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Where Do Great Ideas Come From? Disney's Duncan Wardle Dishes on Driving Creativity and Reviving Corporate Communications

This week’s profile: Duncan Wardle, VP of Global PR for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts

“I love this job for many reasons,” says Duncan Wardle, VP of Global PR for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. “A big one is that Disney is willing to fund good ideas. Even when we don’t think we have the resources, they’ll back great ideas and help execute them. I have been with the company in London, Paris and Florida—and I’ve felt like a kid in a candy store the entire time. This place really is about creative idea generation. That’s missing in a lot of other companies where you come out with phenomenal ideas, but can’t get them pushed through the bureaucracy or processes. That can really be discouraging.”

Wardle’s current role encompasses the strategic development and “creative ideation” of PR campaigns designed to raise awareness and increase visits to Disney Parks worldwide. For the last two years, he has been located in Los Angeles where he oversaw the first global PR campaign for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary.  Most recently, his team has launched the company’s first word of mouth and online social network campaign, enlisting thousands of evangelists and leveraging their passion for the brand to convert new audiences.

Read on for his insights into “keeping the buzz” alive for your brand, the key challenges facing corporate communicators today—and for several surprising tips designed to help you foster creativity in your own organization:

His did Disney get involved with the Indy 500, which happens later this month?

We’re doing something called the “Minnie Indy Charity Race” with deserving kids on consumer and media days for the races, which are May 24 and 28. These events are a prelude to the actual 90th Indy 500 on May 28. Another thing we’re doing a little later in the summer is creating three animatronic versions of Jack Sparrow and Captain Barboza from the second “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. The movie premier will be June 24. We’ll be introducing those characters to the actual ride on that same day.

Our involvement in these things is part of our strategy to keep the buzz alive about Disney’s 50th anniversary celebration after 18 exciting months. We launched the celebration last May and have implemented a series of campaigns to keep it going. It’s about creating a constant drumbeat of ideas that are creative enough to drive media coverage and public interest over time. PR people often launch well, but aren’t able to keep the momentum going. So these are examples of doing that by tying to events already on the calendar.

What other creative PR campaigns have helped Disney sustain that interest?

We did a survey in June asking people in all 50 states about their favorite Disney attractions. We were able to cut that study by everything from political affiliation to region. For example, the East Coast preferred Space Mountain and the West Coast preferred the Pirates of the Caribbean. We also negotiated a deal on July 17 last year to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for a destination. It was a real first. The event created a lot of buzz and excitement in Los Angeles and Hollywood. Then we came back later in the summer and donated a teacup and Dumbo figure to the Smithsonian.

What tips can you share for “driving a constant drumbeat” of coverage?

There are several approaches. One is to create the news. A way to do that is to leverage another institution to help you generate buzz and interest. An example would be donating to the Smithsonian. It worked for us. In fact, that was our most successful campaign.

Another approach is to leverage the news that’s already out there. An example of that would be tying to timely events or seasonal things like Thanksgiving. For example, the president stands on the White House lawn every Thanksgiving and pardons a turkey. It’s on every newscast. It’s like TV news directors feel like they have to cover it. So we decided to give them a fun angle, which was: “The Happiest Turkey on Earth.” Basically, we wanted to focus on the turkey that got pardoned by asking, “What’s he going to do today?” The answer, of course, was: “Going to Disneyland.”

It was creative and it caught people’s imagination. We received two direct mentions from the president, and saw over 1400 media hits from a single VNR. The whole campaign cost $35,000—and even included flying the turkey, whose name was Marshmallow, down to the Disney parade. He flew first class on United. They worked with us on that. So that’s another example of synergy.

How can readers foster the kind of creativity you brought to those campaigns?

First, don’t’ complain about lack of resources. You can’t blame a flat campaign on that. It all comes down to creativity—and that’s driven by individuals and an environment that nourishes it. Our Disney PR team is just 13 people. We’re not an army of hundreds. You don’t need an army if you have creativity. Related to that: Ideas must be simple. Creativity isn’t complicated and it doesn’t cost a fortune. If you can’t describe your idea for a campaign in a few sentences, then it probably won’t work. 

Also, the Internet has leveled the playing field for people who talk about lack of resources. Smaller organizations can now tap into user-generated content like blogs, podcasts and videocasts to drive creative campaigns with incredible results.

Another tip is that people in the U.S. consume information in a very visual way. That’s how we show and receive information now. So remember that a great idea, story or even campaign comes down to the image and the shot. What is the image you want to see in the paper or on the six o’clock news? Decide that—and then go for it.

Is that how Disney develops its creative campaigns?

Yes. We do it backwards, as far as traditional approaches go. Specifically, we pitch the idea to a couple of freelance reporters. They write the story for us on assignment. Then we review the story and say, “In order to get that story, what does our release need to look like. What does our VNR or satellite feed need to look like? What must our key messages be to create this story?” We then back into the idea to create what we want to see. It goes back to the old “know the headline” idea—but we actually implement this as a process here.

We do this because so many in PR come up with a great idea internally, pitch it internally and then tie up a lot of resources to push it to the media—and then they get nothing.  Another thing I want to stress is that you have to have a culture that is about creativity and ideas. You have to let them happen. That can really sustain a person through a career. It also ensures that you’re getting only the best out of your people.

What are the biggest challenges facing corporate PR?

Most of the challenges we’re facing have to do with the ability of consumers to screen out content. That includes things like the iPod for music, satellite radio for radio and TiVo for television. Consumers can now screen out anything that’s not relevant. So we no longer just pitch the media here. The same applies across PR everywhere. We are becoming content providers—or will have to become that to keep up. If I want to reach Sally in the future, I will need to leverage David, my biggest fan and evangelist, by keeping him up to date, in the know and in the kind of content he wants to see so he can help us with Sally.

Put differently: We’re moving from being sellers and pitchers to becoming content providers. Instead of going through the media to reach consumers, we’ll give them what they want directly. With database management these days, we can serve up the content that is specific to you. So this is a challenge. But it’s also our most exciting opportunity. For example, the Disney Mobile service (launching in June) can serve up ESPN video of the Dodgers right to your phone. It’s all about direct to consumer content and the ability to have one-on-one dialog with consumers.

So what must corporate side PR do face that particular challenge?

We need to learn how to speak directly to the market. That’s a real issue, because there are two types of companies today. Those without the infrastructure and bureaucracy are getting to market quicker. They don’t have the heritage of the 300 steps necessary to make a small change. Instead, they get the idea 80 percent there and then test and adjust to consumer feedback on the fly. The other type of business goes to 101 percent before launching—but they lose market share by waiting. So a real issue facing corporate PR is over-analyzing and not letting the consumer guide your programs. For example, we’re launching a brand new campaign based
solely on consumer insight—right down to the tagline of the campaign. It’s going to be a success because it’s giving them exactly what they want.

We basically need to let go of message control if we’re to have credibility in this new consumer-driven market. Consumers are eventually going to decide your messages for you. “Common sense speak” is going to become more of a requirement. We’re going to have to evolve to that from “corporate speak” so people will get where we’re coming from. For example, companies may often refer to products or services as strategic assets as opposed to what the benefits of those “assets” are to consumers. That way of thinking isn’t going to work any longer—not if you expect to stay relevant.

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