their finances wisely. in keeping with their media lifestyles, students play interactive video-type games in which they help on-screen characters make tough financial choices. The company also held demonstrations and training sessions for educators, consumer groups, and member financial institutions who were trained to introduce the program locally. At the time of the PRSA award, the program was in use in nearly 10,000 U.S. high schools.

Impact To be creative, a relevant idea must also have impact. Many mass communication messages just "wash over" the audience because they are so common, so obvious, or so expected. A message with impact can break through the screen of indifference and focus the audience's attention of the message. It has the stopping power that comes from an intriguing idea; it stops you because it is something you have never thought of before. News is particularly good at stopping people as are messages with high emotional power.

The "Shot of Love" program sponsored by the Carter Center's Atlanta Project inspired low-income parents to have their preschool children vaccinated. Begun by former President Jimmy Carter to address the problems facing Atlanta's poorest communities, the initiative included a neighbor-to-neighbor community walk-through to visit every household in the targeted areas to identify children under age five. Tools to inform the community included pro bono ads in local newspapers and minority publications as well as special inserts in telephone bills. The media campaign also include posters, billboards, and educational materials featuring the "Give Your Kids a Shot of Love" theme. The initiative was hailed by the CDC and national health experts as the most successful U.S. immunization program in history and much of the success has to done with the emotional power of the message.

Originality But most of all, in order to have impact the Big Idea has to be original, novel, fresh or unexpected in order to be captivating. Original means one of a kind. Any idea can seem creative if you have never thought of it before, but the essence of a really creative idea is that no one else has thought of it either. In classes on creative thinking, a teacher will typically ask students to come up with ideas about, for example, what you can buy with ten pennies. Some ideas--like penny candy--will appear on many people's lists. Those are the obvious and expected ideas. Original ideas are those that only one person thinks of--like a pay phone call in a small town in a rural area that has its own phone system.

An example of a really creative campaign was the "New Presidential Snack" campaign, another PRSA award winning program designed for the Almond Board of California by Ketchum Public Relations, San Francisco. Ketchum found out in 1992 that then President-elect Bill Clinton's personal chef had ordered more than 1,600 pounds of cinnamon-glazed almonds, a Clinton favorite, to be served at the official inaugural balls and special events. Ketchum quickly seized the opportunity to position almonds as the new presidential snack. A "First Snack" press release and media kit was distributed along with samples of the cinnamon-glazed almonds in a specially designed inaugural jar. KPR also produced a 90-second video news release featuring video clips of media stories about favorite snack foods of Presidents Bush, Reagan and Carter. California almonds received wide exposure reaching an estimated audience of 56.3 million with coverage on "NBC Nightly News, " CNN's "Headline News" and the "Today Show."


Supporting the Big Idea is the execution of the idea and these tactics also have to be handled creatively. The execution involves message design: how the idea is spun out into specific promotional materials such as press releases, brochures, posters, and special events. Every message offers an opportunity for the Big Idea to be showcased or fumbled. For Swiss Army Knives the Big Idea was the idea that the knife was the survival tool of the '90s. Madeline de Vries, president of New York based De Vries PR, explained that "once we had the concept, that was the standard we applied to everything we did." The "survival tool" angle became the hallmark of the knife.

Another example of how a Big Idea can be well executed is the PRSA Silver Anvil award winning special event by The Peanut Butter Advisory Board. The Peanut Butter Board found the small unincorporated town of Peanut PA and convinced the entire town to help stage and support the event which was called a Peanut Butter Lovers' Festival. In the execution of this idea, the festival featured the creation of the world's largest peanut butter and jelly sandwich totally assembled by the 140 residents. As a goodwill gesture, the $2 admission fee raised $1,800 for the local library and in a related school food drive the week before the event, more than 1,000 pounds of peanut butter were collected and donated to the local food bank. Every element of the execution reinforced the theme.

Visual/Verbal Synergy

The Big Idea may come to mind as a visual, a phrase, or a thought that uses both visual and verbal expression. If it begins as a phrase, the next step is to try to visualize what the concept looks like. If it begins as an image, the next step is to come up with words that express and reinforce what the visual is saying. The ideal concept is expressed simultaneously through both the visual and the verbal elements. Stephen Baker explains this synergy in noting the need in advertising for "writers who doodle and designers who scribble" in his book, A Systematic Approach to Advertising Creativity.

Using the tall ship HMS Rose as the focus of a special event planned by the American Plastics Council with Fleishman-Hillard in Washington D.C. to call attention to recycled plastics illustrates the powerful use of visual symbols, another Silver Anvil award winner. The Rose is outfitted with 13,000 square feet of sails woven from 126,000 recycled plastic soft drink bottles. To disseminate the message to legislators and the general public that plastics can be recycled and that the plastics industry supports recycling, the Rose sailed up the Potomac River and docked for a week of special events in Washington. On board were educational displays explaining the recycling process and the industry's commitment to recycling, as well as additional items made from recycled plastics. Two Connecticut legislators cosponsored a reception aboard the ship for members of Congress. Pirate maps distributed in recycled plastic bottles invited guests to the events with the suggestion that they bring the novel plastic bottle invitations back for recycling. Evaluation against baseline surveys showed that almost 60% of the influentials visiting the Rose changed their opinion in a positive way about the plastic industry's commitment to recycling.

Getting Ideas

How do people get big new ideas? There is a myth that certain people are naturally creative and they get Big Ideas by the bushelfull. Actually, creativity is a special form of problem solving; everyone is born with some talent and everyone can develop and improve their personal creative skills if they know what to think about and how to do it. James Adams little book, Conceptual Blockbusting, is a particularly good guide to this process.

But first let's consider the concept of an idea. An idea is a new combination of thoughts and, as James Webb Young explained in his book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, "the ability to make new combinations is heightened by an ability to see relationships." An idea, in other words, is a thought that is stimulated by placing two previously unrelated concepts together. The juxtaposition sets up new patterns and new relationships and creates a new way of looking at things. This phenomenon has been described as making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. A creative idea involves a "mind shift." Instead of seeing the obvious, a creative appraoch looks at something from a different angle. The idea of "Whack Packs," decks of cards designed to jolt people out of their habitual thought patterns and into these mind shifts, was developed by Laurie Kretchmar and explained in an article in Fortune.

An example of how this juxtaposition works is "Green Speed," a program of the California Office of Traffic Safety created by Manning, Selvage & Lee, Los Angeles which combined public concern for speeding and ecology. The effort was directed at the 74% of the motorists who indicated that they sometimes speed but would moderate their fast driving if they had sound reasons why. "Green Speed" was coined by MSL to serve as the theme of a campaign that gave sound reasons to these "sometime speeders" and won a PRSA Silver Anvil. The campaign theme addressed a combination of safety, environmental, fuel-efficiency and monetary benefits. The campaign was launched with a news conference at the state capitol reporting on the survey. PSAs were distributed to TV and radio stations. A nonprofit entity called Californians for Green Speed was created to gain corporate and organizational support.

An unexpected idea can begin with a twist on an old thought, an unusual association or juxtaposition, or catchy phrasing that sticks in the mind. A familiar phrase, like a cliche, can become the raw material of a new idea if it is presented in some unusual way or unexpected situation. A play on words is also a good way to develop something unexpected.

Creative Thinking

Creative thinking is based on two approaches according to James Sowrey--association and analysis. Associative thinking is in line with Young's definition of a new idea which calls for the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated thoughts. Developing free association skills is one step toward becoming more creative. In free association you think of a word and then list everything that comes to mind when you imagine that word. Associative thinking can be visual as well as verbal--you can start with a picture. Likewise, you can associate by thinking of either pictures or words.

In contrast, an analytical approach uses information such as that gathered by opinion research and focus group sessions. The raw information is combed looking for new ideas and unexpected findings which could be the basis for a Big Idea. Associational techniques generate more new ideas than analytical approaches, however, both are needed for stimulating ideas that are both original and strategic.

Creative thinking is also different from the deductive/inductive logical models that are based on a linear logic--one point follows from another leading to a conclusion. Creative thinking uses an entirely different process. Cognitive psychologist J.P. Guilford distinguishes between convergent thinking which uses linear logic to arrive at the "right" conclusion and divergent thinking which uses associational thinking to search for all possible alternatives rather than a "right" one.

