Truth, Power, PR & Pirates

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The Profit v Purpose debate still rages, writes Robert Phillips, and speaks volumes about the role of PR. The ‘wrong sort of pirates’ remain in charge.

“This is about power and profits, more than penises”, commented the brilliant Professor Laura Empson on the tragic downfall of Sacha Romanovich at Grant Thornton. The increased sniping at Unilever’s Paul Polman likewise confirms that the battle of “profit versus purpose” rages still. For some of us, there is a comfortable and logical compatibility. For others, the rampant free marketers, their lodestar remains a misguided belief in the sanctity of shareholder returns.

The call for more ethical business leadership lay at the core of my 2014 book, Trust Me, PR is Dead. The PR industry I argued (and still maintain) had been part of the business problem and was not part of the solution – often propping-up and/ or spin-washing poor corporate leadership and freqently demonstrating poor leadership within its own ranks (Bell Pottinger, anyone?).

Many mischievously interpreted the book as a betrayal and an assault on the practice of Public Relations. It was not. “It is about Public Relations as it should be, not Public Relations as it has become”, one reviewer noted. It simply observed the rapidly diminishing powers of an industry which, like so many other tiring institutions of the mid- to late-20th century, was losing relevance while still trying to maintain status and protect revenues. The PR industry would, I suggested, prosper financially for some time yet – “where there’s a buyer, there’s a market” – but this was not to argue that it couldn’t identify and arrest its own decline. Nothing that has happened in the past few years has persuaded me otherwise.

The shift from Public Relations (to what I then called) Public Leadership would be a positive and much-needed signal of change. Instead, we have seen countless justifications and weak arguments for evolution, not radical transformation: a kind of status quo plus. PR industry leaders have been fiddling while their Rome’s burned – still making the case (not very well) for being the “conscience of the CEO”; or for “eating the adman’s lunch” via a shift from PR to “marketing communications”. Some are still arguing about evaluation.

Much of what I theorised then we now know to be true – from the rise of nasty populism, filling the vacuum of ethical public leadership, to the thirst for collaborative working and the resolution of major policy issues through new, peer-to-peer coalitions. We have come to understand that trusted relationships can no longer be imposed from above, if ever they could. Instead, they are shared laterally, across networks, just as “trust” now flows horizontally, too – a point well made by author Rachel Botsman.

We can see in plain view some of the predictions made in Trust Me, PR is Dead come to pass:

  • “We are the 99%”. The message of Occupy reverberates still, even if the movement itself has subsided. We are (rightly) living with consequences of a failure to listen and act after the Global Financial Crisis and the age of austerity. Too frequently, PR shored-up the failed 20th century settlement and divided communities and nations, rather than help usher in a new age of openness and vulnerability, that properly understood how to channel the power of dissent and co-operation. Nowhere was this more apparent than in business and on issues of perceived corporate excess.
  • Message-drone politicians and business leaders made a deteriorating situation even worse. The business and political world continued to swallow its own PR bullshit; deceiving itself that everything could be “solved” though more/ better communications and that every message can be crafted, controlled and landed (it can’t). In business, this was exacerbated through the relentless pursuit of too many nonsense Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, meaningless Mission Statements and superficial commitments to “purpose”. Professors Empson and Spicer and others have rightly held feet to flames here on excessive Business Bullshit. In politics, in place of the PR-merchants, the raw authenticity – however ugly and mendacious – of Trump and Farage, Orban and Corbyn understandably cut through.
  • Brexit, Trump & Momentum were the obvious consequences of all this. The shift from hierarchies to “movements” had been axiomatic for some time and yet the PR industry chose the path of wilful blindness instead. An increasingly angry, divided and febrile world needed activist leadership to meet activist citizenship, powered by social media and movements, both in the boardroom and the voting booths. Instead, the “wrong sort of activists” seized the moment, just as I warned they would as far back as 2011.
  • The Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica factor was another obvious pivot point. The rise of data and networks, for which neither the business nor PR communities was battle-ready, provided an existential threat to the sacred traditions of Public Relations. My book opened with this as one of five clear vulnerabilities within the sector. There is no need for mass persuasion when you can micro-target – and get right inside peoples’ heads – via social media, and now with the aid of ‘bots and rogue states.
  • The post-ethical age is where we find ourselves today. We are neither post-truth nor post-trust, however much the headline-writers shriek. These are just convenient monikers. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his latest book, Fake News is much older than Facebook. Take a look at the bible, for starters. “Humans are a post-truth species”, he writes, “… power depends on creating and believing fictions”. Maybe, for this reason, PR will never die.

The post-ethical age was beautifully articulated by the late philosopher Tony Judt, a hero in my book. The case for social democracy (wisdom, tolerance, justice, freedom) has not gone away; we have just forgotten how to talk about it. We are now living in a Gramscian interregnum, the turbulence of which will continue for some time yet. We need to return to the common good as a central organising principle of every organisation.

Which leaves us where? Different leadership and operating models are urgently required, just as they were when I published Trust Me, PR is Dead nearly five years ago.

A reformed business leadership needs to embrace operating frameworks based on new principles – understanding the world as it is, not as it once was.

Leadership should be open, adaptive and collaborative; activist in spirit and approach. Leaders should be prepared to embrace the messy chaos of the current condition and not default to platitudes and soundbites. They should welcome dissent, accepting that it’s OK to not have all the answers and to sometimes say they Just Don’t Know. They should demonstrate genuine vulnerability, even to their implacable opponents, to build greater trustworthiness across stakeholders and communities.

In the shift from Public Relations to Public Leadership, just as these new principles are required, so is a new generation of leaders to embed them. This runs to the heart of the important debate on equality and inclusion, race and age, as well as gender.

The Public Leadership model works. Over the past four years, together with my Jericho colleagues, we have been effecting meaningful change for a better society – working with major companies and organisations to build coalitions and consensus, based on these new operating principles, and rooted in the common good. Real purpose comes first. Better policy is emerging: on responsible tax, the future of work, the digital economy, adult social care, housing, transport and the built environment. Major corporations are courageously embracing this new way of thinking and behaving. Together, we can build a stronger economy and a better democracy – but only if we are prepared to address major societal issues head-on. None of us should shy away from our responsibilities to fellow citizens and society, even if it means going against the mainstream flow or putting people and planet before profit. Human value trumps shareholder value, every time – whatever and however the Luddite profiteers continue to moan. No-one, however, said the transition would be easy – and it isn’t.

As Empson and Harari both identify, it is ultimately essential – for business and politics – to understand the relationship between truth and power and to chart an informed and ethical course. A reformed PR industry therefore sits at the epicentre of this potential transformation. “If you want power”, observes Harari, “at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.”

“The trouble is that for too long business has been run by the wrong sort of pirates“, I quipped to Sam Conniff Allende on the publication of his excellent new book, Be More Pirate. Good pirates are more than profiteers; they are genuine agents of change and can, as Sam charts, be forces for reforming good. Good pirates know when and how to renounce power and welcome others in. They even use fictions wisely. The PR industry has its fair share of good and bad pirates, for sure, including those who ruthlessly exploit ‘purpose’ in search of profit. For us to move from “bad” to “good”, we therefore need a much more honest conversation about truth and power; profit and purpose – in the PR industry and in the real worlds of business and politics. I said it back then and I say it, with even greater urgency and determination, now.

Robert Phillips is the author of Trust Me, PR is Dead (Unbound, 2014) and co-founder of Jericho Chambers. He is a former UK and EMEA CEO of Edelman and a Visiting Professor in Public Relations at Cass Business School, City, University of London.


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