The Great Schism

by .

In an article in the Financial Times on Tuesday 8 April 2014, the journalist Emma Jacobs noted that some business leaders were turning away from PR because they failed to see where it demonstrated value. “I do not know what it does for us”, said one executive, “except add corporate-speak”.

The article is well worth a read, not least because it rightly challenges the orthodoxy that “only” PR consultancies can help shape communications strategies for the organisations that they serve. I think this orthodoxy is nonsense – ripped apart by the collapse of instituional authority, the rise of expert networks, the shift to mastery and the vanishing need for inter-mediation in any sector, PR included. The FT piece certainly seemed to spook some grandees within the PR industry but they should have seen it coming. Some of them, my former global CEO Richard Edelman included, have been saying that “every company is a media company now” for many years.

Indeed, every company is now a go-direct media company. Intermediary “agencies” are not needed. Deep expertise is. That is where smart CEOs should be channeling their resources.

I have attached a PDF of the FT article here:
Download “Publicity is free with no PRs”

A few days ago, I hosted a small crowd session for funders of the book, to take input into the final chapters. It was a liberating two hours, rich in insights and fresh challenges, and a vindication of the decision to go with a crowd-funding platform rather than a conventional publishing house. Unboud’s CEO, Dan Kieran, pointed out the parallels between the worlds of publishing and PR – if you understand the communities and have the expertise yourself, who needs a middle-man (or woman)?  This is an axiomatic change as well as a disruptive one. Participate, rather than trying to control.

I was also asked this week (by for my thoughts on the future of the PR Agency model, which was timely given the FT article and yesterday’s crowd. My thoughts below:

The future PR agency model is unlikely to be a PR agency model at all. This is because PR as we currently define it is, as we know, most likely dead and, if not, in urgent need of reform.

The first clue is in the name – Public Relations. This is born of an era of mass audiences and general publics. This is not the reality of today. Instead, we see fragile eco-systems of shared interests connecting, chaotically, across diverse communities. There is no such thing as “Public” any longer. That is a mid-twentieth century, now redundant, construct. Any new model will need to deal with the consequent atomisation and activism of communities and the asymmetry of influence and power. 

And what does “Relations” mean today? Surely not anything to do with “storytellers crafting narratives” or spinners “managing the message”. Message management is over – blown-up by the age of transparency, immediacy and social business (not just social media).

As for the word “agency” – if meant in its truest form, then it has every right to survive and thrive. Communications as an authentic agency of change would be wonderful – a catalyst for finding a better way for business and brands, based on actions, not words. But “agency” as it is currently interpreted sees PR relegated to something of an out-sourced function (more HR than PR). Within this, too often, its arms & legs bureaucracy is monetised by large consultancies (the current model), rather than championing hyper-connected, global strategists and consultants with deep expertise in specialist areas (the future model).

As Professor John Kotter has noted, hierarchies (current model) may be needed for management and control but it is within networks (future model) that the big changes happen.

The great schism lies ahead.

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