Lateral thinking, an approach developed by Edward de Bono, focuses on an "attitude of the mind" that breaks away from expected ways of thinking. He compares lateral thinking to a dog digging for a bone, or even better, a driller drilling for oil--there's some conscious notion of what you are looking for but the location process is not as structured as following a map. Attitude, as explained by Michalko in his book Tinkertoys, is definitely a part of creativity and the primary personality difference between those who are creative and those who aren't; creative people believe in their creativity.

Another type of divergent thinking, called Synectics, uses comparisons such as analogies and metaphors to stimulate associations. Developed by George M. Prince and described by William J.J. Gordon in his book The Metaphorical Way of Learning and Knowing, Synectics asks participants to solve problems by thinking in analogies--to identify ways in which one pattern or situation is like or similar to another totally unrelated pattern or situation.

In current neurophysiology these two types of thinking also have been identified with different hemispheres of the brain. Left-brain thinking is generally logical and controls speech and writing; right-brain thinking is more intuitive, nonverbal, and emotional. Most people use both sides of their brains, depending on the task. An artist is generally more oriented to right-brain thinking, whereas an accountant is more left-brained. Betty Edwards explains these differences in her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

The Ideation Process

There is a tendency to stereotype a creative person as someone who sits around waiting like a lightning rod for that one Big Idea to strike. People who are particularly adept at getting Big Ideas, however, know that good ideas are more often developed by diligent effort than they are by a random thought ocurring like the proverbial light bulb. People who are creative read, study, analyze, test and retest, observe, sweat, curse, worry and sometimes they give up. Major breakthroughs in science and medicine may take years, even decades. The original thought that qualifies as a Big Idea in any field doesn't come easy.

There is a great deal of agreement among the different theoretical descriptions of the creative process. It is usually portrayed as a series of sequential steps. As long ago as 1926 an English sociologist named Graham Wallas first put names to these steps. He called them preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. More recently Alex Osborn, former head of the BBDO advertising agency, founder of the Creative Education Foundation, author of one of the most important books on creativity, Applied Imagination, suggested a more comprehensive process:

1. Orientation: pointing up the problem

2. Preparation: gathering pertinent data

3. Analysis: breaking down the relevant material

4. Ideation: piling up alternative ideas

5. Incubation: letting up, inviting illumination

6. Synthesis: putting the pieces together

7. Evaluation: judging the resulting ideas

Although the steps vary somewhat and the names differ, all descriptions of the creative process have found that ideas come after the person has immersed him or herself in the problem and worked at it to the point of giving up.

The process of creative thinking used in a group situation to get Big Ideas is called brainstorming. Developed in the early 1950s by Osborn, brainstorming uses associative thinking with a group of six to ten people. The idea is that one person's ideas will stimulate someone else, and the combined power of the group associations will stimulate far more ideas than any one person can think of alone. The secret to effective brainstorming is for the group to remain positive and defer evaluation. Negative thinking during a brainstorming session can destroy the trusting atmosphere necessary to stimulate the new risky ideas which often appear at first glance to be zany and off-the-wall. Judgmental habits can inhibit the creative flow and squelch new ideas.

In reality, most people get ideas all the time and any individual is capable of coming up with an idea or two. The difference between this level of ideation and truly creative thinking is that many ideas are either lacking in originality, impractical, or off strategy. This is especially true of the ideas that arise without the aid of disciplined procedures. Random ideas come mainly by chance but as the diagram in Fig. 1 illustrates, ideas are best generated through a disciplined procedure that stimulates a tremendous quantity of ideas in order to find the diamond. Rarely do Big Ideas just come from "out-of-the-blue."

An example of seeing the positives in a potentially negative happening developed when Stevens Aviation, a small aviation company that served private and corporte aircraft on a largely regional basis, discovered that Southwest Airlines was using an advertising slogan for its new campaign, "Just Plane smart," that mirrored Stevens' slogan "Plane Smart." Rather than take Southwest to court, Stevens agency, Earle Palmer Brown, and the company's president Kurt Herwald decided to challenge Southwest's colorful chairman Herb Kelleher to a winner-take-all arm wrestling contest to determine the rights to the slogan. In addition to creating tremendous publicity, the CIPRA winning David-and-Goliath battle dubbed "Malice in Dallas" also let Herwald promote his fervent anti-litigation stance.

