trust me, pr is dead: welcome to the progressive corporate future

There is a lot of thinking right now about what the role of PR is in the future. In this guest post, one PR veteran explains why he has turned author to set out his ideas for the future as he re-thinks what the sector must look like. This may be uncomfortable reading for some.

by Robert Phillips 

My forthcoming book, “Trust Me, PR Is Dead” has attracted a lot of chatter in social media, since the first article appeared last summer. It charts the fall of Public Relations and the rise of Public Leadership: activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first.

It calls for new measurement and accountability metrics, based on Public Value, which will be unique to every organisation that develops them.

Trust Me, PR Is Dead considers the paradoxes and thrilling challenges of the progressive corporate future and argues that tomorrow’s global corporations will ask bigger questions of themselves, put citizens before capital and re-configure their organisations as de facto social movements before developing communications strategies rooted in actions not words. This is what is needed to deal with the core societal issue of trust.

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

Global businesses are seeing through the mythology of PR and re-thinking their communications functions. One European Communications Director, quoted in the Financial Times said of his PR agency “I have no idea what they do for us … little except add corporate speak”. An increasingly transparent world exposes the tired deceits of message management.

Pierre Goad, Global Co-Head of Communications at HSBC, can see the future. “Implanting messages”, he comments, “doesn’t work with 5-year olds let alone with 255,000 grown-ups. We don’t waste time crafting the perfect message and the most efficient channel to plant communications in people’s heads”.

PR, more worryingly, 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 salesmen that talk trust and promise otherwise.

Crowd-funding my book, I have been dismayed by the complacency of some industry leaders (mostly from the large consultancies) 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.

PR is now an analogue function in a digital age. With the new dawn of data, PR is almost creationist.

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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 a global industry of business and political propaganda. It celebrated its low-point with the ugly moniker of spin while spawning a compliant sibling in Corporate Social Responsibility.

Bernays’ twentieth century was one of institutional authority, hierarchies, control and intermediation. Disruptive technology and costless communications make these mostly redundant 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 asymmetrical. Yet senior PR executives, apparently blind, fail to see that we live in the age of Edward Snowden, not Edward Bernays. Radical honesty and radical transparency prevail.

My new model of Public Leadership is 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 impact of the B Corporations in the US, for which clothing company Patagonia is the poster-child, evidences this, while the likes of Unilever (with its Sustainable Living Plan) and Marks & Spencer (Plan A) capture the generational but permanent mood-swing towards Public Leadership among major corporations.

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

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

Dan Kieran, co-founder of Unbound, recognises that publishing is in similar crisis. “Traditional gatekeeper models are breaking down. Readers need publishers to be authentic, agile and entrepreneurial. 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.”

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The workplace is the frontline for this new 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 facilitate the activism of others, effectively co-producing leadership. The company of the future is a de facto social movement; its communications function comprises a network of highly connected community organisers, each with dedicated areas of expertise. There is no need for conventional CSR – “purpose” becomes part of a shared manifesto – nor for external PR consultancies: the modern corporation can happily be its own expert media.

Cliff Oswick, Professor in Organisation Theory at Cass Business School, believes that increased employee activism and the Social Digital age killed the rock-star CEO, popularised by the likes of Richard Branson. Control is now futile. “Leadership”, he writes in one of ten Afterwords in the book, “is becoming increasingly redundant and irrelevant”.

“Leadership, Cliff continues, “has been over-hyped, over-stretched and over-used ... it is everywhere, encapsulates everything and applies to everyone. It is the solution to all social, political and organisational ills. In this regard, it is the modern day equivalent of snake oil”.

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My proposed model of Public Leadership is measured by Public Value – fusing an evolved concept of Aristotelian “common good” and Harvard Professor Michael Porter’s “shared value”. Every corporation will have its unique version – and 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 – the 99%. A bank that thinks in terms of Public Value outcomes, for example, would quickly address the challenge of being “socially useless”.

The future of communications must embrace 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 Relations will not do. The great propaganda game of the twentieth century is over.

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The final words belong to Unbound’s Dan Kieran: We published the book you’re holding in your hands”, he writes in the closing Afterword, “and the names of the people who supported Robert by pledging and deciding it SHOULD be published are printed in the back of this book. They didn’t just buy this book. They made this book. Without them it wouldn’t exist. I met Robert last year and immediately knew I’d found a kindred spirit. When I read the first draft of this book I cheered him on with every page. He’s right. Everything is changing. It’s exhilarating. Not many people get to live in times of such dramatic change. If you embrace it you can enjoy it.”

Robert Phillips is the co-founder of Jericho Chambers, a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School and former President & CEO, EMEA, at Edelman. “Trust Me, PR Is Dead” is published by Unbound.

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