PR and innovation: it's complicated

It is in our hands, we read about it daily, it is going to define the current decade, and each of us (if we're smart) strives for it every day. I'm talking about innovation.

This is the third in a series of three posts that will discuss what I see as a PR émigré managing in a world where evolution meets revolution.

It is in our hands, we read about it daily, it is going to define the current decade, and each of us (if we're smart) strives for it every day.

I'm talking about innovation. This year in a global Adobe study, Americans viewed the US as the most creative country in the world. President Barack Obama has said that “maintaining our role as the world's engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation” is “absolutely essential to our future.” With our rich lineage of inventors, from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs, it's no surprise that we recognize innovation as key to progress.

There seems to be a notable exception, though: For all the creativity that goes into PR, it's pretty surprising that the mentality for new perspective and change is about as lively as that for insurance appraisers. We work with the expanding technologies of the digital age but manage to do so without truly updating our processes. We introduce bits and bytes, like the new discipline we've trendspotted at Havas PR: newscrafting (shaping news for clients).

As for the big idea? Whereas an innovator would ask, “Why do we do it this way?” then figure out if there's a better way, today's PR professional would hear that question and say, “Because this is the way it is done.”

It's a pretty dire portrait of the field I love, but it leads to a deeper point: What brings about this innovative mindset that PR lacks? First, innovation needs a problem to solve. When Howard Schultz retook the reins at Starbucks, he closed every North American store for three peak hours to reteach servers how to properly prepare the product. His unheard-of approach not only increased the coffee's quality but also inspired new confidence from within the corporation and among the public. Innovation isn't just a side effect, though; an environment that rewards creativity can stimulate innovation.

Public relations, so far, hasn't faced a major crisis. There aren't true revolutionary rewards. People don't feel the need to challenge a good thing. So we're living this: “If it ain't broke, don't fix (or question or even look too long at) it.”

For now, that's OK; clients expect consistency from PR, not the occasional sparks they pay ad agencies for. But here's a prediction: Sometime soon, one rebellious soul with no reward as motivation will do something completely out of the ordinary. The idea will begin to show stellar results that no one will be able to deny. Suddenly, the way PR operates will be forever changed. We've seen this in scores of other fields, and it will happen in ours as well. (Here's hoping this someone will be associated with our newly branded Havas PR, with our commitment to the future first, but my trendspotting skills only go so far.)

So for now, we wait, silently going about our business the same way our bosses did before us. Some days if you listen closely, you can almost hear someone on the verge of asking, “Why?”

Marian Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America.

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