When your business is public relations, you know that creativity is essential to your PR mix. Where is one of the best places to find new, innovative ideas? In our universities. That's what Ketchum PR found. Here's a look at their private community: Mindfire.

Increasing the Level of Creativity

Ketchum PR is a global public relations agency -- it is in over 70 countries worldwide. I had the opportunity to sit down with Andy Roach, Ketchum's CIO and Brian Keenan, the Open Innovation Creative Project Leader at Ketchum about Mindfire, an innovative private community of university students helping identify new and creative ways to support clients.

Roach told me that last year they has a number of initiatives in play to up the level of creativity at Ketchum. They wanted to leverage global capabilities, believing that ideas can come from anywhere. They implemented tools that allowed that to happen.

But at the end of 2010 they wanted to go farther. Although they were using a number of custom tools internally, they wanted to extend it out. The best place to get creative ideas, Ketchum determined, was at universities. They partnered with a vendor to do that. The vendor we'll get to in a bit.

Create a Challenge

Mindfire is an ideation environment. Using the Mindfire tool, Ketchum would post a challenge out to any of the twenty four universities to respond to. Currently they have 261 users across 24 universities -- these are communication students, selected either by Ketchum via competitive challenges or recommended by the university. These students are digitally savvy and have the time to provide good ideas. Keenan referred to them as some of the top creative minds. 

When I asked why students, Roach told me that the PR landscape has changed a lot with social media, so they wanted digital natives who also had a sophistication on the PR side. The protection of the university was also key.

The Mindfire community is a private one, especially considering the clients who are likely mentioned in the challenges.

Basically it works like this: Ketchum has a section on its intranet dedicated to Mindfire. Here, account execs complete Creative Briefs. These briefs are then posted to the Mindfire site and students are notified. Then the ideas start flowing in.

Ideas are ranked/voted on by students and by Ketchum's creative network. They can even be expanded on. At the end of the challenge the ideas are sent back to the account teams and client for review.

The winner is acknowledged on the site and the reason for winning is always clearly explained. Ketchum also likes to go back to students and focus on the ideas, providing suggestions for future challenges.

The Incentives to Participate

This is a really good way for students to work in their industry while learning. But there is always some form of compensation outside of the learning process itself. For students involve with Mindfire, they receive access to webinars, jobs postings and internships within Ketchum. They also have access to career coaching.

The student with the winning idea does get a small prize, but Ketchum has found that most students take advantage of the coaching and internship opportunities. They have taken on several interns in locations such as New York, Hong Kong and Dubai.

Breakthrough Ideas

Creativity can be learned, but for many it's also second nature. When you are in a learning environment, you are constantly challenged to think creatively. Keenan told me that some really breakthrough ideas has come out of Mindfire challenges.

One example was GEO-location software driven online map. This was for a healthcare company to reach a particular group of people with a certain condition. This software would help show where these people are and share tips/ideas as part of a support community.

The Technology: BrightIdea

It's obvious the technology used was innovation management software. In this case it was a partnership with BrightIdea (news, site). Roach told me that along with the technology BrightIdea offers -- the solution mapped to features of Ketchum's own internal system and took it even further -- it was also BrightIdea's community of innovation leaders that swayed them.

I think that clearly demonstrates that vendors need to do more than provide great technology, they need to also back it up with the solid expertise in how to think innovatively.

Ketchum also donates money for one book for every idea submitted in Mindfire to Room to Read -- a non-profit organization that provides books to developing countries. To date, they have donated 500, not a bad amount.