A CHALLENGE: ‘Die! PR! Die! Die! Die’

153442255_04a3a662f8_bFueled 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?’

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.

Phillips writes:

“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.

You can get a download extract of ‘Trust Me: PR is Dead’ by Robert Phillips byfollowing the link here. You can pre-order the book here.

Picture credit.

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  1. I disagree – a bit. In my world it’s not dead but it is dying. A long, slow protracted painful death. You can see the nail marks where people are desperately gripping on to avoid the inevitable.


    So I agree a bit as well. It is dying but I won’t see any wholescale change in my industry because while PR as we know it may be dying, my organisation isn’t keeping up. It’s not changing quickly enough; there are too many people avoiding that change but even more of them who can’t even see the change banging on their window.

    Transparency? Less hierarchy? Pah, not on this watch.

    P.s. I can do as much ‘sharable content’ as I want but my journos, without fail, will still ask me where the press release is.

  2. Dan,
    I disagree entirely. I think PR is now reaching its culminating point. It is now more relevant than ever. Perhaps the demand for content is the PR dream. The endless demand for content is the need for endless PR. Who can realistically believe brands can a) rely on their own content (they have to make the product) b)wait for word of mouth to shape their product (very few products can survive the sheer nihilistic frenzy of the snark and sarcasm sharks on the internet. Even if the Messiah came back I shudder to think of the parody accounts and digital dirt that would appear.

    The reality is that in this blizzard of content, conflicting images, and corrosive cynical criticism, PR stands as a shield, saviour, and sentinal for the brands. We need PR.

    What has changed is what PR is or how it works. It is no longer spin or journalese, Andrew Sullivan sees through that with his hit on advertorial journalism (neither fish nor fowl). Instead, it is the steady work of someone who knows the product, can respond in real time to snark and cynicism as well as provide a positive (but not smarmy and cynically obsequious) content to nurture the brand.

    In many ways, the successful twitter feeds show the new PR model. This is something that will not be a large Saatchi firm (which is more advertising than PR) but more a well trained team that understands PR in principle and turns into good customer service, or rather good customer service that is the best PR.

    As your clients and customers, would you hire the person who served you/helped you/ guided you and you know you have PR that money cannot buy.

    PR is dead, long live PR! (Fuelled by a small cup of decaffeinated coffee.)

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