In the Douglas Adams series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, success isn’t something you can always see clearly, and it’s certainly not something you can control. The world is too complex for any one person or team to make sense of it or make everything turn out “right.” There aren’t many better metaphors for the current state of public relations, especially as the rise of digital media challenges what we thought we knew about communication.
Digital media isn’t fundamentally different from non-digital media; no one wins if you let the tools, rather than your story, guide the strategy. At the same time, social media represents a broader shift that moves attention away from companies and towards users, integrating user-oriented storytelling into everything from operations to finance. No matter how good you are, user perceptions of politics (Chic-fil-A), customer service (United Airlines), or environmental impact (Tyson Foods) can result in rapid breakdown as well as opportunities for innovation.
Communication professionals are usually still in silos that rarely interact and so can’t adapt quickly enough in a time of continual and aggressive shifts in competition and industry disruption. How often do we start with a coherent story that has buy-in from each team, and then work together to form that story into strategic initiatives before we get to tactics and implementation? How often do we rethink what we “know” about how customers view our core value and competencies? And how often does that turn into real innovation that spans multiple departments? While most of us would answer “rarely” to those questions, there are a few steps you can take to stimulate the innovative and entrepreneurial energy of your communication teams.
Step 1: Holistic Workflow
Hiring talent isn’t enough; collaboration should occur along every step of project development. Each team or account executive should brief the others on progress, team leads should brainstorm across silos, and documents should be shared along the way. Don’t just bring creative in at the end, and don’t pretend that engineering is completely separate from PR and marketing.
Step 2: Holistic Research
Immerse yourself with clients completely; understand when and how services/products are used, but also get to know the competition, how production and sales operations influence experience, etc. If you don’t understand how the whole process works, you have far less ability to propose or execute projects that fit an overall strategy. At the same time, getting to know the process gives your teams valuable time and space to interact with the whole operation, gaining goodwill and buy-in across the board.
Step 3: Holistic Pitching
Remember to let things go. In a constantly changing environment, you need to be able to be flexible. When clients change their minds or our research shows that a good idea won’t work, make it an opportunity to be creative and innovative. What would work, or when would that good idea work? Is it a fit for another project? Can you use this time to throw out a few more pitches and get feedback? While pitching lots of ideas that tie into multiple areas of communication might result in few leads (or maybe just a green light for the PR side or advertising side), the process also keeps you sharp and opens ideas for other clients or initiatives. It also means that you’ll have to let a lot of good ideas go.