28 July 2015
In the fields, factories and workshops, is PR really dead?
I eagerly awaited my copy of ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’ after so much pre-promotion earlier in the year. The hard copy of the book had been unavailable until June, and since one of the knock-on effects of my neurological condition is a loss of control of muscles in my eyes, and a bad case of double vision, I’m not able to read e-books at all well, which is the only form the book had been available for many months.
I was in equal part excited, and equal part exasperated with the case the book attempted to make for burying the PR industry.
There was much to be found to agree with in the lessons drawn from the vast treasure chest of personal and professional experiences raided by Robert Phillips (former EMEA President and CEO of Edelman) with regard to ‘bad PR’. I have long felt that the traditional model of large PR agencies (and some established publicity-driven strategies) can have an in-built interest in depriving organizations and individuals of the ability to communicate naturally and effectively, so that the agencies continue to have a market for their wares. The fact that PR trade magazines/websites are mainly full of stories of agencies losing their accounts, and them then being awarded to a new agency could be said to imply that all activity inevitably ends in failure. For far too long, individuals and organizations have been too eager to ‘sub-contract out’ all responsibility for their communication, both actions and words. It has meant that when they come to perform, they can no longer ‘dance’ instinctively.
But the tone of the book instead reads as if he has a private ‘beef’ with an industry that he was quite prepared to operate within for decades. When I became dissatisfied to an extent with some of its drift, I felt I could make a greater contribution by helping to coach and mentor the next generation of practitioners going into the industry, so that they had the confidence and the tools to question the way things are done much earlier in their careers.
At one point in the book, Phillips shares with us a conversation he had with Richard Edelman about his deep concern about the future of the PR industry. He goes on to list a series of characteristics which I have to say I do not recognize as being the future drift of the industry. They may be characteristic of a particular type of agency, but that is no reason to tar all with the same brush. These are:-
* the industry’s inability to embrace data;
* an insistence on celebrating generalists when it should be elevating specialists;
* a focus on physical growth rather than developing ‘skillsets and intelligences’ required to serve clients effectively;
* an obsession with the advertising industry and getting on the board;
* ignoring the concept of ‘citizens’ over ‘consumers’;
* celebrating ‘bureaucracy’ over excellence.
There are so many examples of people, both in-house and in agencies, and PR practices which do not operate in this fashion. In his book, Phillips singles out examples such as California outdoor apparel company, Patagonia; engineering firm, Arup; the inevitable John Lewis; Spain’s co-operative federation, Mondragon, and Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign.
For myself, I could highlight the #RainbowLaces initiative (see video above) on homophobia in football by The FA, Stonewall, and partners like Metro and Paddy Power, so skilfully and humorously executed by Arsenal players like Oliver Giroud and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain last year. I could signpost initiatives like World Toilet Day, which only do not receive as high a profile as it deserves in the UK because of a clash in dates with Children in Need. It was only because of the ‘Domestos’ backed ‘Flushtracker’ website (it really does what it says on the tin) that I discovered about diarrhoea killing more people each year than HIV/AIDS – and there are a whole host of other organisations who have got involved with a range of innovative fund-raising, awareness raising, and life-changing projects, thanks to PR. I have been a long-term admirer of Ben and Jerry’s, and how the ice cream company lives and breathes the values it articulates, rather than them being a ‘bolt-on’ CSR project. The principles behind its charitable foundation read like something beyond what Jeremy Corbyn might articulate in politics. Then there is the way Burberry has integrated digital engagement seamlessly into its consumer strategy, renewing its reputation. And on a personal level, I have to celebrate how someone like DJ Stephanie Hirst has handled her own personal profile, dealing with her gender transition by kicking it off with a powerful piece of live radio on BBC 5-Live with Stephen Nolan last Autumn, which has then seen her developing a large following on social media, and an appropriate development of media appearances on TV, radio and newspapers.
