I am hugely fond of Burson-Marsteller’s UK chairman, Mike Love. In fact, Reader, I married him. To his sumptious bride Heather, you understand, in my capacity as an Anglican priest. As a surprise for Heather, Mike had the choir sing “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” as they left the church. He described me as a full-service agent after that.
We met when he was head of corporate affairs at McDonald’s in the Nineties, during the burger behemoth’s libel fracas with London Greenpeace, when I was doing the corporate issues-management thing. He was bullshit-free, wisely analytical, pragmatic and fun. McDonald’s missed him when he left (for Microsoft and then BT).
I remember sitting at a table months later with a near-hysterical collation of public-affairs spin doctors and McDonald’s brand managers as they discussed which MP to brief and which “message to land” in response to allegations of shortcomings in the supply chain over animal welfare. It was like an H.M.Bateman cartoon when I asked: “How about treating the animals better?” Mike would never have allowed a meeting like that.
The more astute among you will detect that there’s a “But” coming. Actually, not much of one – all the above still stands. “But” Mike has just written a substantial blog headlined “We are in the information, not illusion business“, in which he takes Robert Phillips to task for the self-evident theme of his crowd-funded book, Trust Me: PR is Dead.
Robert is my comrade-in-arms at Jericho Chambers and argues, inter alia, that the old PR isn’t fit for purpose in today’s world, that trusted leadership is now the only game in town and that its qualities can only be delivered through actions rather than words.
Mike counters that it’s not the job of communicators to change the world but to, er, communicate. So (he doesn’t put it like this) PR is the monkey not the organ-grinder and its job is to deliver the message, influence, frame the argument, or whatever. Again, it’s the dirty rag, not the engineer, so it’s for clients to engage with the complicated business of trust-building and for PR to sell the proposition to the public. And, Mike says, that’s what it’s always done and always will. So there.
Mike is writing under the banner of the PRCA – the pre-Georgian era Public Relations Consultants Association – so I’m tempted towards the Mandy Rice-Davies response: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” And to leave it at that.
But his piece deserves more than that. And I don’t mean that in an entirely nice way. So, brace position, Mike. For me, your killer line is at the heart of your argument: “The job for PR then and now was not to create trust but to communicate it.” There is an alternative view and it’s this: You’re wrong.
The job of communication has been to create trust and that’s the process on which PR grew during its boom years. But it doesn’t work anymore. That’s because the old elites of influence have collapsed, the old media can’t cut it anymore, and those “publics” you talk about won’t buy it, because they’re networked, asymetrical and horizontal, so they won’t be controlled vertically. Politics or business, you’ll only be judged on what you do rather than on what you say.
You cite Al Golin (of “the Trust Bank”) as your mentor, Mike, but I fear it’s the ghost of Marshall McLuhan we need to exorcise from your piece – the medium isn’t the message anymore; indeed, the media aren’t even the media.
Of course, as you say, PR is still there. But it was always the pimple on the bottom of the body corporate. And capitalism is changing bodily. Haven’t you noticed that? Look at the banks. Look at the supermarkets. Look at the utilities (well, the enlightened ones anyway). Social impact isn’t an extra anymore, it’s integral. It’s about what you do, not what you say you do, and that has profound implications for the environment in which PR offers itself.
We can’t rely on influencing, landing messages, representing, spinning. The game’s up. The great lumbering beast that is late, western capitalism has to turn itself to face the great mass to which it’s suddenly accountable – activist and accessed, wired and connected, democratised – and in doing so it’s not turning its back on its public anymore.
So where’s that PR pimple on its bottom now? Against the wall, that’s where, in the dark, not where the acion is, still – as it were – where business used to speak from but can’t afford to anymore, in every sense.
If you’re not part of that movement, then I’m tempted to say you’re part of the problem. But actually it’s not as serious as that – the PR pimple is just irrelevant, not part of the action, out of time. If it’s in financial services, it’s still selling scams to people that they don’t need. If its in food retail, it’s justifying a consumerist supply chain that it can’t support. If it’s in utilities, it’s selling the dream of privatisation decades after the event.
PR can deliver messages all it wants, but there are ever fewer at home to take delivery. And none who matter in the influencing game. Partly because those mainstream media aren’t there anymore. Those “bright young PR practitioners” you speak about, Mike, can talk all they like about “making a buzz in the blogosphere”, but the truth that has to be called is that PR thrived on getting an influential note in the Lex column. Do that now and you’ll be torn to shreds across social media – and here’s the real point, that’ll happen even if you’re right.
We’re not in control anymore, Mike. Those “publics” you refer to aren’t having it. It’s like what happened to “public” schools. Old PR is the Head of House called Rowntree in the movie “If” and wants to beat the trouble-making public – Malcolm McDowell in this metaphor – into line: “The thing I hate about you Rowntree is the way you give Coca-Cola to your scum and your best teddy bear to Oxfam, and expect us to lick your frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life.” (To be fair in that context, Mike does say that 90s-style Corporate Social Responsibility is an inadequate tool for building of trust).
Ultimately, I don’t believe you, Mike. By which I mean I don’t believe you believe all this “PR is just fine, people will always need it, like blacksmiths” guff. I think it goes with the psychological denial that is the territory of Burson-Marsteller and the PRCA, for whom change means death.
For example, you describe the best question to ask in the boardroom being “why?” rather than “what?” or “how?” But asking why is precisely where we are. Asking why does it have to be like this is the truly progressive path. Because it doesn’t have to be.
Robert can speak for himself. I’d prefer that he did and he will with his book. As it happens, I don’t entirely agree with him. I don’t think Public Leadership is entirely the new model. I think it might speak too much to the old hierarchies that Robert is the first to observe have tumbled. I believe that corporations and institutions need a far more limpid view of what they are and why they are – that leads me to systemic value and what we might call Public Ethics.
Such diversity is at the heart of the dynamic at Jericho Chambers. We have no company line, because that would represent the busted old flush of command-and-control communications. We’re a collection of what we like to think are reasonably bright people trying to find a better way.
But don’t let me describe it. Over to Tom Fletcher, British Ambassador to Lebanon:
“Phillips’ critique of traditional PR is that it draws too much from its origins in a now buried age of institutional authority; that it insufficiently reflects the new realities of a world in which the balance of power between citizens, business and government is shifting from hierarchies to networks; that it prioritises bureaucracy and generalism over transformation and expertise; and that it has prioritised pumping out a message over changing society. As a result, he argues, it has lost trust.”
When we founded Jericho Chambers last year, my old friend Mike wrote a very generous blog (“This is bloody brilliant”), welcoming our new enterprise. In it, he recalled the period with which I opened this article and, in particular, when I first pitched my services to him he thought I “was either a genius or a git. Still do,” he wrote. Here’s a clue, Mike. The PRCA doesn’t think I’m a genius.