The Long Weekend

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

I spent most of the UK Bank Holiday Weekend editing and tidying Part Three of the book: "What Is To Be Done?". It opens with a chapter entitled "The Road to Jericho"  and considers what organisations need to do to to address issues of substance, not spin. (As a teaser, the first three are (i) Tell the truth; (ii) Break the business model; and (iii) Create a new corporate culture. I also clarify why it is OK to be an "asshole" company or brand. The following chapter goes on to consider the relationship bewteen profit and purpose. Its telling title is "The Missionary Position".

I was hoping that, on Sunday, The Sunday Times would publish a piece they had asked me to author for their News Review. Sadly, it was beaten down their agenda by a combination of Lord Browne's glass closet, Thomas Piketty's ubiquitous Capital and, er, Jeremy Clarkson.

The article includes my latest thinking not only on Public Leaderhip but also how we articulate and evaluate Public Value. The fundamental points, as you will see, are that we need to re-frame "Common Good" as Public Value and that there can never be a cookie-cutter measurement of the latter. Every organisation will need to find its own space and be accountable to its own crowd.

As ever, I would love to know your thoughts.

Robert

                                                                          Trust Me, PR Is Dead

                                                               (a piece The Sunday Times never ran)

Eighteen months ago, Robert Phillips quit his job as President & CEO for Europe, the Middle East & Africa for the world’s largest Public Relations firm to write a book. The title is self-explanatory. “Trust Me, PR Is Dead” is being crowd-funded and is published by Unbound.

  * * *

Hardly a week goes by without PR or “spin doctors” being in the news – from the jailing of celebrity publicist, Max Clifford, to accusations that Prime Minister David Cameron was “acting as a PR man” for US pharma giant, Pfizer. Elections bring with them the usual mix of crass sound-bites and silly stunts – and, as LBC presenter James O’Brien found out, the occasional angry interference of a PR minder.  It seems politicians cannot be trusted to say the right thing, without a coterie of messaging bodyguards.

The Royal Family veers from PR triumph (William and Kate Windsor) to PR disaster (take your pick). Recently, it has been on a PR-high, although Prince Charles has managed to prick that with his comparisons of the Russian President to Adolf Hitler. Charles’ Canadian moment teaches us that not only is it now impossible to 'manage the 
message' but also that the end of the age of deference and hierarchies is truly upon us. 
The monarch-in-waiting increasingly behaves like a social activist, than a 
regal diplomat. Curiously, that puts him in tune with the real 
world, which sees through the obvious veneer of “spin” and asks for a return to honesty, in politics and in business.

  * * *

The entrepreneur Luke Johnson once reminded me “where there’s a buyer, there’s a market”. For this reason, the Public Relations industry will survive for some time. This does not make it fit for purpose. As Diogenes the Cynic saw it: “markets are places men go to deceive one another”.

Global businesses are seeing through the mythology of PR and re-thinking their communications functions. One European Communications Director, quoted in the Financial Times, said of his PR agency “I have no idea what they do for us … little except add corporate speak”.

I spent over 25 years working in Public Relations. I am confident that PR is now dead. Few should mourn its passing.  Its business model, dominated on the consultancy side by bloated global firms selling bureaucracy and generalists over leadership and expertise, is broken. Its philosophy – rooted in selling stuff to consumers, not speaking honestly to citizens – is exhausted. An increasingly transparent world exposes tired deceits of message management. PR is an analogue function in a digital age. With the new dawn of data, PR is almost creationist.

PR has abused and exhausted trust. Trust is not a function of PR. Trust is an outcome, not a message. It is deeply behavioural, complex and fragile. Trust is hard-fought, hard-earned and hard-won every day, by actions, not words. CEOs should beware PR salesmen that talk trust and promise otherwise.

Some rebels are re-setting the agenda. Pierre Goad, Global Co-Head of Communications at HSBC, is one. “Implanting messages”, he comments, “doesn’t work with 5-year olds let alone with 255,000 grown-ups. We don’t waste time crafting the perfect message and the most efficient channel to plant communications in people’s heads”.

Crowd-funding my book, I have been dismayed by the complacency of many consultancy leaders, once colleagues, who, instead of addressing deep challenges, simply trumpet the current financial health of the sector. They would do well to consider the fate of companies such as Kodak and Blockbuster, who famously sleepwalked over the precipice, while in similar denial.

