Creativity should come after objectives and strategy, not before or instead of

Ellee’s post discussing the launch of the national Recycle Now Week, shows yet again how public relations practitioners are focusing on press agentry, with the goal of just getting coverage, instead of having a clearer strategic purpose.

Creative ideas are necessary – but here it led to a cliched “awareness week” plus the ubiquitous celebrity photo-shoot (this time it was Denise Van Outen in a technicolour dream dress) and a tenuous link to fashion:

A national recycling campaign has set out to prove that green issues have never been more glamorous.

On Saturday, the Diploma class looked at planning models and reviewed some previous government campaigns.  A clear lesson was that too much money is spent on initiatives that don’t deliver strategic long-term benefits. 

Creativity is wasted if it does no more than generate immediate media coverage – it needs to convey the objectives, the messages and engage publics sufficiently to alter their opinions or, in this case, change their behaviour.

That’s a lot tougher than getting carried away with linking into television talent shows, but without objectives and strategy, PR cannot demonstrate how it can deliver anything of meaning in return for the money invested.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

7 thoughts on “Creativity should come after objectives and strategy, not before or instead of”

  1. The sad thing is Heather, that I know these people are so dedicated to getting the message across, but the strategy is based around celeb-endorsement rather than delivering strong, sustainable messages. The fact that Shanks and PaperChain should publicly criticise this promotion is very damaging.

  2. Hi, Heather. I am a public relations student at the University of Georgia. My current instructor has emphasized the growing trend of “green PR,” and I found your post about this event interesting.

    The idea of balancing media coverage needs with the larger goal of changing behavior is one that seems to be increasingly difficult, particularly when the messages are coming from government – oftentimes already at a disadvantage when it comes to trust and credibility.

    So, my question for you is this: How do PR practitioners go about conceptualizing objectives and strategies that can actually affect changes in behavior? Perhaps more specifically to “green PR,” what types of campaigns have you found to be more effective than the one you mention in this particular post?

  3. Ellee – you are right in that the campaign has not sought to involve and gain the support of important stakeholders/publics in advance. Big mistake to have possible supporters and advocates as critics.

    Cain – nice to hear from you. It is worth you checking out the posts on Caroline Wilson’s blog where she looks at some good “green” campaigns. Caroline is a PhD research student at the Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development, De Montfort University, Leicester – and her specialist subject is this very area.

    It is very difficult to change behaviour and I am not convinced that PR and marketing alone are the answers, especially when proposed as “campaigns” that are often conceived and directed at people rather than coming from the grassroots.

    Trust is also affected by governments not putting their own house in order and so distrust results when we see campaigns telling us what to do, then we see that government departments aren’t walking the talk. There is little leading by example.

    One of my objections with press agentry campaigns is that they present themselves as able to change behaviour when really they simply aim to generate media coverage. There is then the assumption that seeing a piece about recycling will change behaviour, which is certainly unlikely when it comes to seeing a celebrity in a frock.

    My class felt that the 5-a-day campaign to communicate with the public the importance of eating 5 fruit/veg a day had been more successful as the message was very direct and clear. However, it had initially worked with those who had the education and affluence to make a behavioural change. For other people who don’t have the knowledge of how to improve their diets and concerns about the cost, we need to work on removing barriers.

    I’m a fan of Grunig’s situational theory myself where we need to look at removing constraints and helping people increase their personal level of involvement as a means of becoming active in the particular area of persuasion.

  4. Removing constraints for me regarding recycling would be something like not having to cart my cardboard miles up the road in the car to get rid of it in Edinburgh.
    I know councils are cash strapped but increasing the machinery capacity and collections that can deal with a selection of items would stop some folk from chucking it all in the green wheelie bin.

    I actually do cart my cardboard in the car, but I’m the only person I know who does.

  5. Lots of interesting points raised here.
    As a PR agency owner at the sharp end of client service, I agree, one-off media coverage does not effect a change in human behavior, and if you create an image with a token celeb for a one-off green launch it may well evoke a ‘green-wash’ reaction. I don’t know the background, or whether the celeb has a great green track record or not. The ‘rubbish’ dress could be (and for all I know, is being) developed into a brand. After all, it is a good strong image and a well known face. It sticks in the mind. If the celeb has a good green track record, it could be developed in all sorts of ways into marketing materials, adverts, sales and online campaigns, being used to visually spearhead and reinforce key messages to target audiences, delivered by a variety of marketing and sales materials, on and offline.
    And ultimately, if it was created for a not-for-profit client, it could be used as a fund-raiser. People could pay/sponsor for turning a pixel of the dress into their name on the website to demonstrate support for the cause (thereby strengthening the key message delivery, raising funds and boosting the permission-based mailing list)? Re-moving the dress pixel-by-pixel might generate additional coverage, but would hardly be tasteful!

    Re the comments on “press agentry”, the pressure to deliver media coverage is almost always client-driven, regardless of excellence in strategic advice. I do agree that PR agencies should always ensure that their work is in line with their client’s overall objectives and do an integrity check to see if what’s being proposed, either by them or by the client, is capable of generating grass-roots support – not the least being their own staff!
    That’s sometimes easier said than done when organisation’s biz & marketing plans are often out of date or lack clearly expressed objectives. Clarity is a rare and precious commodity in business, yet it is essential to all the strategic theory being proposed here.
    In real life, it takes an analytic mind to wade through the trite re-hashing of biz-speak buzzwords and jargon masking unfocussed or wishful thinking prefacing the figures plucked out of thin air that collectively constitute many biz plans.
    We often have to probe to generate clear objectives rooted in capitalising on, and developing from, proven results. It’s much easier and cheaper to do more with existing customers/users/supporters and chase a successful track record than break into new markets. Easier, but not so exciting for the policy-makers. And they often miss loads of tricks by failing to bundle elements of existing offerings, possibly with a few simple new add-ons, to create something for new niche markets that we can launch and target with PR and marketing.
    I always tell clients that a stream of on and off-line news-based media coverage will generate buzz and boost credibility that helps an organisation in many ways, from recruitment and retention of staff and customers/donors, through to getting better deals. But messages have to be rooted in reality, be genuinely informative and be communicated with integrity, and well understood and adopted by front-line staff, otherwise you risk a counter-productive backlash. And this all takes time: it is not a one-off quick fix.
    And forget hammering home lists of product benefits and features ad nauseam – show people using the service or product in their own words. The media relations has to be integrated into a marketing and sales campaign to translate media coverage of the messages (on and off-line) into action.
    For every one person who is motivated to contact you as a result of media coverage, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who are warm to marketing and sales approaches on the back of reading positive media coverage. But most people shamefully waste precious media coverage by not capitalising on it. It has to be part of an overall campaign, with the messages and targets/stakeholders clearly identified and matched up, then the delivery channels usually seem fairly obvious. But you do need lots of delivery channels reinforcing the message: direct mail, email, telesales, leaflets, newsletters, internal comms, websites, blogs, roadshows, exhibitions, seminars etc depending on what best suits the product, service or organisation. It takes at least another two or three channels on top of media relations to start activating all the people warmed up by the media coverage, not just the top red hot few who were so inspired they contacted you directly. And the more channel diversity the better, provided your material is adapted appropriately.

    And as for Jill Blake’s comment about cardboard re-cycling in Edinburgh: it’s usually not very green to add car miles to low level re-cycling/landfill diversion unless you are going there anyway. I’m also in Edinburgh and we have a red box from Edinburgh Council for fortnightly cardboard pick-up. (A blue box takes waste paper, glass and tins in the alternate weeks). For flat dwellers, they have positioned large receptacles that look a bit like the trade waste bins you see outside shops.

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