Sharkey: Five ways PR pros can help drive innovation inside a company

In this disrupt-or-be-disrupted world, no one can afford to ignore the culture of innovation.

Tina Sharkey
Tina Sharkey

Industry disruption, innovation, entrepreneurship, and intrapreneurship. These aren’t just buzzwords. They represent a big shift in the way business is being done. While big companies depend on corporate systems and structures, a deep bench, and entrenched tradition, startups are disrupting entire industries at a speed that’s difficult for more traditional companies.

In this disrupt-or-be-disrupted world, no one can afford to ignore the culture of innovation. In my career, I’ve been an entrepreneur, investor, and have worked as a senior executive and leader at Fortune 500 companies, often as an intrapreneur – someone who behaves like an entrepreneur, but within the bounds of a large organization.

In big companies, there is often a false belief that traditional corporate culture can’t support intrapreneurship. That’s simply not the case as it can thrive in any business willing to embrace it. However, intrapreneurship will not grow organically within an organization without the structure to enable and support it. While big companies may be less nimble than startups, there are a number of ways to architect innovation into your business.

Here are five ways PR pros can spearhead next-generation growth and facilitate innovation and intrapreneurship.

Plan innovation days and events. Hackathons are not just for incubators and startups. Some of the most established corporations are embracing collaborative creativity by hosting events that drive innovation.

As global president of Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter, I worked with our CTO to develop a regular series of innovation days. During these companywide events, small, cross-disciplinary teams worked to solve a specific problem outside their usual sphere of activity. And it’s not just big companies recognizing the value of events that bring people together to create. Even the White House hosts a Maker Faire.

Cultivate innovation evangelists. How often do you default to an EVP or CMO as spokesperson for your company? Dig deeper to develop a range of spokespeople.

Who are the designers and inventors? Tap the creators to unleash the voices of innovation through internal comms, at conferences, and in traditional media. Look at Robert Wong, executive creative director of Google’s Creative Lab, who was featured on the November 2014 cover of Fast Company.

Develop an innovators’ advisory board. Comms pros are often the link between the company’s internal world and the external world of innovation. Use internal comms to highlight innovative work happening within the walls of the company that may be news to those in other departments. Everyone who works at your company is a spokesperson, so give them the information they need to understand and spread the word.

Also, develop relationships with innovators from outside the company. Invite them to join a special innovation advisory board and participate in your innovation events.

Play musical chairs. Entrepreneurial companies often rearrange seating based on projects. Interdisciplinary teams working on a single project will cluster to cross-pollinate ideas and think holistically about a problem. The best ideas often come from looking at problems from a different perspective. If embedding a PR pro with a product team is unrealistic, consider a scenario in which you embed even one day a week.

Be an innovation testing ground. Partnerships are at the heart of intrapreneurship.  Young, innovative companies often want to work with industry leaders, but the red tape involved in cutting a deal via business development channels is too often cumbersome.  

One of the best ways for a big company to quickly test the waters with a potential partner is through a joint PR project. During its Procrastinators Event, Banana Republic partnered with Shyp, a San Francisco-based startup that offers rush, concierge shipping services. It was a partnership that was developed through PR channels.

Comms pros often join the dots between the company and the outside world, between leaders and the team. They can help facilitate the evolution of corporate thinking by taking the reins and embracing your role as an innovator, connector, and change agent. 

Tina Sharkey is CEO of SherpaFoundry.

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