What’s Your PR Skunk Works Project?

Corporate communicators are working hard to make programs work in a ‘new normal’ of changed expectations and, generally, constrained budgets. I worry that not enough of them are experimenting with new ones.

Who could blame them? All of us are being challenged to do more with less, and do it while facing the most challenging professional and personal circumstances that most of us have ever experienced.

But that’s exactly why experimenting now isn’t just an option but a necessity.

Here’s why:

Nothing works like it did. The rules have changed for even the most proven, established activities, so none of them are or will work exactly as they once did, yet any remit to return to normal requires that communicators figure out how to deliver them. The likelihood that results won’t be up to snuff, especially over time, are high. Doing the “right” things now may well turn out to be “wrong.”

Everyone is doing the same things. If anything, the pandemic and resulting economic uncertainty have forced communicators to default to core activities like product-focused content and hosting webinars. Everything needs to somehow support the business, not just in the short-term but somewhat immediately, since sales are required to pay everyone’s salaries. Good luck standing out.

They’re saying the same things, too. Promises of corporate largesse or the benefits of stuff they make feel somewhat generic now, especially since the pandemic revealed that we were about as prepared to deal with it as we are to fight climate change or social injustice. No, it actually seems less believable now that the world has melted. There will come a time when you’re held accountable for it.

I get the necessity of sticking to process and striving to meet your internal stakeholders’ expectations, but there’s a solid self-interest case for experimenting, either with something you’ve done and think you might disrupt (I wrote about this idea a few weeks ago), or choosing something novel.

I say give novelty thing a shot. You need a skunk works project.

The term “Skunk Works” comes from a secretive weapons development group at Lockheed during the waning days of WWII. Now, Wikipedia says:

A skunk works project is a project developed by a relatively small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of radical innovation.

What would the project look like? It would depend on what you want to accomplish. Perhaps you could pick one of your existing communications goals and consider novel ways to achieve or augment it. Could it be a new approach to your thought leadership content? Using a new technology tool? Risking engagement with a third-party that might otherwise be an opponent?

They key would be to structure the project like Lockheed did: A stand-alone team tasked to operate without touching existing activities so, in the spirit of a medical treatment, do no harm while risking improvement. Don’t distract your existing external agency. Set boundaries for what’s allowable and what’s not, but otherwise let the internal/external team challenge every conceivable convention you (or your stakeholders) might take for granted.

What’s cool is that you can’t fail; a truism of any innovation activity is that you benefit from learning even if you don’t get the outcomes you’d hoped. Plus, you’d likely get credit from stakeholders for innovating (and there many even be public content to be had from your efforts, whether successful or not).

The trick with any skunk works project is to not get caught up in the same restrictive expectations you apply to existing activities. It won’t work the way it’s supposed to work; that’s the point. There are no guarantees when you experiment.

The thing is, there aren’t any guarantees for anything else we communicators are doing anymore, expect it’s all but certain that they’ll tend to disappoint us.

So, what’s your PR skunk works project?

By Jonathan Salem Baskin

I'm a writer, musician, and science junkie.

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