Saturday, 4 October 2014
The Road to Jericho: Atonement, One Year On
It is almost one year to the day that George Pitcher, Jules Peck, Christine Armtsrong and I launched Jericho Chambers, billed as a community of experts and "the antidote to McKinsey and WPP". We have since grown to a group of fourteen partners. We have spent the past twelve months asking and answering bigger questions for a range of FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies. Like us, they are determined to find a better way.
I have often been asked "why Jericho?" This chapter extract from my book goes some way towards an explanation. Forgiveness and redemption is a central theme although, as I have said elsewhere and before, this is not born out of personal religious conviction. I remain a Jewish atheist.
Which of course makes it poignant that I am writing this on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Friends and family are no doubt praying in synagogue, while observing a sunset-to-sunset fast. I am, however, sat at the kitchen table, reviewing the Unbound edit of Trust Me, PR Is Dead – and hoping we can get this done pretty swiftly, so that the book can be shared with its 250+ supporters and other eager recipients.
< Incidentally, my sense is that this chapter will never see the light of day in its enirety – so I thought you might appreciate it now :-) >
On Yom Kippur 2013, I published this blog post on Atonement, in which I called for a National Apology Day. Here are my thoughts twelve months on – and one year into the Jericho adventure.
* * *
The Road to Jericho
“Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear.
That is why it is such a powerful weapon”
PR people, true to Edward Bernays’ original vision, want us to believe in a manicured reality and forever happy endings. It is a form of imposed hierarchy, of control. But real life does not operate thus. Like democracy, it is messy around the edges – full of contradictions, fractured relationships and unresolved conflicts. In an age of radical transparency, albeit sometimes unexpected or enforced, and new social democracy, with its own sprinkling of chaos, conclusions are always going to be more messy than happy.
* * *
“I have a tip for you.”
“You need some more upbeat music in your film.”
“Clients like happy endings.”
“But the world is not happy, it’s in a mess. We are trying to be real, not make-believe. Enough gratuitous manufacture.”
“If you want to sell them your services, you need to have a happier soundtrack."
* * *
There is no single conclusion to my book, by the way, no simple solution. There are some lists, for sure, intended as practical navigation tools for many of the themes and memes discussed. But if you are looking for that singularity of thought, you will not find it here. M&C Saatchi, the ad firm, refer to it as a “brutal simplicity of thought”. But I think that is an anachronism in a world that sees only chaos and complexity.
The ending to my book is not only messy but also under constant review.
* * *
“As long as you don’t end up saying that music is the solution”, suggested one senior Conservative Party advisor, as we discussed the conclusion to a year of my research and thought.
“I beg your pardon?”
He then reminded me of Jesse Norman’s conclusion to his otherwise excellent analysis of The Big Society, in The Anatomy of the New Politics.
Referencing “the social power of music”, Norman writes:
“We need to move music, musical performance and singing from the political periphery to a central role as a social and economic, as well as a cultural, priority.”
I am not sure I would have started there, although Norman’s quotation of Wynton Marsalis does make poetic sense:
“The power of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art, improvised art, and can negotiate their agendas with each other…and that negotiation is the art."
As a metaphor for collaborative business and politics, I can buy that.
* * *
I have never met Paul Weller, although we once found ourselves on the same Ryanair flight to Jerez. I am sure he doesn’t remember me.
Some think that Jericho Chambers – our disruptive consultancy venture – was inspired by a Weller song for The Style Council:
"You don't have to take this crap," it starts. "You can actually try changing it...you never know until you try...if we came together so strongly."
"Governments crack and systems fall...unity is powerful...they take the profits, you take the blame...and – like Jericho – you see walls can come tumbling down!"
The song was written in 1984.
It was not, however, the inspiration for Jericho Chambers.
* * *
I was quite tearful the day I announced my resignation from Edelman. It was partly because I felt a deep affinity with those who had shared with me Edelman’s own journey of transformation – from dusty, ‘90s, corporate also-ran to bright and shiny industry – and thought-leader. It was also partly because I was knackered, having worked the best part of 25 years, pretty much non-stop.
Taking time out to write a book seemed the comfortable way to break the news. (Richard Edelman would later excuse this publicly as a “return to academia").
“What is the book about?”
“It’s a book about cities and the great city states. How City States flourished in the High Renaissance and how a networked world will see power and influence return to City States over Nation States. It’s about the rise of Business States – how businesses will enter the Social Contract and how CEOs will become business statesmen and women. How business has the power to drive change."
