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Alex Osborn, the cohesive force behind creating ‘brainstorming’, shared a message with public relations professionals in 1948.

Today, his message resonates louder than ever: facts and scientific research may be used to clarify our public problems, yet evidence alone “cannot find solutions unless populated by new ideas”[1] Ideas that could arise from public relations innovation.

Now, narrow your scope of understanding to democratic virtues. According to Brian Aull, PhD and MIT professor, they include “service, learning, and community building.”[2] By taking a closer look, note that PR professionals might add tremendous value to the democratic system, especially to the virtues of service and community building.

The Service of Others Needs Public Relations Innovation

Public Relations Innovation

Public Relations Innovation

Emotional understanding ranks higher within the typical community decision-making process than does intellectual understanding. According to President Lincoln,

“If you would win a man to your cause, first you convince him that you are his friend.”[3]

People won’t change their behavior based solely on facts, rather on what those facts mean to them in their personal lives. For example, most people are not actually afraid of heights. They are simply afraid of falling from heights. Or, perhaps more accurately, from landing after the fall.

The biggest obstacle to social advancement is complacency. People resist change because they fear losing their attachments. PR professionals and other change agents might stress the combination of old attachments with new attachments, rather than implying that the past and future are mutually exclusive. Integral thought, not separatism, becomes critical.

PR professionals should simplify the world. Economic information presented to the public today does not register with average folks. More ideas and imagination could prevent ineffective and dull techniques. Many organizational Mission statements for example, share common sentiment, and fail to captivate. Seek the passion when you want to make an impact. Elmer Wheeler, a friend of Osborn’s developed the expression, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

Community Building Requires Public Relations Innovation

Locally, numerous municipal challenges beg for better solutions such as waste disposal, access to water, and even traffic safety. Unusual and unexpected behavior continues to captivate:

“. . . Buffalo safety authorities have dramatized the virtue of good driving. Instead of handing out summons, the police have been handing out flowers. On one evening, patrolmen William Collins and James Kelly ordered 25 drivers to the curb, then complimented them on their careful driving and handed them fresh orchids.”[4]

Internationally, how would one sell America to the rest of the world? An overabundance of caution inhibits new ideas. Innovation shouts for a sponsor, particularly in the Middle East. More ideas, not fewer, will make an impact. While this article has not researched “ideological weapons”, presumably more imagination could never be less effective than what has already been tried.

Since it remains unlikely the federal government will set up a group of creative people in the State Department, perhaps our professional PR community can serve as a transparent surrogate. With Osborn’s encouragement:

“Maybe such a brainstorming group is a bit far-fetched; but, surely, we need somehow to put more creative power into our international salesmanship. We need more boldness. We need to look up to, not down on, audacity in ideas—just as we look up  to audacity in armed conflict . . . If the armed forces need a General Staff to create our military strategies, don’t we need a creative group to pan our peace strategies?”[5] (italics are from the original author and source)

Who is better suited to think creatively about international strategies than the professional PR community?

More Public Relations Innovation Yields Higher Quality Decisions

Recall “The Wisdom of Crowds”[6] and the logic behind it. Groups of people are capable of generating more ideas than aggregating all their individual contributions. Something one person says stimulates another with an idea that they had not previously considered. And groups of people, as well as individuals, make higher quality decisions when they have more options. Many have referred to this as a “chain reaction.”

For national problems in particular, we may not need the smartest people, rather the most creative. Therefore, what are the simple tips for feeding the funnel of imagination that could lead to consensual ownership and shared responsibility for assignments and next steps?

Use Detailed Questions to Create More Ideas

More ideas promote solutions where fighting problems does not work. Never has. Tenable options develop when they provide a more attractive alternative.

The right questions accelerate development of the best ideas. Questions ought not be so broad as to be unanswerable. ‘How do you solve global hunger?’ won’t work. ‘How to improve food storage capacity within Somalia?’ however could generate ideas that might be part of the overall solution.

The process world might use a simple mathematical expression such as Y = (f) X +X+x+x. To create more ideas, questions need to ask about the big ‘X’ or the little ‘x’ but not the Y. You should not ask “So what is the marketing plan?”. You may ask however about segmentation, targeting, positioning, etc.

Some question forms that inspire further details and PR professionals might consider include:

  • Any unsuspected facts that can be brought to light? (look at the opposite, reversal, vice versa)
  • How can the message or delivery be modified? (altered, changed, motion, sound)
  • How can the seemingly disparate be combined? (combination, correlation, or synthesis)
  • Laws of association that might include questions about:
    • Contiguity or nearness,
    • Contrast
    • Similarity
  • The query method suggests a primary elementary school learning; namely:
    • Why (important, necessary, or beneficial)
    • Where (could, should, does) it occurs
    • When should it occur
    • Who (could, should, does) it
    • What (could, should, does) need to occur
    • How (could, should, does) it get accomplished or completed
  • What can be borrowed or adapted to our need? (illumination, inspiration, parallels)
  • Where can we substitute? Or, rearrange? (interoperability, placement, sequence, surrogates, timing, transposition)
  • What should be added, multiplied, or magnified? (dimensions, exaggeration, frequency)
  • What should be subtracted, divided, or minified? (dimensions, exaggeration, frequency, understatement)

More Ideas, not More Judgment to Support Public Relations Innovation

More ideas are better therefore capture them without judgment (or discussion). This article does not intend to instruct on how to analyze the ideas, but please—capture first and analyze later.

In America, early settlers displayed tremendous ingenuity, or starved. The cultures that inspire the greatest amount of imagination will thrive. The PR community can help drive that ingenuity by exhibiting broad use of imagination itself, to set an example for the rest of the world. Pushing creativity and imagination may not be easy or natural, but don’t forget, “only hard religions succeed.”[7] In other words, imagination and creating ideas also depend on perseverance.

[1] Osborn, Alex, “Your Creative Power—How to Use Imagination”, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1948, pg 308.

[2] Aull, Brian, “The Triad—Three Civic Virtues that Could Save American Democracy”, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 4th ed 2017, Preface.

[3] Osborn, pg 295.

[4] Ibid, pg 311.

[5] Ibid, pg 317.

[6] Surowiecki, James, “The Wisdom of Crowds”, Doubleday, New York, 2004.

[7] Dawson, W.J., “The Autobiography of a Mind”, Century Company, New York, 1925, pg 41.


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Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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