Trust Me, PR is Dead

By Robert Phillips

The Former EMEA President and CEO of the world’s largest PR firm on the end of PR

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Big Bang Theories and the Kabbalah of PR

I have been thinking about the Lurianic Kabbalah this week – the medieval, mystical Judaic texts that seek to explain the chaos of the world and to understand what it will take to return to order, human fulfilment and/ or Messianic arrival (the three may not be unrelated).

As I have written before, I am a Jewish atheist, so attracted by the Kabbalah theory of the sparks on grounds of poetry and metaphor, not of mission. When the world was created, a huge explosion shattered the vessel of light, scattering sparks to all corners of the universe. It is only when the sparks are gathered together again, so the (paraphrased) tale runs, that the Messiah can arrive and the world can be redeemed. Until then, I guess we live in relative darkness and disorder – a perpetual chaos within which we manage to only occasionally reclaim fragments of light.

Less mystical thinkers of course have their own Big Bang theories on how the world was formed. Astrophysics eventually managed to validate the thinking of a sixteenth century writer some four centuries later. What was then called mysticism is now called science.

* * *

I found myself addressing a conference with the title of “Big Bang PR” in the unlikely surroundings of the Folie Begeres in Paris, last week.

I had already been dwelling on the Kabbalah narrative before the Paris trip, thinking that the world today is indeed one of Kabbalah-style chaos and that many global corporations are themselves broken vessels.

On the positive side, they host so many sparks - particles of human excellence – but, on the down side, are hugely constrained by their own organisational dis-order. Hence the constant, vain attempts to create singular, mythical vessels or vehicles of control. As the genius Change Agent Céline Schillinger might put it, in organisations  we so often seen “brilliance crippled by bureaucracy”.

Any attempt to gather and unify this explosion of human sparks is futile. A permanent fracture is widened by increasingly fragile hierarchies and failing vestiges of faux control. However much business leaders in traditional economies and organisations might desperately want the idea of the singular vessel to be true, the facts of the messy, real world of people speak otherwise. The battle for control has been lost. Traditional business models and leaders mostly remain deeply myopic and think only in increments, failing to grasp the magical and indeed spiritual power of the creative citizen economy. Nor do they fully comprehend the parallel reality of a radicalised corporate and political future – dominated by those many individual sparks.

The hidden beauty of the Kabbalah – unless you are dead-set on direct spiritual instruction – is that it demands that we ask bigger questions of ourselves and of our purpose in the chaotic world.

* * *

The current, broken model of Public Relations of course speaks to the old system, not the new. I was in Paris because a former colleague, Marion Darrieutort, had asked me to debate the perennial “Is PR dead?” issue with publisher Paul Holmes. Paul put up a robust argument, though I doubt he actually believes in the cause he was asked to defend. That said, like so many, he has business interests to protect and is therefore unlikely to step willingly into the new world. (Incidentally, I think I must stop engaging in these debates – increasingly, through their self-obsession about PR, they trivialise and marginalise the more important conversations we urgently need to have around the changed world of business and leadership).

Frequent readers will be familiar with the core thrust of my argument: the future of business – and therefore of communications  - looks substantially different to what we see today. New models are required, as are new behaviours: actions, not words. The future will see us prioritise transformational outcomes over managerial, compliant outputs. The shift from Public Relations to Public Engagement is not enough – because this offers only incremental change.  Public Leadership determines a new pathway – it is activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first. Public Value becomes the new evaluation framework for this leadership model – a fusion of common good & shared value. This is bespoke for every organisation. Wise crowds hold better networked leaders to continual account. Public leadership and public value help address critical issues of trust.

* * *

We were asked by our Parisian host to debate whether PR is even relevant given the ascendancy of social business. Of course, it is not. Public Relations is an analogue function in a digital age, a hierarchical discipline in an era of networks. PR is dominated by generalists at an exciting time when deep expertise can better flourish and genuinely help transform.

Or, to keep the Biblical analogies going, with the dawn of data, PR looks positively Creationist.

Moreover, the PR industry has been scavenging at the edges of Social Media for the best part of ten years, in order to mask its axiomatic decline. This is especially true among the larger global network consultancies, who dominate the industry overall. It is time to get real in business accounting as it is in business thinking. Put simply: the prevailing consultancy model is not sustainable.

* * *

The PR industry has obsessed for a decade now as to whether Social Media is in fact PR or vice versa. We should care little for this discussion. It again asks the wrong questions, miring the industry still further in pointless introspection. As I said on stage in Paris, the real truths of the Social Digital Age should focus on the implications of social business, the creative economy and individual empowerment – the irreversible power shifts from state to citizen, employer to employee, company to citizen-consumer. We are altogether more atomised and activist as a result of these shifts. Power and influence is asymmetrical and therefore needs to be met with asymmetrical actions, not finely-honed words. Individuals, not institutional authority, are driving societal change. The old vessel of mundane creation is truly broken – if ever it was once repaired - and PR, at a most fundamental level, is not equipped to deal with the brilliant, disparate sparks of individual power.

Active citizens – whether in the workplace, polling booth or the supermarket - already represent billions of twinkling atoms, liberated from any singular vessels of institutional authority. Chaos and dis-order reign, as we learn to live openly in the age of Edward Snowden, rather than suffer, as we did, as propaganda victims in the time of Edward Bernays.

Transparency, Snowden’s accidental gift, is likewise about freedom, not control. Coming to terms with it, we can only embrace chaos, not attempt to impose the manicured harmony of the late twentieth century. Transparency asks that we speak with raw honesty, even when we fail, not hide behind the failed message management or crafted narratives that old institutions bring.

* * *

Oddly, perhaps, the implications of all this sets communications (beyond PR) in a more pivotal position than it is today. For those who get it, business values will be led by citizen-centric and society-first thinking. Organisations will be turned inside out, recognising thousands of employees as social activists and change agents, part of a real movement. While the future is not corporate and mono-cultural, “corporates”, complete with their atomised but connected sparks, are very much part of the future – an integral component within the twenty-first century social contract.

Future communications starts at the end, not the beginning, of a four-part process that first comprehensively re-sets the goals, values and working practices of the organisation.

For corporate goals, it will be essential to ask bigger questions. For corporate values, we must think about citizens before capital. For working practices, we should recognise the company as social movement. And then, finally, for communications, we will need to remove pointless parental controls.

* * *

Six centuries ago, the mystics suggested that, in literal translation, we “hug the chaos”.

When writing about Public Engagement at Edelman only six years ago, David Weinberger and I suggested that the first principle of the new order was to “embrace the chaos”. We were told this was too frightening, even though it was real.

“Clients don’t like chaos. They want a simple answer – and they want us to provide it”, came the clear direction.

Thus “embrace the chaos” became “navigate complexity” in a painful, pointless corporate compromise.

But this is just not real, just as another (advertising) agency’s tagline about the “brutal simplicity of thought” is equally misleading, however well it sells. The wholly reductive answer – the singular vessel - will never solve bigger problems in a complex and fragmented, messy world.

The chaos of the Kabbalah sparks is the natural order. The mystics of the sixteenth century knew this long before the astrophysicists of the twentieth century or the internet geeks of the twenty-first. We need to re-learn our own understanding of chaos and the sparks that populate it. The journey of dramatic change towards true enlightenment is exhilarating. We should face it with energy, not fear, and find kindred spirits to make the real, real once again.

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