“Oh, OK. Good luck with that then."
* * *
The idea for Jericho Chambers popped into my head during a walk along the Regents Canal in April 2013. I had been thinking about alternative business models but did not want to get sucked into the faux security of Dot Com boom-time, when annoying pseudo-tech entrepreneurs (many ex Investment Bankers) trumpeted “a business model never seen before” while demanding pitches delivered in rhyming iambic pentameter at 24-hours notice. One even asked us to pitch on Christmas Day. There was of course a reason that no one had seen the business model before: they in fact had and it didn’t work. (Incidentally, I was rather pleased with myself at the Jackie Cooper PR incubator we created for Dot Com boom-time clients: Jackie Cooper Dot Com – or JC.DC, for short).
Back on the towpath of the Regents Canal, it suddenly became obvious. Senior counsel required senior practitioners. An escape from the bureaucratic bullshit of large agencies meant...no bullshit and no bureaucracy. We needed to respect the rules by which we now asked others to organise and lead: expert and collaborative.
* * *
Cherie Blair, wife of the former British Prime Minister is famous for many things including, as often repeated, forgetting her contraception while staying with the Queen at Balmoral. More importantly, she is a Human Rights lawyer of great renown and a member of Matrix Chambers. Matrix is, to some, the annoying, “right-on” home of the legal profession – packed with anti-establishment Lefties, always on the lookout to give the conservative establishment a good spanking. It describes itself as “the radical Bar” and boasts some of the finest legal brains in Britain.
I want one of those, I decided. And so the concept of Chambers – complete with an early sense of Progressive Communication, since evolved, was born.
Over lunch at The Ivy Club a few days later, I chatted this through with George Pitcher, a longstanding friend who had accidentally created the genre of “Issues Management” when he co-founded Luther Pendragon in the early nineties. George had previously been Industrial Editor of The Observer and, more latterly, had found god (or maybe god found him), been ordained, and served as Secretary of Public Affairs for Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury. George is a noted iconoclast with a huge heart and a big brain and himself unsure whether he would pass or fail his own “genius or git?” test. He is possibly the last person on earth I would start a business with. And so, probably after one bottle of Burgundy too many, we decided to co-found Chambers, adding "no gits" to the determination to tolerate "no bullshit" and "no bureaucracy" either.
* * *
This started off as a book about cities and ended up as a book about leadership and a new social democracy in business. It is also a book about trust that (happily) killed off the old-form of PR along the way. It never started out as a book about PR.
I sometimes worry – but not for that long – that my former Edelman colleagues may have thought that I had always intended to write a book about the end of PR and one that criticised Edelman, to boot (it doesn't). As mentioned earlier, that was never my intention – however many times people have unilaterally decided to impose their interpretations on my true intent, even before the book was written.
One particularly annoying person started an unprovoked argument on Twitter:
“I don’t agree with the conclusions of your book, though I will probably have to read it anyway.”
“How can you disagree with the conclusion to a book that has not been written and one you have not read?”
“I have got better things to do with my weekend than argue with you on Twitter.”
Well, you started it.
The process of thinking about, writing and then crowd-funding this book has made me increasingly worried about the lack of logic of many in the so-called PR profession.
* * *
“I slightly object,” the Open Data Institute’s Emma Thwaites told me “to the whole idea of PR as a construct (or a profession indeed). It’s not quite dentistry, or neuroscience or law, is it?”
"At best,” she continues, “it is an industry – a bunch of people trying to make a living out of human interaction – and, in my honest opinion, usually failing miserably."
* * *
PR is, of course, not a profession. It requires no qualification: anyone can stick the letters P and R after their name and start a business – and its accreditation systems, such as they are, remain flimsy at best. In the UK, its two trade associations (I am, by admission, a Fellow of one of them) meander around mostly pointless conversations about the rise of Social Media and whether or not PR is a boardroom discipline. Another organisation seems to exist solely to award as many trophies as possible in order to extract as much money as possible from consultancies. This is the same organisation that writes extensively about the need for transparency and honesty in communications.
This is not to say that some university courses in Public Relations are not good, nor that certain training schemes score well (especially those that have abandoned the graduate prejudice in favour of more open-access apprenticeships). But PR is neither law nor accountancy nor dentistry. The price of entry is effectively zero, the level of sanction for bad advice non-existent. It cannot even get its act together (maybe it does not really want to) on a unified measurement tool.
