The world is changing and PR with it. If you work in PR or communications there is a book and set of arguments you'll be hearing more of in the New Year. It cuts to the heart of what public relations is and does.
by Dan Slee
Fueled by a bottle of red wine a frustrated journalist and blogger wrote a bold post in 2006 called ‘Die! Press Release! Die! Die! Die!’ that took an axe to one of the standard tools in the PR toolbox.
Now taught in colleges the Tom Foremski post was a battle charge against the Linus blanket of the press release and its 400 words of journalese, approved quotes and notes to editors.
In a digitally-connected world the answer is, of course, to produce sharable content.
When I came across the post two or three years ago it articulated perfectly my own burning frustration at being asked to prioritise servicing newspapers whose sales were melting in the bright sunlight of the digital morning.
In 2014, Robert Phillips has picked up Foremski’s axe and is turning it not just against press releases but against the entire PR industry. It is time, he says ‘to call bullshit on what had become the bullshit industry.’ But who is he? A hater? No, he’s the former UK chief executive of global PR giants Edelman whose CV includes the Wonderbra ‘Hello Boys!’ campaign and the shaping of the 02 brand. He co-founded Jericho Chambers in London. In short, he has been a pillar of the PR establishment and that he is questioning the future is a cause of interest. He has blogged for comms2point0 before.
Robert hasn’t dashed off a late night blog post. Instead he has written a polemic called ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead.’ This book promises to be more powerful and far reaching than Foremski’s post. It challenges not just a tactic but an entire industry. If anything, it's 'Die PR! Die! Die! Die!'
So, what’s dead?
I was in London this week for a discussion organised by Robert at the Cass Business School entitled ‘If Everything is Dead, What Comes Next?’
So, what’s dead?
Deference. Hierarchy. Spin. The illusion of control. The idea you can manage the message.
What killed it? A perfect storm of MPs expenses, the banking crisis, the recession and the end to final salary pensions. And the 80s trend to individualism. But most of all the subtle re-organising that the internet has done to connect people in networks. Citizen activism. 38 Degrees. The democracy of the social web.
Don’t get it? Need evidence? You may be looking in the wrong places. Video blogger Stampy Longhead makes videos of himself playing the Minecraft video game and gets five million viewers effortlessly. The BBC look enviously on but they have been left behind.
In the NHS, the influential King’s Fund has called for the end of command and control heroic leadership. Instead, devolved leadership is the answer.
In the discussion, clear points emerge. People want to be engaged and not led. It’s about what we do that counts. Not what we say. PR is struggling with all that.
What is threatening PR?
A resistance to change. In five key areas, Robert Phillips says. The industry is not across data and insight that can offer greater chances of measurable success. Outputs are often still measured over outcomes. Whizzy numbers are put forward when the answer should be what have people done as a result of what you’ve done? The world is about networks and not heirarchies and PR doesn’t get that. Creative ideas are too small to scale and make a difference and there is a lack of talent, he argues.
“There remains a perverse determination within PR to defend top-down behaviour in a flatter world. PR currently speaks to hierarchies in a world of networks. It is therefore starting in the wrong place both for its own domain and the wider universe of citizens, companies and brands. PR can no longer dictate on its own terms.
“It is not about loudhailer broadcasting or ‘managing the message’ anymore. Shrill press releases are irrelevant in a world that sees through obfuscation and deceit. Building advocacy and activism within networks is the way forward. The voices of regular people need to be heard.”
So, what comes next?
It’s easy to point to the changing landscape and declare things dead. It’s a lot harder to point to what comes next.
Phillips reckons the answer may be somewhere around the idea of something that you can call ‘public leadership.’ The chief exec as activist, prepared to engage with people, prepared to sometimes say they are wrong and to listen more to people.
Radical honesty, he says, is needed when the landscape is an expectation and demand for transparency.
For me and my public sector background, that’s being honest and straight about the cuts. And to call cuts ‘cuts.’ Not efficiencies. Not savings. Cuts. That makes the most important communications in the public sector about the budget and how money is spent.
One of the panelists in the discussion, the Labour MP David Lammy, talked about the broad picture of change and dust not settling just yet and perspective being hard. He also talked about there being a lack of courage. He’s right.
Much of what Phillips talks about sounds idealistic. Listen to the people. Crowd source. Be citizen activists.
“That’s fine,” one Chinese audience member challlenged. “But I grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and all this sounds very familar.”
Maybe so. But there is a radical discussion to be had about the changing role of so many things. PR included.
For me, if PR was to give PR advice to PR it would be to drop the tag: 'PR.' It's toxic. It's too linked to the age of spin and Max Clifford.
It will be fascinating to read Robert’s book when it is published in 2015.
Dan Slee is co-founder of comms2point0.