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, 18 May 2014

"PR ist tot" (apparently)

For those fluent in German....

For those lost in translation, here it is again (via "PRMagazin")...

Q: Please give us an abbreviated version: Why is PR dead?

The current model of “Public Relations” is no longer fit for purpose. It was born in a diminishing age of hierarchies and institutional authority and relies too heavily on command-and-control communications. Persistent talk about “crafting narratives” and “managing messages” are just two examples of this.

We now live in a chaotic age of networks and we therefore need a communications discipline that is more activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first. I have chosen to call this Public Leadership.

A parallel point is that the term “PR” has become saddled with the monikers of deceit and spin, while some PR folk have often promised to “restore trust” through PR. This is is impossible. Trust is an outcome, not a message and is the product of actions, not words.

PR is dead because we need to kill it for the professional health and survival of the next generation of practioners – and to replace it with a new model of comms.

Q: What is the difference between PR and public leadership?

See above.

Public Leadership is an evolved form of communications that is better suited to the realities of the post-crisis (some may say, post-capitalist), Social Digital world.

It respects the world as it is now, not as it was twenty or fifty years ago.

Q: You say: "PR has abused and exhausted trust. The restoration of trust is not a function of PR." Is PR synonymous with spin in your eyes?

Of course, “good” PR – in my eyes – is not synonymous with spin. But it is to many and, sadly, too many in the industry continue to spin when they should instead recognise that radical honesty and radical transparency lie at the heart of all communications. We live in a world of Edward Snowden, not Edward Bernays. There is no room – or tolerance – for propaganda.

My concern is that, in the rush to make money, many of the larger agencies in particular are selling trust programmes, based on a false promise. Trust resides with citizens, not with corporations or leaders. Trust cannot be a function of PR. It can be an outcome of public leadership – if that is itself co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first.

Q: You claim that the business model of PR, especially of large agency networks, is broken: But why are their revenues rising year in year out after the global financial crisis?

It is broken philosophically but not yet commercially. However, the the two are intrinsically linked – hence my challenge that the industry is about to sleepwalk over the cliff.

I also point out in the book that “where there is a buyer, there is a market”, so the marketplace is clearly still buying PR. However, you only need to look at examples like Kodak and Blockbuster to see how quickly the mighty can fall.

Q: You say: „bloated networks selling bureaucracy over transformation and generalists over deep expertise“. Do you mean all of them including Edelman?

The point I am making is that we live in an age of mastery. Networks and coalitions, not institutional hierarchies are the business models of the future: collaboration, not control; thinkers, not technocrats.

Currently, none of the major networks are aligned with the reality of the new world – they tend to focus on expansion by geography, not deep expertise; and on management, rather than public leadership. Furthermore, there is a structural problem in that they cannot free up the investment dollars to make the necessary shifts. It is too disruptive to their business models. In addition, the dominant network players (like WPP, Omnicom etc) are investing their big bucks in data and social and search… and not in PR. Hence the cliff analogy.

As it so happens, I think Edelman still ranks as the best of the major players. I am extemely proud of my work and Edelman’s work and believe Richard Edelman to be a man of true integrity. I am very careful not to criticise Edelman. Some think that my book is a “kiss & tell” memoire. It is nothing of the sort. It is simply a piece of (hopefully!) original thought and is intended as a wake-up call to a sector that has, I believe, become too focussed on selling rather than thinking – and is complacenet within its status quo.

Q: And do you think that the clients of these agencies are stupid and naive?

Not at all. They are buying PR as it is currently offered. But they could certainly do better and many agencies should be doing better for them. There are plenty of horror stories that underline this point.

I am working with a select number of Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 clients at CEO, CMO and CCO level and they are “buying” the Jericho Chambers progressive approach. This to me proves that there has to be a better way.

Q: You further claim that the big agencies are unable to change. How should they reform themselves?

See my answers earlier.

They need to shift from generalisms to expertise; from selling to thinking; from obsessing about themeselves to absolutely focusing on their clients; to learn to collaborate within agile networks (of their own and with third parties) and not in aggressive silos; to become fully transparent about the way they make money – which means differentiating between offering “arms & legs” support to clients and true, consultancy expertise.

They need to move from the twentieth century traditional/ marketing model into the 21st century creative/ collaborative one.

Above all, they need to root everything they do in actions, not words.

Q: You are harshly critizising the concept of CSR and the use of CSR by PR people. What is wrong with CSR?

Please take time to read my article “Why CSR Makes Me Angry”. This says it all, really. (

Essentially, CSR has become bureaucratic and compliance-led, rather than transformative and led by values. It represents a huge wasted opportunity. PR had the chance to step-up and lead on citizenship in the 1990s when “Social Marketing” (as it was then) first came to the fore. Instead, it rushed to productise in order to monetise and gain put selling ahead of thinking. And we ended up with CSR.

This reinfoces my belief that a deep political and philosophical fault-line runs through the PR sector: those that believe in markets and money-first – versus those, myself included, who believe in transfomation and societal responsibility as the principle motive.

Q: You have worked 25 years in the PR industry: Are you fouling your own nest?

I think it is better to be honest and to speak my mind than to be a hypocrite, don’t you?

Much of what I am saying now I was saying while at Edelman. You only have to read Citizen Renaissance blogs dating back to 2007/8 to appreciate this. I initially thought that the shift from Public Relations to Public Engagement was enough but, the more I have thought about it, the more I think we need to move further still. Hence the call to Public Leadership.

It makes no sense for the industry to maintain a conspiracy of silence, ignorance and pretence. Clients are beginning to see through this, for sure, as is the next generation of practioners. Senior leaders owe it to everyone to do better.

Q: Over the past years more and more young talents choose to study communications, the number of employees in the pr industry is rising. Will most of these people be unemployed in a few years?

This is the danger, yes. Hence my reference earlier to Kodak and Blockbuster. Before the digital revolution, Kodak employed 70,000 people. It now employs less than 10,000 and is in Administration. Blockbuster has gone bust. PR is in danger of being an analogue function in a digital age.

Q: Some critics said, that you are just trying to sell a book and to take vengeance on your former employer Edelman and to promote your own advisory firm Jericho Chambers. What is your answer to your critics?

I am happy to set the record straight. This is absolutely not about either Edelman or Jericho Chambers. Jericho Chambers is doing fine without the book. I bear no ill will whatsoever to Edelman. I am much more interested in shaping the argument than in selling books.

Incidentally, I am disappointed by those who are trying to make this personal, rather than professional. And I am deeply saddened by some of the senior players in the industry who seem happier launching petty, personal attacks on me rather than sharing with us their views on where the industry needs to head next. I would challenge them to come up with arguments of their own. I am happy to met them in debate.

Q: Do you see any chance that PR is able to rise from the dead?

Absolutely. As I have said previously, this is at heart an optimistic book – a provocation to bring urgent and much-needed reform to a profession I love.



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