If the PR industry does not take itself seriously, why should anyone else?
It is time everyone stopped referring to PR as a “profession” – myself included.
* * *
Over one year into the writing project and my thoughts have indeed crystallised and, to some extent, radicalised. I now see no real reason why companies – and, specifically, large global corporations – should rely on external consultancy support. They are much better off taking everything in-house and building their own centres of excellence and expertise. Ours is a world that no longer needs intermediaries.
I remember raising this point with Richard Edelman, on a park bench. If what the larger consultancies are actually selling is arms & legs support for global clients, then they are in the HR business, not the PR business. The major network players – those owned by the likes of WPP, IPG, Havas and Omnicom – should be honest about where they simply serve as an out-sourced function, rather than dress themselves up as serious strategic advisors. Actually, they should simply separate the two. Clients should only pay for bureaucracy when they have no infrastructure of their own and, even then, should probably take a scythe to the bought-in agency bureaucracy anyway: PR firms are rarely productively efficient. Clients should pay for senior strategic advice – but this needs to be specialist and expert, not generalist and puff.
More importantly, I would ask global multi-national corporations to ask two questions at a fundamental level. First, why can I not build the agency I need within? And, second, does the expertise I need truly lie within the world of Public Relations?
One of our thunderbolt insights when creating Jericho was that communications problems are often better solved by those working outside of the traditional communications disciplines. This is not just an issue confined to Public Relations, but its lust for cross-selling, its unshakeable belief that every problem is in fact a communications problem, and its perverse determination to always please and to avoid the more uncomfortable truths, means that it rushes to solve problems which it is often ill-equipped to solve. There is greater, deeper expertise out there on social media than 99% of most PR firms currently showcase: just look at the data geeks and search sirens. One classic example is Employee Engagement (the PR term for organizational design). It is better served by those who understand the real mechanics of change. Sustainability, likewise, is an issue of citizenship and not one of glossy brochure production.
Within the communications industry, there are the rebels and the early adopters. As Celine Schillinger of Sanofi Pasteur demonstrates, great communicators in today’s world need to be change agents. They need to take to the social dance floor – for business and not just for media. The only agency that is properly needed is the agency within.
Where global corporations can be their own agency, where they can demonstrate real expertise, where they can originate truthful content, they will enjoy greater authenticity and a legitimacy to lead.
* * *
“We cannot have Jerusalem."
“Because it’s too polarising. And I’m a priest. And it may not play well with Middle Eastern clients. ”
“It’s meant to be radical, not religious. You know, shades of ‘green and pleasant land’. Early nineteenth century radicalism. And a subversive tavern in Clerkenwell."
“How about Arcadia?”
“Everyone will think we work for Philip Green."
* * *
If I left Edelman with the honest intention of writing one book, I have ended up completing another. I can only apologise if some felt that I misled them in November 2012 when I started talking about the twenty-first century high renaissance of city states. That was certainly not my intent.
I still contend that several Business States will become equal in status to City States in the twenty-first century, maybe just as George Monbiot – with his accusations that Unilever behaves like an agent of the United Nations – precisely fears.
London Business School’s Professor Lynda Gratton studies in a similar vein of thought. On the fly jacket to her 2014 book, The Key, she writes:
“To create a good future, it is crucial that those who lead corporations become increasingly transparent about their actions and intentions and see themselves as part of the wider world they inhabit.
“The world’s business leaders must make a decision: either connect your company’s interests with those of the world at large – or watch these separate interests crash into each other. You have the resources to save the world.”
It is no coincidence that Gratton cites the Usual Suspects of Unilever, Tata and Vodafone. They are indeed better equipped to tackle some of the world’s tougher problems, as we examined earlier in the book. Paul Polman is the de facto Head of State for Unilever, whether Monbiot likes it or not. He has the power to effect change in much the same way that a Giuliani or a Bloomberg drove change in New York City, when mayors. Pierre Goad, at HSBC, openly refers to CEO Stuart Gulliver as Mayor. To him, the global community of 255,000 employees is effectively a hyper-connected city state. As we have seen, it even has its own TV channels.
This is the century of Amazon and London, Google and Singapore – more so than the tired, sprawling empires of East and West. The players are highly specialised, too. The twentieth century may have been one of Generals – General Electric, General Foods, General Motors etc. – but the generals are rarely still running the show.
* * *
The sycamore seed has become the symbol of Jericho.
