What’s the Big Idea? The Case for Questioning Grand Concepts

January 3, 2019


I love big ideas. I live for those shoot-for-the-moon concepts that get everyone excited to act. Or even those smaller ideas that pop up mid-meeting and seem — at first blush, anyway — to finally fix an issue that’s been dragging on too long: “Let’s just place an advertorial and write an op-ed to change the dialogue — they’re simple and relatively inexpensive. Who’s in?” Or my PR big-win favorite: “We should take over Times Square with mascots and product samples — let’s own the biggest media market for a day!”

OK, I’m being sarcastic. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with any idea that inspires a team or that tries to solve tough problems. After all, we should be solutions-oriented. But the question I always find myself asking — and which I’ll soon have emblazoned on a T-shirt — is “Great idea, but to what end?”

Call me a wet blanket if you must. Then again, perhaps we should all wear the “wet blanket” label like a badge of honor when we ask the questions that strong PR professionals need to ask — those cemented in the business implications of our communications campaigns.

For example, let’s say we issue a press release that announces, “Watch Out: Bears Are Taking Over Times Square!” And then we have dancing-bear mascots offer free packets of gummy-bear vitamins to passers-by. We interact with tons of consumers. But will the event accomplish our client’s business goal? What’s the return-on-investment for that Times Square takeover? Dollar for dollar, will it move product and create awareness more effectively than grass-roots outreach to health stores and health media would?

I’m not sure, but the onus is on us as PR professionals to question our big ideas — and frankly, to question any ideas that arise, to make sure we’re not acting merely on excitement, but also on behalf of business objectives.

Step 1: To avoid a tactical free-for-all, ask tough questions.

When money is at stake — and we all have budgets — we must ask tough questions. It’s too easy to settle for the new, shiny idea. PR people often get a bad rap because our ideas don’t offer meaningful, measurable results.

For example (and I’ll bet you’ve sat in this exact meeting), your client will soon launch a new product or service, and the discussion starts with someone asking about the best way to “get the word out” to target audiences so they’re aware of the new product and will consider buying it, or they’ll spread the word vocally or online. Immediately, the team in the meeting dives into tactics — asking what kind of news release should be written and when, how best to engage people online, what media outlets and resources to tap first, and how to ensure the launch is seamless and timed just right if the company is global.

At that exact moment — when that discussion starts — is when we, as seasoned PR practitioners, should engage the team to question the “why” and “what” of the situation. Why is our company or client introducing this new product? What are the business objectives? With these questions on the table, the discussion will take a different, more strategic path, versus a tactical free-for-all.

Step 2: Determine whether the “big idea” can be improved in some business-driven way.

Now you’re midway through a thoughtful strategic-planning session for the new product. Someone throws out a big idea that gets everyone around the table buzzing. They start brainstorming how it’s going to happen, who needs to be involved, etc. Nine times out of 10, business imperatives and metrics are lost in the discussion.

Everyone else is excited about the idea, and perhaps you recognize that elements of it do have merit. Rather than immediately becoming the soggy blanket that spoils the fun, consider how the idea could be modified to fulfill business needs. For example, could a suggestion that your client ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange be tweaked so that it connects to a more meaningful story about the new product or service, which will then be shared through a series of media interviews and regional grass-roots efforts? To help evolve it into something that delivers more impact, look for objective-driven nuggets within the big idea.

Step 3: Determine how you will measure the campaign’s success.

PR practitioners often preach that measurement is the missing piece in communications plans. We tend to jump into action first, realizing halfway through the campaign for that new product or service that we haven’t included a way to measure its success. Metrics wind up being retrofitted to the campaign, rather than driven by business goals.

The good news is that you can be the one who improves this flawed approach. Ask the team upfront how the campaign’s success will be defined. I regularly find myself asking: “What will a win look like?” This is followed by: “Great, now how will we know when we’ve hit the mark?”

For instance, could the team create messaging for company leadership to deliver that would later be used to measure the effectiveness of media relations, based on whether the message was included in news coverage? How about conducting research on the front end to benchmark public awareness of the product or service, and then replicating that research after the launch to determine whether awareness has increased?

You can be the PR professional who makes a difference by paying attention to the bottom line. Ideas are only as good as the results they create, so be bold and wear the T-shirt that asks: “Great idea, but to what end?”

Melissa K. Flynn, APR

Melissa K. Flynn, APR, is principal at Melissa Flynn Public Relations & Marketing and a relentless strategist with more than two decades of experience at some of the country’s top PR and ad agencies. Reach her at melissa@melissaflynnpr.com


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