When my students were presented with Phillips’ arguments as they had appeared in the trade press and online, and with his new organization ‘Jericho Chambers’ earlier in the year, they were a touch cynical. They felt he was using rather traditional PR tools to generate controversy by saying ‘PR is dead’, to generate interest in his book and in his new venture, and branding his ‘agency’ using ‘legal nomenclature’ to give him brand value, and possibly so he could charge higher fees! ‘Spin’ is such a subjective concept.
Phillips’ prognosis is ‘Public Leadership’, but if you tried to explain the practical realities of that to many parts of society who have very real needs of PR, it would sound too much like the ‘jargon’ he is quick to criticise other practitioners for. I agree with his point about ‘action, not words’. I agree with the point about the need for us all to take responsibility for our actions. The concept of ‘organic systems’ where we see the organizations PRs work for as more like a tamagotchi pet may be more appropriate. But the idea of public ‘relations’ is definitely appropriate, and maybe the problem that Phillips has encountered is that PR is too often confused with being merely part of sales.
Do we really need another term or activity of ‘Public Leadership’, when we already have plenty of literature on ethics? The four principles of ‘Public Leadership he outlines are already embedded in public relations literature – activist (issues linked with professionalism debates); co-produced (issues linked with curation); citizen centric (issues linked with power), and society first (issues linked with ethics).
His solutions appear to stop short at the PR industry, rather than going much further to tackle what I would argue are his real targets – the power structures of society, and the economic model of capitalism. Phillips seems particularly wedded to the concept of ‘social democracy’, but in the way he presents this, it appears to be through a sense of nostalgia because of his involvement in the launch of the SDP in the 1980s. I personally have nothing against this. I will ‘out’ myself here. My head was turned as a teenager by the ‘new’ SDP in the mid 1980s, and it was only because my local constituency had a better populated Liberal Party that I chose them to join over the SDP.
But I question his attachment to the term ‘social democracy’ with regards to a solution to the kind of problems he outlines in the book. ‘Social democracy’ would imply something which is more state-centred, or centrally dictated in terms of direction or solutions. This book’s solutions, if they are to have any meaning would do better to draw on more anarchist**, co-operative or social-liberal philosophies, decentralized, and placing more stress on individuals taking more responsibility for their own actions, both within the profession, and within wider society. I quote Phillips himself here: “Real people need to be liberated to make decisions, rather than allow abstract instruments of economic imperialism to take hold. As Diogenes the Cynic is quoted as saying, ‘the markets are the places men go to deceive one another.’”
Ancient Greece looms large in a number of places in the book. As well as Diogenes, Phillips draws on Aristotle for references to an active polis. He argues Aristotle may have been an early ‘social democrat’ because of his support for the principles of fairness and social justice – core pillars of the ‘common good’. What Phillips fails to touch on is Aristotle’s role as arguably one of the first public relations practitioners, as the architect of rhetoric – a beautiful concept when practiced properly, and not in an empty form. Persuasion is a legitimate activity.
Many of the issues he deals with across communication are being addressed by practitioners large and small, in actions and words – and by academics across the globe. So, ‘Yes’, I can agree wholeheartedly with his analysis of many of the threats to the sector’s relevance which it must embrace and play with – ‘Data and Insight’ (happening); ‘Outcomes, not Outputs’ (happening); ‘Networks, not Hierarchies’ (happening); ‘Scale’ (happening); and ‘Talent’ (happening).
The real issues lay beyond PR, as Phillips seems shy of actually admitting. One of his ‘Wise Crowd Contributors’, George Pitcher is actually quoted in the book as saying, “But the problem isn’t PR. How could it be? The prosperity of public relations has only been enabled by its paymasters. The be-suited PR flaks are but the suppurating buboes on the plagued bodies of our national institutions. Nor will shooting the rats which carry the plague help very much – banging up bankers, or simply rescinding their knighthoods, may provide temporary satisfactions, but they hardly address the disease…… Freeloading MPs, thieving bankers, lying police officers, gangster utilities, treacherous journalists and fraudulent retailers have collectively demonstrated that spin was an effect, not the cause of our malaise.”
Surely these are the bigger villains of the piece?
Some technical points. I found the book easy to read, and it is to be commended for that, but at times I found it repetitive. In style, I thought it could appear a little ‘cut and shut’, with material (some anecdotal) being stitched together to make the case for points the author held dear, rather than an effective case being built. The book would particularly have benefitted from ‘in-text’ referencing throughout the book, to ‘copper-bottom’ the arguments being advanced.
I understand totally the need to ‘redact’ or censor identities, and conversations, to prevent litigation, whilst still providing insights. However, it would appear to go against the whole point of the book, which would surely argue for ‘open’ communication at all times. Instead, it would appear to be a device to promote salaciousness, and further interest in the book. The redactions prove that communication cannot always be fully ‘open’, and sometimes there are other interests that have to be considered.
That being said, I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone working in PR. It is a good wake-up call for the industry, but we should be under no illusion that it deploys many of the promotional tools that it decries the industry for. At times, I laughed out loud – I loved the story about the ‘Brainstorming Consultancy’ where a colleague seemed to forget she was not at a drinking game, and jumped into the middle of an ‘away-day style’ circle of colleagues, and said, “Jump into the middle if you have ever had a three-some with your boss” and no one followed, leaving her exposed in the middle! I could easily have seen it happening in a number of my previous workplaces.
Earlier in the year, Phillips got entangled in a Twitter conversation with a good friend of mine – Kevin Rye – latterly a PR of some repute with ‘Supporters Direct’ – the movement campaigning for fan ownership in football, and proof of PR going with the grain in terms of societal change. Phillips didn’t seem to be able to defend the central thrust in the title – indeed, he even revealed that the title was NOT his idea, and gave up debating with us by saying that Kevin was obviously better read, and better researched than he.
As I replied to their debating, “I shifted my focus from politics into PR because I wanted to be part of societal change.” This seemed to totally blind-side him, but it’s true. Whether it’s as a trustee with a charity, as a volunteer with the local Citizens Advice, or coaching the next generation of practitioners (which I continue to get involved with through the ‘PR Fraternity’ at the University of Greenwich) – or the way I practiced PR with a variety of clients and employers, I genuinely think I have done things differently – paying attention to the particular, taking responsibility, and keeping an eye on the common good. I do not think I am a freak. Equally, I think there is a great deal of need for change, just as there is in most industries. Changing PR’s name to ‘Public Leadership’ though won’t make a jot of difference to the staff of the Citizens Advice where I volunteer.
Phillips said that his original suggestion for the title of the book was ‘Biscuits and Bathrooms’ because of the industry’s preoccupations with debates over spending on biscuits in meetings, and on initiatives to put organizational ‘value statements’ on ‘wipe-clean’, laminated signs in staff toilets, as the best companies can do on employee engagement! But these are not just a PR problem – this is a problem with business as a whole. It’s a problem with quality management, just as we all have a problem with automated call-centres, and self-service checkouts. You get a sense that with Phillips, it has become personal, and maybe after a break, he can re-start his obvious love affair with what PR makes possible.
Phillips lays out plenty of analysis for future behaviour in business, but having been a lecturer and trainer in public relations since moving on from 20 years in the industry, I can vouch for the fact that many of his themes are being embraced. PR is not all about shouting buzz-words in order to sell things, but can be about helping an organization or an individual become more ‘naked’, and learn how to dance. PRs can be the ‘eyes and ears’ as well as the mouth; an ‘inner voice’, more often than not saying ‘No’ if it effectively speaks truth to power. I would have loved it more if the book got more excited about a range of disciplinary contributions – whether from sociology, anthropology, economics or psychology – to help communications flourish, wherever their contribution is needed. And social media has media it easier to signpost many of these, and debate between ourselves, and share/grow a body of ‘good practice’.
I get a sense that Phillips and I would ‘get on’ . In one of his final chapters, ‘It’s OK to Be an A**hole’, he establishes the principle that it is good to mis-behave, and it is good to dance – two professional qualities I have tried to instil in my graduates. I never dreamed I would be inspired to come to the defence of public relations, but this book has done just that. In the fields, factories and workshops**, is PR really dead?
** ‘In The Fields, Factories and Workshops’ is one of the seminal texts by anarchist Peter Kropotkin.