31

Trust me, PR isn’t dead

trust-me

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.

When Steve Earl and I were writing Brand Anarchy and #BrandVandals we got close to some of the biggest corporate scandals in recent corporate and political history.

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.

Awakening

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.

Thanks for stopping by. If you enjoyed this blog post you may like to receive future posts as they are published, via email. Please sign-up here.

Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

31 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review. We do agree on much. The crux for me is whether, in terms of relevance and credibility in its current form, PR has reached the point of no return. I think it has and a new model is needed. You believe that evolution will save it. But i am not so sure. Empowered citizens, as you say, have set a new and entirely asymmetrical agenda. Hence my call for Public Leadership and accountability through Public Value.

  2. Thanks for this review Wadds.

    Couple of thoughts:
    I agree with you that some/all of the changes you describe that need to happen to PR will take a generation. But I wonder what your thoughts are about whether while this change happens, other industries, e.g. advertising, digital, etc, will change quicker to fill the space left by a slow-moving PR sector?

    Also, re. Anne Gregory’s about PR being comms performed for public rather than organisational good – how much of day-to-day PR does that describe? I’d wager a very, very small amount. I can’t imagine an org. doing PR without it supporting the org. objectives?

    But what Anne’s comment sounds like is very much like early PR as adcoxated and practiced by Stephen Tallents.

  3. I had a look at the Amazon preview of the Kindle edition and actually, like you, found myself agreeing with much of what I saw. There is plenty to be critical of in the PR industry – but I love it nonetheless and think the solution is to challenge people and help them to up their game.

    There is a significant problem where people get hired into junior PR roles, with no training in public relations, and where there is no encouragement to do CPD, study or get involved in a professional body. That’s a major reason why so many people quit the industry at around the age of 30 – they don’t have the skills or knowledge to go into the more senior roles.

    • Loving communications and its transformative power should remain distinct from an industry that needs urgent reform, beyond simple evolution. I worry that the “change will come in time” argument (so stick with PR) simply further undermines the need for reform, upon which so many agree

  4. I enjoyed reading the review, Stephen. But (there’s always a ‘but’ right..?) there is something that occurs to me about what seems to be the central argument of the book, and which can be found elsewhere in PR.

    As you yourself put it – “it is no longer possible for an organisation to paper over cracks in its reputation because there is nowhere to hide.”

    I agree completely.

    And yet, I still see plenty of brands behaving badly.

    You see, I wonder if one of the other consequences of the always-on, social-fuelled, 24 hour news culture we live in is that some sharper (smarter..?) operators realise that, unless they’ve done something truly appalling, their mistakes are the 21st Century’s “tomorrow’s chip paper” because of the speed at which the agenda / audience appetite shifts.

    Just a thought.

    • Wadds, as an Australian University Lecturer researching and teaching strategic public relations in the early 1990s, I can say that ‘professional’ public relations used to be focused on helping the C-suite understand its many ‘publics’ and the environment in which the organisation operated. It’s purpose was to create mutual understanding between the organisation and its publics. Back in the late 80s/early 90s, our PR students graduated with a strong knowledge of: research methods, economics, politics, social psychology, philosophy, media studies, writing, interviewing and importantly, communication strategy. In addition, students specialised in areas of interest to them – e.g. international studies, etc. Yes, there were always ‘spin doctors’ and others trying to ‘pull the wool over peoples’ eyes’ – but those people were seen for what they were. Sadly however, throughout 1990s and beyond, their influence grew and, in the process, undermined the true meaning of public relations.
      But, today is a different story.
      Digital media is exciting and made for professional public relations. I believe online communications (including social media) will help reinstate the professionally trained PR practitioner. PR isn’t dead: it’s needed more now than ever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *