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

Monday, 17 March 2014

From Narrative-Based Public Relations to Activist Public Leadership

Last Friday, PR Week Magazine published an OpEd from me on why I believe that PR is dead and why Public Leadership is the future. For reasons of space (I think/ hope) a few lines were omitted from the final version. So here is my original text, in full .... there has to be a better way.

PR Is Dead. Public Leadership Is The Future

There has long been a debate about whether Public Relations needs re-branding, not least to escape the ugly moniker of “spin” and to make it fit-for-purpose in the Social Digital age. PR is of course the brainchild of Edward Bernays, born in an age of institutional authority, inter-mediation and “media relations” – all of which now border on the irrelevant.

I have previously argued that, whatever the branding, a shift was needed from Public Relations to Public Engagement, reflecting the realities of a multiple stakeholder world. I no longer think this is enough. Public Engagement should replaced by a new concept of Public Leadership. This is activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first. It reflects the needs of citizens, business and government together. The world has changed.

PR is dead. Its business model, dominated on the consultancy side by bloated networks selling bureaucracy over transformation and generalists over deep expertise, is broken. Its philosophy - rooted in selling stuff to consumers, rather than addressing societal needs – is exhausted. A transparent world exposes the tired deceits of message management and spin.

PR has had the opportunity to lead three times in the past two decades and been found wanting each time – with citizenship, social media and data. The industry has failed to deliver transformation to scale; to understand the importance of organizational design; and to properly embrace data (still less measurement and accountability). It has spawned the ill-formed discipline of CSR, continuing to place tick-box compliance over values-led, good behaviour.

PR has abused and exhausted trust. The restoration of trust is not a function of PR, nor has it ever been. Trust is not a message but an outcome. It is complex and fragile. There is no single action, no silver bullet campaign, to resolve the trust deficit. Trust is hard-fought, hard-earned, hard won everyday – by actions, not words. If trust is the desired outcome, then PR is not the appropriate solution. Beware the PR firm that talks and promises otherwise.

Public Leadership re-frames communications within the mega-trend of individual empowerment. Fuelled by technology, power continues to shift from state to citizen, employer to employee, corporation to citizen-consumer. Today’s activist society – institutional as well as individual – sees an asymmetry of power and influence. This needs to be met with activism and participation and demands better leadership than is currently on offer. This again makes the case for activist Public Leadership, not narrative-based Public Relations.

The Global Financial Crisis presented a behavioural schism in western politics and economics. Fractures were evident for at least a decade before then. The constant thrust of consumerism in business and government, placing “wants over needs” and promoting selfish ambition over greater good, threatened the wellbeing of people and planet.

Public Leadership respects the world as it is, not the world as it was. It is social because it is of and among the people. It is democratic because it gives voice to all. It is progressive because it is transformative - flattening hierarchies and embracing networks. It is within networks that big changes happen. Public Leadership recognizes that there has to be a better way.

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