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

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Sunday Times ... Social Movements and Public Value

Last week, The Sunday Times asked me to author an article on the death of PR. I think they wanted to link it to the imprisonment of celebrity publicist Max Clifford - I pointed out that his downfall and my thoughts on the imminent demise of the industry follow two very distinct strands of argument. The piece is now scheduled to run at a later date. However, I thought I would share it here in my Shed, offering exclusive access for those who have kindly supported the book.

Some of the themes you will recognised from earlier in the project. In addition, I have begun to explore in greater depth (a) the idea of the modern corporation as a social movement and (b) how we might measure public leadership through public value. More below.

I would love to know your thoughts, as we enter the final weeks of writing and completion.


                                                                       Trust Me, PR Is Dead

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 will be published by Unbound.

* * *  

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

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

I spent over 25 years working in Public Relations. I am now confident that PR is dead. Few should mourn its passing.  Its business model, dominated on the consultancy side by bloated global firms 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. An increasingly transparent world exposes tired deceits of message management and spin. PR, born in a world of now crumbling hierarchies, is an analogue function in a digital age. With the new dawn of data, PR is almost creationist in its thinking.

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 firms and salesmen that talk trust and promise otherwise – too often they are easily and falsely seduced.

Some pioneering rebels are re-setting the agenda. Pierre Goad, Global Co-Head of Communications at HSBC, is one of them. “Implanting messages”, he observes, “doesn’t work with 5-year olds let alone with 255,000 grown-ups. We don’t waste our 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 number of complacent consultancy leaders, once friends and 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 into a global industry of business and political propaganda, selling to wants, not needs, and 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, control and intermediation. Disruptive technology and costless communications make these mostly irrelevant 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 now asymmetrical. Yet senior PR executives, apparently blind to change, 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 and democratic in a non-political sense – 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, provides evidence for this, while the likes of Unilever (with its Sustainable Living Plan) and Marks & Spencer (Plan A) also capture the generational but permanent mood-swing towards Public Leadership among major corporations.

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

As the crowd-funding for the book gathered pace, so a number of parallel articles featuring the “death” meme started appearing. One blog from Richard Fletcher, UK Ambassador to Lebanon, resonated powerfully: “Substitute ‘traditional diplomacy’ for ‘PR’”, he wrote, “and we can 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, we are also, post-Snowden, Assange et al, less trusted than we were”.

Dan Kieran, CEO and co-founder of my publisher Unbound, says publishing is in similar crisis. "Traditional gatekeeper models are breaking down. Publishing as a market is relatively static in terms of size, so the only way to guarantee an increased market share for the publishing behemoths is by absorbing each other, making them larger, unwieldy and more and more risk-averse at a time when authors and readers need them to be authentic, agile and entrepreneurial. I'm convinced 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, more trusting, 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 should enable and channel the activism of others, effectively co-producing their leadership. The company of the future is a de facto social movement; its communications function comprising a series of highly connected community organisers, each with dedicated areas of expertise. There is no longer the need for conventional CSR – “purpose” becomes part of a shared manifesto - nor for external PR consultancies: the modern corporation can rid itself of them and happily be its own expert media.

I now work with an increasing number of FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies, embedding this thinking – from oil and manufacturing majors to leading professional services’ firms. The companies of the future recognise and organise themselves as communities of 50,000 or 100,000+ potential social activists, rather than 100,000+ passive employees. Some even see their CEO in a mayoral role, initiating dramatic change among constituents.

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, most obviously 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”. Oswick is leading the thinking on what he calls “no leadership leadership”.

Public Leadership is measured by Public Value. My work in this area is still emerging, 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”. We must resist the temptation to jargonise and build yet another rigid compliance framework for Public Value. Every corporation will have its unique version – just as it will have 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. A bank that thinks in terms of Public Value outcomes, for example, will quickly address Lord Adair’s challenge of being “socially useless”. As last year’s Fairbanking Foundation report noted, “none of this is rocket science”.

The future of communications must embrace and celebrate 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 Relation 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” will be published by Unbound.

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