The Creative Personality

Creative thinkers are found in every field. Henry Ford, who created and then promoted his Model T, Steven Jobs, the inventor of Apple Computers, and Anita Roddick who built Body Shop into an international skin care and cosmetic retail phenomenon, are highly creative. They are idea people, creative problem solvers, and highly original thinkers. Creative people are found in business, in science, in engineering...and in public relations.

Are people who come up with Big Ideas born with the talent or have they developed or learned a set of creative skills? Researchers who have studied this question believe that everyone is born with some creative potential--the ability to solve problems by combining complex and sometimes unrelated ideas. Some people, however, have more natural skills just like some people have more natural musical talent. These people may start off with an advantage, but that's where it ends. Such talent can even be a disadvantage if the person is too zany and can't adapt to a business office.

Research by the Center for Studies in Creativity and the Creative Education Foundation has found that most people can sharpen their skills if they know the characteristics of creative people. The first characteristic is that they soak up experiences like sponges. Like Sherlock Holmes, they have a huge personal reservoir of material to work with: things they have read, watched, or listened to, places they have been and worked, and people they have know. Research has also found that creative people tend to be independent, self assertive, self-sufficient, and persistent with a high tolerance for ambiguity. They are risk takers. They also have powerful egos. In other words, they are internally driven and don't care much about group standards and opinions. They reach conclusions through intuition rather than through logic. They also have a mental playfulness that allows them to make the novel associations that are critical to creative thinking.

Creative people in business are often characterized as zany, weird, off-the-wall and unconventional. George Lois, who wrote What's the Big Idea, is an advertising executive who cultivates an outrageous image. The subtitle of Lois's book, however, is "How to Win with Outrageous Ideas (That Sell!)." In other words, creative people in business, even the zany ones like Lois, are still focused on doing effective, strategic work. In public relations, creative people also have to be disciplined because they have to live with deadlines, strategies, and client demands. Some creative people say it is this pressure that makes them perform; the more pressure, the better their work.

Ray and Myers in their book Creativity in Business explore such factors as curiosity, stress and inspiration in solving business problems. Ray and Myers believe that we all have creative ability, but we have allowed negative thinking, fear, and the right-brained "chattering of our minds" to get in the way of our creativity.

Creativity is complex and involves more than just individuals and their personal characteristics. Creative thinking usually occurs in a social environment and the family, school and workplace are all important in stimulating or inhibiting Big Ideas. Theories of Creativity, a book edited by Runco and Albert, explores these other social and cultural factors from an academic viewpoint.

Coors looked to its community and came up with a large multi-faceted literacy program, "Literacy! Pass It On," that has won a number of CIPRA awards over several years. To bring this idea of illiteracy to life Coors and its Denver-based agency Schenkein Sherman created an event called Wordless USA, to help literate people experience what it is like not to be able to read. A traveling 4,250 sq. ft. town resembling a Broadway set was constructed with signage written in Ameruss, English written in Russian characters. Coors' multi-year, multi-million dollar commitment to educating the public about literacy has established it as the company most concerned with this issue.


One trend that both complicates and leverages the creative dimension of public relations is integrated communication or integrated marketing communication (IMC). In zero-based communication planning, which is a foundation concept in IMC, the various functional areas are compared in terms of their abilities to meet the communication objective. If awareness, is a problem, for example, then advertising will probably lead the campaign; if credibility is a problem, then public relations will probably lead the effort.

Then the brainstorming begins. Because The Big Idea should come from the functional area that can contribute the most to the problem solution, that area may be on the spot. In a boundary-spanning organization where people are working across disciplines, public relations people will need to be able to hold their own with the creative people from other areas such as advertising, sales promotion, and event marketing. That's why it is important that the creative dimensions of public relations be recognized and encouraged.

In summary, communication managers know that public relations messages are up against a very cluttered environment and an often indifferent audience. Captivating Big Ideas are needed to grab attention and anchor a thought in the target audience's memory. The only way to break through the clutter and create impact is by expressing the persuasive message in an original way with a Big Idea. Breakthrough ideas, in order to be effective, have to be both creative as well as persuasive. The "Aha" moment represented by that elusive lightbulb is as much a product of perspiration as it is of inspiration. Getting high-level Big Ideas is hard work. This hard work will be even more important in the 21st century as the communication industry reengineers itself to be more effective, more efficient, and more integrated.

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