Robert Phillips, the former Edelman EMEA boss, has baited the public relations industry over the last 18-months as he wrote Trust Me, PR is Dead. Few will mourn its passing.
In the end it’s not the polemic that I was expecting. That’s not a bad thing. In fact I found much to agree with in its 300-pages.
Excellence in public relations
The book is well written, but that’s only to be expected. Phillips is a master of public relations. He has done a fantastic job in engaging his publics in his story. Some of us have even contributed to the crowdsourced Unbound project.
Therein lies an irony that is almost delicious. Public relations is alive and well and Phillips’ Trust Me, PR is Dead project is an excellent case study for modern engagement and practice.
We both agree that public relations is not a profession. It lacks a barrier to entry, continuing professional development, a register that can be publicly tested, and a community of practice.
Phillips defines five major threats to the sector’s relevance: data and insight; measurement; networks; scale; and talent. These issues all echo the concerns that I share and believe will occupy us for at least a generation.
Vision for public leadership
Trust Me, PR is Dead isn’t an assault on the modern business of public relations. In my view it’s an excellent description of the transparency that is being forced on modern business and politics by networks and social forms of media.
Each chapter tells the story of the impact of social forms of media on different areas of modern life. The failings that Phillips describes are much bigger than public relations.
The critical fact laid bare throughout the book is that it is no longer possible for an organisation to paper over cracks in its reputation because there is nowhere to hide.
Publics, empowered with their own forms of media, are quick to call out any difference between what an organisation says, and what it does.
Public trust is the most valuable currency of a modern organisation fostered through strong public values of authenticity, engagement and honesty. Phillips calls this public leadership.
Censorship in the age of transparency
Phillips teases us with his use of redaction.
Chunks of text are blocked out throughout the book at the advice of his censorious sister, herself a lawyer.
We spoke to Greg Dyke about his resignation as Director General of the BBC, several people at BP, including former CEO Lord Browne, about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and Alastair Campbell about his time as director of communications in the Blair government.
Almost as much content was cut from the draft manuscripts, as made it into the final books. Our publisher at Bloomsbury insisted on removing any material that might be litigious or offensive as part of the editing process.
I struggle with Phillips’ description of his awakening to the failings of modern public relations practice.
He describes conversations with Edelman CEO Richard Edelman in October 2012 by which time he says that he’d become disillusioned with the failings of public relations to embrace modernity.
“It was there and then that I decided to quit. I could not be a hypocrite.”
“I had fallen out of love with the industry that I had spent 25 years obsessing about. I need to call bullshit on what had become a bullshit industry.”
I met with Phillips several times during the summer of 2012 as Steve Earl and I exited Speed, and hunted around for what might come next.
Phillips was as enthusiastic as anyone about the future of public relations. Steve subsequently joined Edelman-owned Zeno in September 2012 to head up its operations in Europe. Phillips left his post shortly afterwards.
Public relations is alive and well
Professor Anne Gregory responded to a comment I shared about Phillips’ book on Twitter. She led the CIPR to Chartered status in 2005, and is Professor of Corporate Communication at the University of Huddersfield.
“Public relations isn’t dead. As long as it is in public, for the public and with the public. The problem is when it’s done for self or organisational interest,” said Gregory.
Spin is dead and publicity may be dying but public relations, as a means of engagement between an organisation and its publics, is thriving.
Trust Me, PR is Dead describes the failings of modern business and politics that are being called out by empowered citizens. As a project it is an excellent case study for modern practice.
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