The Grim PReaper?

A profound lesson in business

Watching a ‘Twitter spat’ unfold recently, I was reminded of the story of the CFO who complained to the CEO when asked to approve the company’s training budget: “What happens if we train our people and they leave?” The CEO responded by asking: “What will happen if we don’t train them and they stay?”

I’ve never met nor spoken to Robert Phillips. A former European CEO of Edelman, Robert left the agency in 2012 somewhat disenchanted with his trade. He is currently detailing that disillusionment in a new book titled: Trust Me, PR is Dead. The book is a crowd-funded publication.

Robert’s core argument is that the established methods of PR and spin used to cover up or justify questionable business decision-making has become a tired discipline. Thanks to the growth of social media educating and giving people a strong voice, the public is now better informed. It also has raised expectations of what it considers acceptable standards for business and institutional behaviour. Corporate and institutional trust has been significantly damaged and needs rebuilding but people can see through the PR confidence-trickery (my words) of the past. He argues that a new approach is required if the discipline and industry of PR is to enjoy a sustainable future. Rather than risk misrepresenting or over-simplifying his arguments, I encourage you to hear them directly from him here.

Some have suggested to me that the current breakdown of trust is simply a symptom of recessionary angst and that normal service will be restored when economic growth and recruitment return to normal. Personally I don’t buy that. I believe we’re experiencing a watershed moment in the relationship between the government and the governed, the sellers and those sold to.

Technology and the Internet are changing the rules of engagement for PR as they did for many industries. For the first time in over a century, the public relations industry now faces the challenge of developing relations directly with the public, not just through opinion formers.

That institutional trust has been fundamentally damaged and needs to be rebuilt is no longer a debate. But many of the opinion formers that traditional PR has influence over and who would be the first ports of call in that rebuilding have themselves become discredited in the recent reputation purge.

Whether Government (lack of fiscal control and expenses abuse, invasion of citizens’ privacy), business leaders (reckless lending and rate fixing in banking, tax avoidance in many global business), the traditional media (Saville at the BBC, phone hacking in the tabloids) among others, the traditional opinion formers now inhabit weakened offices.

The Twitter spat, meanwhile, involved a number of senior PR agency heads (some good friends and former colleagues) who rushed to dismiss Phillips’ arguments with the emotional objectivity of a parent whose child has just been called ugly.

Colin Byrne, European CEO of Weber Shandwick UK and Europe, explained that the industry ‘has never been healthier’ (Weber’s revenue is growing quite nicely, but that wasn’t Phillips’ argument); Mike Love, chairman of Burson Marstellar, made the point that PR has always been a continuously changing industry and that it will adapt, as before, to changing market needs. I think both have missed the point a little, though credit to Mike Love for taking the time to outline his arguments for and against in a blog post.

Of course, it is perfectly natural for agency leaders to defend their agencies in public, but to dismiss such a debate out of hand sounds to me a little like the CFO reviewing the training budget. The need for PR to change is a discussion I’ve had with a number of industry friends (agency and in-house) over the last few years and privately, at least, many have admitted concern for the future but lack a clear vision for the future. In the meantime, the agencies have decided to focus on winning more business in the hope that it earns them the time to figure it out.

Some appear to find the tile of Phillips’ book the most ‘objectionable’ aspect. Rather than dismiss the debate on a book title, I’d have thought the PR world would welcome the opportunity to discuss its collective future. I find it a slightly odd response from an industry tasked, in part, with understanding the way the wind of public perception is blowing. One proposed change from me would be that agency leaders break with habits past and actively engage their clients in what I believe is an important discussion for all of us. Ultimately, it is in corporate boardrooms that the debate on the future of PR will be settled.

Whether Phillips is the Grim PReaper, as some have implied, simply over-selling the challenge to make the point (or sell his book), none of us can truly know for sure. Personally, I’m with Phillips and I think he is right in trying to generate the right debate at the right time. Of course, we can all choose to carry on as if nothing has or will change. As W Edwards Deming said, it is not necessary to change because survival is not mandatory.

  • Pingback: the reality gap()


    This is a very welcome and thoughtful contribution to the debate. No doubt all those Confucian influences. I am with Robert Phillips on this too, at least to the extent that I applaud him for instigating a much needed debate on the failings of public leadership in society. Where I part company in this discourse is that I think this is a debate for political religious and even business leaders perhaps, but no really for PR practitioners except in the context that some people in PR are also running businesses and so could also be considered leadership material. I simply do not believe that it is a question of public relations, any more than it is a question concerned with accountancy or plumbing. PR is a service. It is a trade which combines a set of skills in communicating which supports other people to influence and persuade people who make decisions in policy, business or consumer worlds. PR will continue to adapt to use those skills in different ways and to invent news ones. PR may even have a part to play in helping to “nudge” changes great and small. But it is not PR’s role to determine what those political policies, business strategies or consumer purchasing decisions are. Robert’s business partner George Pitcher suggested in another follow up blog that I had cast PR as the monkey or oily rag, and not the organ grinder. I would not dispute that analogy and despite the derogatory connotations implied, I am not troubled that PR should be seen this way, as long as we are the best monkey or rag. To make another comparison – 34 years ago I started my PR career as a political agent working for politicians to run election campaigns. My job was not to get involved in politics or advise on policy. That is what politicians do. The political PR role was to develop and execute winning campaigns so the politicians were elected and could then change policy. It was not my place to decide or even advise on policy. My following career as a PR person has been exactly the same – the job is to develop and execute campaigns to help other people to sell more stuff and to have more successful businesses. It is not to advise them on how to run their businesses any more than it is to contribute to changes in society, at least directly. Public relations is a very important and valuable service, but it is just that – a service for hire.