Re-Purpose: From Chief Communications Officers to Chief Community Organisers

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Many of the predictions in Trust Me, PR is Dead, published five years ago, have been validated by recent history. The rise of activism is well-charted; the phrase “the activist CEO” – first mooted in 2010 – increasingly mainstream. Constant clamour around “corporate purpose” is reaching a point whereby it is now little more than verbal wallpaper, in need of a health-warning on veracity and legitimacy. Purpose-peddling today is as disingenuous as green-washing a decade ago and equally corrosive.

The fetishisation of technology accelerates. Corporates and citizen consumers cede power and accountability to what author Margaret Heffernan calls “the propaganda of inevitability”. As I counselled in the Noughties, the inevitable death of traditional Public Relations arrives in lock-step with the rise of data-driven insight. Why attempt to mass persuade, when it’s now possible to reach into the minds (and souls) of individual subscribers to Facebook and other platforms? Brexit, Trump and Cambridge Analytica were accidents waiting to happen. Many thought my judgments then harsh; but the rise of ugly populism was an inevitable consequence of the vacuum of ethical leadership – in business and politics – and the corollary feelings of powerlessness and exclusion.

I still see and hear the language of the old world order polluting communications. You can sense it in the detached, some may say privileged, methods and language of many of those campaigning to “Remain” or those who in part deny the climate crisis. But it is rife in the comms. world, too. Despite protestations to the contrary, some consultancies still sell their wares on the back of “millions of impressions” and Advertising Value Equivalent. This was nonsense a decade or two ago and even more ridiculous now – several hundred articles and conferences later, little seems to have changed. The lazy excuse is that this is at least language clients understand … and will buy. It is the sales spiel of the dishonest marketplace, not that of meaningful change.

Embedded in Trust Me, PR is Dead thinking was/ is the belief that Chief Communications Officers should be re-purposed as Chief Community Organisers. It is a vital today as it was when first voiced a decade ago. Herein lies a commitment that “communities of influence” and impact must replace conventional audiences. These communities represent “wise crowds” that reflect a truer stakeholder universe: networks of employees and customers alongside policy-makers and experts; corporates together with NGOs and activists. The future model is based on new organising principles: activism, participation, accountability and dissent. It celebrates outside-in thinking. Citizens Assemblies (more fashionable now) ensure accountability to the stakeholder many, not the shareholder few.

Since those theoretical days pre-publication, I have put my money where my mouth is and invested in a business – Jericho Chambers – that brings these principles to life. While it in some ways remains a constant experiment (in line with the chaos of the Gramscian interregnum we navigate everyday), I am hugely proud of the communities of influence we have built and curated – and the results achieved. This week, we are sharing updated Case Studies on client/ Jericho coalitions on #responsibletax, #thecaringsociety and #frameworkstobuildabetterbritain, charting work of recent years.

From taxation to good work and social justice in tech.; housing, transport and the built environment to adult social care, this is real purpose in action: corporate clients working in partnership with politicians and civil society to help shape and determine bigger ideas and better policies that transcend traditional thinking, confines and divides.

The communities of influence (1500-strong on tax, 1200+ on good work and 1000+ on housing, transport & the built environment, to give just three examples) are transformative in their own right: individual and collective agents of meaningful change as well as potent advocates for new thinking and a new way of working and behaving. Media, when relevant, participates as equal contributors. The communities are developed peer-to-peer and are more relevant and robust as a result; participants are accountable to one another as well as to the collective ambition. Content is sometimes punchy, often challenging, but never puff. Success is defined by outcomes, not outputs; actions, not words.

No-one said this would be easy. Breaking new ground encounters inevitable road-bumps, as well as learnings. This is constant work-in-progress. But, as one journalist remarked at the time of my book launch, “at least this is what Public Relations should be, not what it has become”.

Please check out Jericho’s Case Studies, Publications and Programme Updates. We would welcome your support for the much-needed communications transformation.

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