Stop people in the street and ask what they think of when they hear the term. Chances are that Max Clifford and spin would feature. Do people trust the phrase? Not, really.
That’s not to say there is no-one in the profession trying to change things. There are. Some are doing it by trying to professionalise what is there. Robert Phillips is doing it by starting a debate. Or rather he has lit a molotov cocktail and thrown it. His book ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’ is that incendiary device.
There is much in it to debate.
It’s been fascinating to watch much of the debate centre around the title rather than the contents. For me, that misses the point as much as the urban myth of the journalist who when Abraham Lincoln was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s theatre was supposed to have asked: “Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play?”
But who is Phillips? Some bearded revolutionary? Actually, no. He was the former President and CEO, EMEA of Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm. He co-founded Jericho Chambers and advises companies at a senior level on strategy, policy, comms and trust.
That this comes from someone who was the cornerstone of the PR profession means the argument demands attention.
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.”
Don’t say ‘trust me’ do things that make others say ‘trust them…’
Phillips argues that too much attention has been spent on the polishing the message that says ‘trust us.’ More needs to be spent on actually doing things that earn that trust. Don’t say you care. Do the right things first. Maybe people will see that.
This can be summed up in the phrase: ‘It’s what you do what counts, not what you say.’
Stop and reflect. If you are a PR person how much time did your organisation really spend on doing?
The final death of spin…
Beautifully, as if to support the theory that networks are replacing hierarchies the book is interspersed with ‘wise crowd contributors’ or short essays from those with supporting views. If that were me, I’d be doing that for safety in numbers. One such contributor is George Pitcher who quotes from his 2003 book ‘The Death of Spin.’
“We have covered politics and business with the tarmac of a spin-culture and then wonder why the grass isn’t growing. There is more to life than what we think about it. We have to do it too.”
So, what’s next…?
Of course, it’s easy to throw half bricks at a system that is creaking. It’s a lot harder to construct a vision for what should replace it.
What leaders should do next
Phillips calls for ‘public leadership.’ He wants leaders who are activists and he wants them to make decisions that are co-produced. In other words, he wants them to allow others a voice to shape those decisions. He wants leaders to be ‘citizen centric’ and connect the core purpose of the organisation to how they can help real people. He also wants them to be society-first and to think of the society they are part of.
Pie in the sky? Maybe. But there are examples in the book where this is happening.
A few months back we helped facilitate a comms event for Foreign & Commonwealth Office comms people out in the Middle East. British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher stopped me in my tracks with his call that we should communicate like insurgents. We should, of course. They move fleet of foot without having to report back. They create bite sized content using platforms where they know people will be. If Our Man gets it, shouldn’t we?
What communicators should frame their communications next
In a networked world where spin can be exposed within minutes Phillips argues that new ways to communicate are needed. Interestingly, he advances what he calls ‘Seven Strategies of We.’
The strategies in brief are: accept chaos as reality, radicalise honesty and transparency, build coalitions, take to the social dance floor, be the media, love the citizen crowd and communicate through actions not words.
Of course, each strategy could be a revolution in its own right but taken together they are dynamite. But are they too much to take as a whole?
Of course, good ideas written down don’t change the world. History shows that the Diggers in 17th century Britain had this crazy idea that all men were created equal and that land had been stolen from them by a foreign monarch. It didn’t end well.
So, will Phillips’ ideas end well? There are certainly those in the PR establishment who loathe this book. Is PR dead or evolving? The book’s success will be judged in time, no doubt. The forces that drive the books ideas, the web, citizens being more networked will happen anyway. But how is it is possible to take these ideas as a reader and influence change?
It is too arresting a book to read in one sitting. Pick up the book at random and there are ideas that fizz and challenge you to disagree with them.
But it is entirely wrong to think this is a book about PR. This is a book about everything from how we react to organisations, press for change, communicate and navigate change. Too ambitious? A PR person on their own with this book is like a stoker looking out of a Titanic porthole spotting an iceberg. It needs those at the top on board too. Without that, can its ideas fail? Maybe not since it talks about forces like the internet and social change that are outside our control.
Can change be done from within? With that in mind, it’s also a book that should be read with Liam Barrington-Bush’s excellent ‘Anarchists in the Boadroom.’ This book was written from first hand experience of the Occupy movement. It’s a cookbook for how to make organisations more approachable and more like people.
‘Trust Me: PR is Dead’ is more Occupy than Mad Men. It challenges you. Like a tent village outside a closure-threatened hospital it may not be liked. The suits who are walking past the encampment eyes down on the pavement would be foolish to ignore it.
It’ll be fascinating to see how these ideas play out.
You can buy Trust Me, PR Is Dead by Robert Phillips here via our Amazon Associates page.
Robert Phillips will be taking part in a discussion titled ‘PR is Dead… in Brum: Leadership and Communications in a Citizen Centric Society’ at the Impact Hub Birmingham from 6pm to 8pm on March 25. Joining him on the panel will be Darren Caveney of comms2point0, Nick Booth of Podnosh and Lorna Prescott of Dudley CVS and Impact Hub Brum. Tickets which are free are available here