Trust Me, PR is dead – long live public relations

Trust Me, PR is DeadTrust Me, PR is Dead is the provocative title of Robert Phillip’s long-awaited second book. It’s had many PR practitioners up in arms that a co-founder of Jackie Cooper PR and former EMEA CEO of Edelman should bite the hand that’s fed him (and them!)

Having read and enjoyed the book I can let you into a little secret that not many of the numerous reviews have revealed. The book isn’t really that much about PR. In fact it is far more interesting. It’s a broader analysis and dissection of society, politics, business and even the economy as it is today. Much of the commentary is about how many in the PR world, business and politics haven’t even begun to sufficiently grasp the seismic changes that are taking place.

Trust Me, PR is Deadis essential reading for everyone in PR, business or politics. It’s thought-provoking, exhilarating and infuriating in equal measure. After reading this commentary (not really a review) you should buy it, think about its concepts and draw your own conclusions to take action.

That said there is much to take about public relations from the book, not least Robert’s definitions of the five major threats facing public relations: data and insights; outcomes, not outputs; networks, not hierarchies; scale; talent. I think the last is perhaps the greatest threat. For without talent, without big thinking then PR can’t hope to solve the other four.

Some have criticised the provocative title ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead. Few will mourn its passing.” It spins for attention in the very way the book rails against. Robert has been on a one man crusade to publicise the book and his ideas. But the reality is that it’s a publisher’s title created to sell books. It’s just marketing, not PR. We shouldn’t let the title distract us from the much more important issues the book covers.

Time Magazine Person of the Year is You Mirror cover 2005The central premise of the book is that every area of modern life is being transformed by changes in society, driven in a large part, but not wholly so, by social media. It examines transparency – how organisations need to make themselves more transparent, and that like it or not they are becoming more transparent anyway. It examines trust, or rather the lack of trust of those in power and authority, replaced with trust in ordinary people. Trust in people like themselves. But this isn’t a new concept. Can you remember who Time magazine’s person of the year was in 2005?

Fundamentally it says the way to restore trust is by doing what you say. It’s not good enough to say you’re improving or what you think is important. First you’ve actually got to improve. But this isn’t a new concept either.

One of my memories from studying for my CAM Diploma in Public Relations 25 years ago is the example of British Telecom and its smelly, vandalised phone boxes on street corners. British Telecom wanted a PR campaign that would improve perceptions of phone boxes, but was told by one enlightened PR practitioner that first it needed to fix the phone boxes as you “can’t polish a turd”. Or then there’s the perhaps apocryphal story (I can’t recall its source) about the lawn mower manufacturer wanting to know how to improve its reputation and being told to first cut the grass outside its office.

One of the examples Robert uses is a lively tale about George Pitcher (a co-founder of Jericho Chambers, Robert’s new firm). George was in a meeting with senior McDonald’s executives and various PR advisers. The discussion was how to deal with criticism about animal welfare. Articles in the media and briefing members of a parliamentary committee were floated while George remained silent.

Finally they turned to George.

“What do you think we should do George?”

“Treat your animals better,” George tells me he said.”

The book is crammed full of these interesting anecdotes from the great and the good, and the not so great and good.

From these changes and the wealth of evidence he presents Robert draws the conclusion that PR is dead and should be replaced with a new concept of public leadership.

I disagree. I don’t disagree with many of the ideas or concepts Robert outlines, but I do question his conclusion. Or rather I think he’s asking the right question, but I’m not convinced he has the right answer. But neither do I. Or anyone I know.

So trust me when I say, the truth is different. PR has been perverted and corrupted. Robert was one of those guilty of perverting and corrupting PR. I was one of those guilty of perverting and corrupting PR. Probably every PR person I know has at least one time in their career been guilty of perverting and corrupting PR. I’m not maligning Robert as he himself says: “I had been a proud member of the PR conspiracy – conceiving strategies, ideas and campaigns that captured the popular imagination and helped fuel the hedonistic treadmill of consumption.”

The media isn’t innocent and is just as guilty of manipulation and spin as anything PR people ever did. Robert gives the example of sitting in a meeting with a Fleet Street editor and offering for his client to fund some research related to underwear (“it was a British tabloid after all”). The editor’s reply was:

“F**k the research, just make it up… We’ll print it anyway.”

The Sun 'If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights"One of the main reasons Alastair Campbell needed to create Labour’s now notorious spin machine in the run-up to the 1997 general election is that he couldn’t trust the media not to spin. The Sun’s shameful 1992 “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights” headline was just the most memorable part of a decade of journalists spinning fiction into fact.

We did it because there were people who wanted to buy this corrupt version of PR. Clients and employers bought it. We did it because that’s what everyone else was doing. Sure, we may have stood up and tried to persuade clients and employers that PR is more than just what you say, but eventually we’d succumb and do their bidding. We focused on media relations or spin when we should have been challenging and providing robust counsel.

But today it’s different. The seismic shifts mean that the corrupted form of PR doesn’t work any more. You can’t spin your way out of trouble by accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. Today, you’re more likely to have the reputation you deserve, rather than the reputation you paint.

Today not only are there clients and employers who want you to the right thing, but now you can tell them they have to do the right thing. You tell the truth, not just because telling the truth is the ethical thing to do. You tell the truth, because if you don’t you’re far more likely to be found out and exposed.

That’s why I take issue with Robert’s idea that PR is dead. False PR is dead and we should celebrate its demise.

Real public relations is more important than ever. But we have a problem. Has the reputation of PR already sunk so low that it can’t be improved? If you answer yes the problem is what do you replace it with? Corporate communications doesn’t work as it makes communications the primary arbiter of reputation, when as Robert makes clear, it isn’t what you say or how you say it, but what you do that is the real arbiter of reputation.

Robert believes the future is Public Leadership. But I’m not entirely convinced. Believe me, I’d like to be convinced as I think it’s a great concept, but it strikes me as too much an ideal world concept, rather than one rooted in the harsh realities of life.

Finally, I’ll leave you with some questions:

If the way to restore trust is to do what you say then can’t PR just do what it says in order to restore trust in PR?

If it can’t, then how many other companies, organisations or industries can’t improve trust by just doing what they say?

Which have already sunk too low, to ever be redeemed?

If PR can’t improve trust and its reputation by behaving better and doing what it says then can we really claim that’s what others should be doing?

If PR is already about what you do (which I would argue strongly it is) then isn’t changing its name… just the spin that we love to hate?

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of Trust Me, PR is Dead from Robert.