* * *

Public Relations was the brainchild of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, created as a means of control over the masses, whose democratic judgement he did not trust. PR exploded a global industry of business and political propaganda. It celebrated its low-point with the ugly moniker of spin while spawning a compliant sibling in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Bernays’ twentieth century was one of institutional authority, hierarchies, control and intermediation. Disruptive technology and costless communications make these mostly redundant and fuel an irreversible mega-trend of individual empowerment that sees power shifting from state to citizen, employer to employee, corporation to citizen-consumer.  Power and influence are asymmetrical. Yet senior PR executives, apparently blind, fail to see that we live in the age of Edward Snowden, not Edward Bernays. Radical honesty and radical transparency prevail.

A new model of Public Leadership is needed to replace Public Relations: activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first. It is social, because it is of and among real people, and democratic, because it gives voice to all. Public Leadership returns ‘purpose’ to the core of business.

Public Leadership dismisses the controlling orthodoxy of Bernays. It is resonant with the instincts of a post-Crisis, post-Occupy world that seeks safeguards against more predatory forms of capitalism.  The growing influence of the B Corporations in the US, for which clothing company Patagonia is the poster-child, evidences this, while the likes of Unilever (with its Sustainable Living Plan) and Marks & Spencer (Plan A) capture the generational but permanent mood-swing towards Public Leadership among major corporations.

Neal Lawson, Chair of Think Tank Compass, sees that companies must now “do the right thing – or they will get you”. They are the generations of increasingly active citizen-consumers, armed with tools of technological protest. A Tahrir Square moment still looms for a business or brand that gets it wrong.

During the crowd-funding for the book, a number of parallel articles featuring the “death” meme started appearing. One blog from Richard Fletcher, UK Ambassador to Lebanon, resonated: “Substitute ‘traditional diplomacy’ for ‘PR’”, he wrote, “and we see a familiar challenge”.

“Diplomacy”, continued Fletcher, “has detached itself from public debate through meaningless platitudes. Much of its form was designed in 1815 for an age of monarchies and great states; and it has been slow to adjust to the next wave of disruption. Let’s be honest, post-Snowden and Assange, we are less trusted than we were”.

Dan Kieran, co-founder of Unbound, says publishing is in similar crisis. "Traditional gatekeeper models are breaking down. Readers need publishers to be authentic, agile and entrepreneurial. The time of passive consumers being 'told' what to buy is coming to an end. People want to be engaged, to have a voice and curate their own content experience."

  * * *

The workplace is the frontline for this new social democracy. “Work”, as HSBC’s Goad observes, “is a profoundly social experience. (Yet) large organisations still do everything in their power to deny that”.

The Public Leadership model urges enlightened CEOs to promote participation and freedom over control and to think and behave like social activists. They facilitate the activism of others, effectively co-producing leadership. The company of the future is a de facto social movement; its communications function comprises a network of highly connected community organisers, each with dedicated areas of expertise. There is no need for conventional CSR – “purpose” becomes part of a shared manifesto - nor for external PR consultancies: the modern corporation can happily be its own expert media.

A number of FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies are embedding this thinking – from oil and manufacturing majors to leading professional services’ firms. The companies of the future recognise themselves as communities of 100,000+ potential social activists, rather than 100,000+ passive employees. Some even see their CEO in a mayoral role, initiating dramatic change.

The axiomatic increase in employee activism is noted by Cliff Oswick, Professor in Organisation Theory at Cass Business School. The Social Digital age killed the rock-star CEO, popularised by the likes of Richard Branson. Control is now futile. “Today’s CEOs”, he comments, “are adaptors, not initiators. Delegation is a paradoxical form of control”.

Public Leadership is measured by Public Value - fusing an evolved concept of “common good” (oddly, given its roots in Aristotle and Aquinas, an over-politicised term) and Harvard Professor Michael Porter’s “shared value”. The temptation, to be resisted, is to jargonise and build yet another rigid compliance framework for Public Value. Every corporation will have its unique version – and its own manifesto - because Public Value is better co-produced with wise crowds of employees, customers and stakeholders. This becomes the anchor for its accountability to the many, not the few – the 99%. A bank that thinks in terms of Public Value outcomes, for example, would quickly address Lord Adair’s challenge of being “socially useless”.

The future of communications must embrace the messy chaos of real people. As Professor John Kotter has written, “it is within networks that big changes happen”. Communications must shed itself of an obsession with manicured message-management and control. It must place radical honesty, radical transparency and actions, not words, at its core. It is time to put a discredited function, PR, out of its misery and to build a new model afresh, for the world as it is now, not the world as it once was. Arguing for the re-branding or evolution of Public Relations will not do. The great propaganda game of the twentieth century is over.

Robert Phillips is co-founder of Jericho Chambers and a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School. “Trust Me, PR Is Dead” is published by Unbound.

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Published
Publication date: June 2015
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