Is Improv the Latest PR Trend?

LOL !Communications professionals are geared to be planners.  We do research, create plans, make road maps, all in the name of being thorough.  Certainly our timelines are more condensed than they’ve ever been before.  But what if we should be doing the opposite of planning? The nature of today’s communication environment makes planning more difficult, maybe even obsolete.

In a recent interview for The Strategist, editor John Elsasser interviewed Fred Cook of Golin, the recipient of PRSA’s Gold Anvil last fall.  He believes that improvisation is the key to success. His comments about improvisation made me pause.

“Because things are happening so fast in all parts of our lives, we don’t have time to research and do focus groups and message testing on every single thing that a company says or does.  You have to be much more improvisational in how you operate.  You have to play it by ear, and be willing to say and do things when you don’t have all of the information at your fingertips.”

This is a huge challenge for uber-planners.  What if you get it wrong?  How fast can you recover?  Or can you even recover?  And while communications professionals have always espoused the need to be responsive – especially with the pace at which  messages move through social channels — Cook’s thoughts are scary for the communications planner.

“It’s a much more instinctual kind of communication, and you have to be able to move quickly in order to be relevant to the conversation.  The research that we’ve done shows that a company has about four hours to participate in a conversation and still be relevant.”

Later in the interview, he likens this preparation to that of stand-up comedians as opposed to the uber-preparation of movie actors.

It turns out that improvisation is being used in some business schools and companies. In 2010, CNN focused on how improvisation was being used in several business schools

 Slate Magazine subsequently covered how corporations were beginning to use improv groups and comedy troupes to improve internal dynamics, customer engagement and even energize new business pitches.

“At first glance, zany improv and the straight-laced corporate world might seem to be unlikely bedfellows. But the cross-pollination between comedy and business has led both to fruitful managerial skills development for executives and to fruitful employment for funny folks. Comedians have not only led training workshops, but have begun to infiltrate marketing departments and advertising agencies,”according to Seth Stevenson in the article.

As communicators, we want to stay on top of the story and we want to stay relevant.  And we might actually be more prepared for this constant state of readiness than other professions because we’ve always been “think on your feet” kind of people. For others, though, using improvisation in a business setting will be a challenge.  Think you’re ready for this trend? Wait, let me go get my joke book and costume box.

Read The Strategist article

  • I’m a believer of the “yes, and” ethos as it relates to strategic communication. Over 13+ years in PR, improv skills have proved valuable to me in order to be quicker on my feet during interviews, crisis, and even internal team meetings. I also think there is a place for improv and performance in planning. Good strategies and tactics flourish when based on sound, measurable objectives. I believe the best ones are those that can be adapted/corrected mid-course as needed. Part of our roles as counsel includes spotting those opportunities for adaptation and change. Situational awareness is key. Thoughtful post, Fran. Thanks for sharing.

    • Fran Stephenson

      I agree with your comments! I think one of the reasons I’ve lasted in this profession is the ability to think on my feet. Maybe the time in high school theater helped too? Plus, maybe we all need to lighten up just a little bit and injecting this kind of creativity can inform future strategy.