PR is dead

We spoke to Robert Phillips, former Edelman EMEA CEO, about why he thinks PR is dead and what should replace it.

 

Robert, tell us a bit about your career in PR and the changes you have seen.

It all started out by accident. It began with the death of my father, when I was 21, that led to me setting up my first business while still at university. It marketed Italian wedding dresses - not hugely relevant for someone completing a degree in medieval and modern history. Through the wedding dress connection, I met Jackie Cooper and we founded JCPR together, which we later sold to Edelman. I went on to become UK and then EMEA CEO of the world’s largest PR firm. I quit because I no longer believed in the business model or the message we were "selling".

Many of the issues we struggle with today, the industry has struggled with for 25+ years. The lack of definition; the lack of proper accountability; the talent gap; the conflict between an obsession with sales and the need to do what is right for citizens and society. One thing is for sure: "spin" is surely dead.

The era of "crafting narratives" or "message management" is also over. The world is chaotic and messy and we need asymmetrical approaches to both leadership and communications to deal with it.

How should PR pros think about digital, and how should digital pros think about PR?

PR has invariably mistaken "digital" as a channel - a way to reach consumers. This is not right. Digital is deeply behavioural. It speaks to the way we all interact and work together. It removes (redundant) hierarchies - whether in business or in politics - and replaces them with more democratic networks of influence. Digital can help citizenship flourish, not be just another way to flog stuff to consumers.

Digital folk should view PR with extreme scepticism and caution. Partly because PR people often try to hijack digital in order to mask the decline of PR as a cottage industry, but mostly because digital is inherently social and democratic while PR is not. It is still hierarchical and seeks to command-and-control. It's an analogue function in a digital age.

You funded and published your book using the crowdfunding publisher Unbound. Can you tell us how that worked and what you learned?

One of the traditional publishers had originally offered to publish the book, but it was like living/working in the eighteenth century. Unbound are, to many, the punks of publishing, giving a clearer and stronger voice to both authors and those communities with whom they connect.

The key to the crowdfunding was less about raising money and much, much more about welcoming the voices of the crowd into the book. The end result is much richer and much wiser for it. Check out the nine "wise crowd contributors" whose essays we have included. All of us together are wiser than any one alone.

In your book you say the company of the future is a social movement. Is this linked to the digital revolution, and what role do marketing and communications play?

Digital - through costless communications - is the great enabler that will help social movements flourish. The book considers new models of engagement (I call them Public Leadership and Public Value) in which the key points are all about activism, co-production and a commitment to citizens and society.

Marketing and communications - in their "old world" constructs - have been part of the problem. Re-thought, and with digital behaviours at their heart - they can and should be part of the solution. There has to be a better way.

Are there examples of commercial companies who are showing the way forward in terms of public leadership, public value and understanding the new digital landscape?

The corporate examples quoted in the book are in many ways the obvious ones: the likes of Unilever, Patagonia, John Lewis, Novo Nordisk etc - but also India’s HCL Technologies or US-based Agora Drinks.

We still have a lot to learn from the co-operative movements (think Mondragon in Spain, rather than the UK Co-op right now!) and from campaigning organisations such as 38 Degrees and Change.org, together with those involved in participatory budgeting, such as Porto Alegre in Brazil.

What's next for Robert Phillips? How do you hope to apply your thinking to being part of the solution?

I am already bringing the thinking to life with client advisory work - helping create new "spaces" of permanent engagement for major corporates and helping them think more in terms of accountability to wise crowds than sterile measurement metrics.

Within only a year-and-a-half since launch, we are working with two "Magic Circle" professional services firms and several Fortune 500 and FTSE 100/250 companies. There is, I am happy to say, a genuine appetite for the Public Leadership approach among major global organisations. They too are beginning to recognise that PR is dead - and certainly less relevant for them. Jericho Chambers is itself built on a new, collaborative and networked model. In all aspects, we are walking the walk - delivering through actions, not words.

 

Robert Phillips is co-founder of progressive strategy consultancy Jericho Chambers.

His new book Trust Me, PR is Dead is available on Unbound and Amazon.