The Happiest PR Man on Earth

Attendees of the PRSA Counselors Academy Conference this spring are in for an inspirational treat with the highly anticipated return of keynote speaker and workshop leader Duncan Wardle. Duncan spent 30 years at the Walt Disney Corporation leading PR and Innovation and brings an infectious enthusiasm to his work. He’ll be delivering both a keynote presentation and a first-of-its-kind workshop at the conference. Duncan's sessions promise to be memorable, entertaining, and - above all - useful in helping grow your business.

I recently gave Duncan a call to talk about his career, how he became an innovation expert, and his plans for sharing insights in Toronto. Here’s a Q&A that will provide a taste of what it’s like to learn from Duncan:

Q: What can someone expect to learn from hearing you speak and attending your workshop? *

A: What I would love is if people leave with two or three actual tools they can use the same week or the next week; tangible tools you can use in your business to think differently and develop new ideas.

If you’ve had a client for 10 years, it’s really hard to develop new ideas for that client. The biggest barrier to our own innovation is our own experience because our experience tells us why that client might say ‘no’ to something so we start shutting ideas down before we even consider them. It’s about giving people tools that will get them out of their own experience and get them to think differently. And, importantly, we are going to give people tools to evaluate the ideas based on their potential to drive business, not just drive coverage.

Q: How did you become an innovation expert?

A: I started with Disney right out of college in the 80s. I had an internship and spent four months each in three areas: PR, advertising and promotions. For my way of thinking, advertising always got what it wanted because it had the biggest budgets; promotions got 50% of what it wanted because they had something to give away; but PR became my home because it was the ability to walk in the door and have an idea and sell it with NO budget whatsoever. The PR teams were always the smallest and they had to be the most creative. I just felt, ‘this is where I belong,’ and I stayed for 30 years.

Q: What are some of your favorite Disney moments?

A: For Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, we felt like we received a tremendous amount of coverage, and as the year went on, the media was starting to get tired of hearing from us. So we started thinking about what they have to cover no matter what, like Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Well, we knew the president always pardons a turkey on Thanksgiving and thought to ourselves, ‘doesn’t that make it The Happiest Turkey on Earth?’ And this what I love about PR, you can just go for it. We made a call and started talking to the director of communications at the White House and they loved the idea of sending the pardoned turkey to Disneyland.

The next thing you know, George W. Bush is saying, ‘this turkey is going to Disneyland’ and the amount of press we received was mind-boggling.

Q: So you just made that idea up and made a call and it actually happened?

A: Well there were a lot of logistics involved but essentially yes. One of the funniest things that happened was that the president said the turkey would be the grand marshall in the Thanksgiving Day parade at Disneyland. And after he said that, one of our guys said, “The only problem is that we don’t have a Thanksgiving Day parade.’ And I said, ‘well, you’ve got two days to make one happen.’ And so we did and now the Thanksgiving Day Parade is an annual tradition.  

Q: What is it about PR that gets you excited?

A: I often think of the famous quote from Henry Ford, ‘whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.’ I love that 50/50 chance of pulling it off. It costs nothing to try, I love that feeling of going for it.

Q: Let’s talk about brainstorming and coming up with ideas. What do people usually do wrong when they are trying to come up with a big idea?

I like the PR industry because there is an element of risk in everything we do. Advertising? I bought it already
— Duncan Wardle

A: The first mistake they make is that they don’t include about half of the people who would otherwise make an important contribution - I’m speaking of the introverts. When you brainstorm around a table, it’s always the extroverts who lead, and whose ideas are heard most. But introverts are often the best with ideas because they think before they speak. You must find ways to make room for introverts and engage them. This can be done by getting rid of physical barriers, like big tables, and brainstorming in smaller groups -- not more than four people -- where introverts are drawn out.

When it’s time to choose an idea, what I see too often are teams lining up behind the most senior person. You have to have a safe environment with a process to make sure that the ideas chosen aren’t necessarily the ideas of the leader. They need to be the ideas that are best for the brand and the audience and you need the right tools to make that determination.

Q: What are some other tips to lead more effective brainstorming sessions?

A: Put away the cell phones. This sounds basic, but even if you are just periodically checking the phone it can kill the energy of the group. It’s important for leaders to set the tone in this and send a clear signal for what’s required from everyone else.

Q: How can we help our teams come up with better ideas?

A: The important thing you need to do is give your team time. Send a brief about the challenge you’re facing three or four days in advance. This will get people thinking about it and I promise you they’ll come in with an idea.

Another thing to do is ask each person to bring in one example of some really creative PR campaign they’ve seen in the last 12 months. Have them present informally maybe just a one-pager with 3-4 bullet points and a photo or perhaps just a video. And have them talk about what they liked about it and why it inspired them.

Q: I once heard an investor on Shark Tank say that "ideas are cheap, execution is everything." Do you agree with this statement?

A: Completely agree. Having an idea is easy. PR is brilliant at having ideas, but getting through bureaucracy, culture, and getting ideas done, that's the hard part.

At Disney we had the idea to send Buzz Lightyear to the international space station and needed to convince NASA. To do so we had to talk not about how this would be great for Disney, but about how it would get kids excited about careers in science and technology. You have to ensure that ideas are not just something you’re excited about, but that they’ll drive business results.

Q: Who inspires you and why?

A: Richard Branson because he takes risks, simple as that. My favorite quote is from Winston Churchill, ‘Keep buggering on.’ it’s about perseverance.

Q: What role do you think PR plays in the modern marketing environment?

A: I think it is PR's time. I like the PR industry because there is an element of risk in everything we do. Advertising? I bought it already. I've written the copy, I know it aligns with my strategic vision. But here's the thing, PR's time has not only come, it is going to dwarf the other industries. Because it is all about being authentic, being credible, taking risks; not quite getting it 100% right. The days of getting it 100% right and polished … if you do, the consumer doesn't believe it anyway. I think the PR industry's time is now.

The other thing is we have to have the courage to do is not be perfect. If everything is completely aligned with a strategic brand fit it will be BORING. It doesn't engage people.

Q: How else does the PR industry need to change?

A: We have tremendous opportunity but we must go beyond where we've always focused, which is 'how much coverage have I got? Can I get on the front page?'

The rules have changed. It's about two things: has the target audience engaged with the brand and has it driven business results?

Q: You had what seems like a dream job at Disney. Why did you decide to go out on your own as a consultant?

A: I had 30 successful and magical years with Disney. It was time. I also wanted to find out, ‘am I really any good?’ When you have Darth Vader and Buzz Lightyear, you’ve got a lot in your corner. I believe genuinely that everyone is creative but you’ve got to give them the tools so that’s what I’m doing. It’s not about being inspirational or motivational but tangible.

*Duncan will provide the morning keynote on Tuesday, May 8th - "Creating Your Own Idea Machine," where he will provide an overview of Creative Behaviors and Innovation Tools that he developed during his time at Disney. 

For those who might crave a more intensive learning experience, Counselors is also offering a Creativity Workshop with Duncan following his morning presentation. This 4-hour workshop is designed to allow participants the opportunity to actually use both the Creative Behaviors and Innovation Tools in a series of exercises that will deepen the learning experience and their ability to convert those learnings back to challenges they are currently working on. The workshop requires an additional ticket ($250) which can be purchased on the registration site. 

To register for the Counselors Academy Spring Conference and Duncan's workshop, please visit here,

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Duncan Wardle

Back by Popular Demand at Counselors Spring Conference

Photo Credit: Chelsea Clough, Abel Communications