Jericho of course appears frequently in the Bible. The tale of The Good Samaritan, for example, occurred on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Famously when Joshua – several millennia before Paul Weller – decided to make the walls come tumbling down, it is less frequently told that he subsequently set the city ablaze, determined to destroy all evil within. He did, however, save one prostitute, who had previously taken him in. It was an act of forgiveness, you see.
Jesus travels to Jericho in the New Testament, too. He sees someone atop a tree. The man’s name is Zaccheus. Some biblical interpretations say that Zaccheus had climbed the tree to get a better view of the man from Nazareth. I prefer my version:
“What are you doing up there?” asked Jesus.
“I am hiding. If I come down, they will kill me.”
“Because I am a tax inspector."
“Come down and I will forgive you."
The tree was a sycamore.
* * *
Ever since my teenage years and my obsession with social history, I have been fascinated by the Tolpuddle Martyrs, effectively pioneering trade unionists, who were arrested for “combining” and swearing an oath of allegiance as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, in search of better working conditions.
In 1834, such gatherings were illegal and the martyrs were all sentenced to deportation to Australia – creating a national outcry, a petition with 800,000 signatories and what became one of the first protest marches in English political history. Popular pressure eventually led to their release and return to Britain.
They had originally convened beneath a sycamore tree.
Progressive business, and indeed progressive communication, requires social justice as well as forgiveness; it has to be prepared to defy compliance, especially where compliance stands in the way to universal human truths and the betterment of people and society.
At the time of writing, we – the partners at Jericho – are still discussing how best to define Jericho. We are determined not to fall into trotting out meaningless platitudes and dreadful mission statements. As we would advise others, purpose needs to be conjoined with context, if we are to be truly authentic. We are not yet fully sure what Jericho is. But I think it is something about being a courageous change agency. George thinks it helps change the way the world works. Christine is passionate about changing the legacy – and is probably right. For sure, there is a better way, in revolutionary times.
* * *
Khaled is a progressive thinker.
After 9/11, Khaled received 86,000 hate letters from around the world – the majority from the USA. He was then editor of Arab News and is a Saudi national. The content of some of those letters defies description.
I met Khaled al-Maeena at a conference in Saudi Arabia in February 2014. His wisdom on the Saudi condition is spectacular; his warmth and humour infectious; his knowledge of world cricket a delightful surprise.
He recounted an exchange between him and the author of one such letter, who had wanted to pour boiling oil into his eyes and wrote unspeakable things about Khaled’s mother. A volunteer army had been recruited to deal with the hate mail. They suggested binning it. But Khaled insisted on engaging.
The New York Times subsequently recorded the story in an article published in March 2002. It is worth reading in full but can never do justice to the mesmeric way in which Khaled brings this troubling tale to life.
He corresponded with one hate-mailer in Montana, whose opening letter had started thus:
“I hate you all. The Koran is the book of Satan, the devil, the teachings of evil, the book that is used to justify murder. Anyone who worships Islam is the devil's child…..”
Yet Khaled continued to engage, to paint pictures of simple facts and truths and not to let his own upset with the prejudices of others ever turn to anger or hatred. After a lengthy correspondence, just before Christmas 2001, this note arrived from the Montana man, as reported in the NYT:
“The lesson I have learned is that making others feel bad does not, in the end, make one feel better about themselves...if my father read what I wrote, I would not be able to type any letters, as he would have broken my fingers.
"I have never seen nor have I read the Koran. Where I live, it would be hard to find such a book. Anyway, I'm sure the Holy Koran is a good book full of words of goodness, love and peace. I hope you will find it in your hearts to forgive me for my outburst of false emotions. May we all be blessed so that we may one day live in peace, if not for us, then for our children. If any of you ever come to Montana, I would welcome you in my home so that I may gain a greater understanding of Islam. God bless you, everyone.”
Recounting this tale over dinner in Saudi Arabia over a decade later, Khaled revealed that, after the death of one correspondent (it was not clear to me whether or not this was the Montana man), his son had written to him and offered more context. Up until Khaled’s “intervention”, the man had been full of hate and prejudice, a white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet Khaled’s notes had transformed him: his spewing of hate had become more tranquil expressions of peace, by which he abided until his dying day.
At the time of writing, Khaled is working with his daughter in Saudi Arabia, building and connecting networks of women who play street basketball. These networks have already touched thousands of Saudi women – thoughtful and inspiring proof that there always is a better way.