Risky Business: PR and Creativity

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by Drew Pendleton.
Posted on April 20, 2016, at 4:30 p.m.

Have you ever seen a PR campaign that was really “out there”? What about one that, by traditional standards, breaks every “rule” of what you’re taught to do in school? A well-oiled campaign is nothing if not savvily structured, carefully planned and effectively implemented, but it takes creativity — and, at times, serious chutzpah — to break the “rules” of traditional PR.

In today’s world, “creative” typically refers to the creative department, the sector of a PR operation tasked with handling designs and visual materials. However, it’s not a term that solely means that, and it shouldn’t. Creativity can transform a campaign from ordinary to extraordinary and give old tools new uses.

As Stefan Gerard argued on FleishmanHillard’s blog, while “plenty of the work from PR agencies can broadly be described as creative,” the PR profession is experiencing a “lag” in terms of integrating widespread creative thinking into a team’s culture and day-to-day operations. Meanwhile, over at Edelman’s blog, Robyn Adelson asserted, “PR agencies must act fast to fill in creative gaps, push our clients to take more risks and produce high-quality content that delivers on the integrity of the idea.”

Photo courtesy of blog.hi.co.kr
Photo courtesy of blog.hi.co.kr

It’s filling in those gaps and taking those risks that can push a campaign to the next level. They may even turn a low-profile, lesser-known subject into a high-profile, popular topic.

For a prime and recent example of this, look no further than the promo campaign for 2016’s sleeper smash hit “Deadpool.” Starring Ryan Reynolds as the titular red-suited, foul-mouthed mercenary, the film took the February 2016 box office by storm, grossing $135 million and breaking five box office records within its first three days of release. Why, then, did an antihero movie — that The Guardian said in 2014 had the likelihood of being “at best a $100m movie, with a loyal hardcore fanbase but little potential for big-figure box office returns” — do so well?

Look no further than its marketing campaign. Whereas most campaigns play it safe when it comes to language choices and generally avoid innuendo, the “Deadpool” campaign didn’t just stick to the soul of its titular character: By embracing Deadpool’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall, the campaign brought the character’s voice to life. From slightly scatological billboards and innuendo-laced social media to a faux-Valentine’s Day approach that matched its Valentine’s weekend release date (in reality, the movie is anything but a romance), the viral campaign operated by Fox and Reynolds made waves and no doubt played a part in the film’s success.

When it comes down to it, however, it’s easy to see that it took creativity and serious guts to market a comic book movie this way. At the same time, it’s important to note that this campaign is a shining example of a well-calculated, well-planned risk. As Andy Crump noted in Paste Magazine, “Maybe unconventional characters demand unconventional PR … Fox clearly knows what Deadpool’s target audience wants and also how to reach moviegoers outside of that demographic.”

Obviously, not every campaign or client is as unconventional as the “Merc with a Mouth.” However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to play around with PR convention and embrace creativity. As Marissa Fellows emphasized in TechImage’s preview of the 2015 Cannes Lions Awards, “If equipped with the right capabilities, PR teams can and should be considered the owners of ideas and the drivers of strategic messaging … As communications professionals, we’re positioned at the helm to steer business into a new era.”

As noted before, being creative doesn’t mean being all over the place. In a piece for PRSA, Heather Whaling discussed ways to “infuse creativity into your traditional and digital PR tactics,” including working with influencers and using social and digital media as key elements in the promotion process.

Photo courtesy of www.attention-media.co.uk
Photo courtesy of www.attention-media.co.uk

Claire Bridges said in an article for The Holmes Report’s “Creativity in PR 2015” series, “How to use creativity to make something that matters beyond profit is continuing to gain traction.” However, she added later that “there seems to be a divide opening up between those agencies who are genuinely fostering creativity and those who want to, or say they do, but still need to get the basic processes right.”

As members of the next wave of PR professionals entering the workforce, it’s important that we keep this divide in mind as we begin our careers. The world is changing around us, and it has become more important than ever to be open-minded and versatile, especially from a PR standpoint. It’s up to us to help infuse widespread creative thinking into all areas of the profession, to stretch the boundaries of conventional thinking and take risks without being completely reckless. In other words, it’s time to get creative.

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