The following is an extract from Robert Phillips’ forthcoming book, Trust Me, PR is Dead, published by Unbound. The e-book will be available in January 2015, with the hardback following in March.
Pre-order Robert’s book and get a £5 discount by entering this code: TRUSTME at checkout on unbound.co.uk/books/prisdead. Pre-order before Christmas and your name will be listed as a supporter in every copy of the book.
TRUST ME, PR IS DEAD
“You can’t write that.”
“Why not? It’s the truth.”
“It may well be the truth, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get sued.”
“Isn’t there a certain irony in a book about the end of PR not being able to tell the truth?”
Such are the perils of having a libel lawyer for a sister.
Be careful what you ask for (in this case an advance read of this book).
I owe a lot to my younger sister. For a start, she laughs at my jokes. We share the same dark sense of humour. We inadvertently provoked a giggling outbreak at our father’s funeral 30 years ago. The truth is, had he been alive and not in the coffin, John would have laughed with us. But the majority of mourners, who knew us less well, were shocked. They wanted to see the truth their way. Funerals were only for sadness and tears.
Truth somehow seems to hurt, and people struggle to see and tell it as it is.
Jane and I were 19 and 21 years old at the time. Our sense of truth then would serve as an anchor for both our future careers.
Jane emailed me after reading an early draft.
“You can’t say that.”
“Because ██████ is notoriously litigious.”
“But that’s exactly what happens. He always either arrives late or leaves early. Despite his success and his wealth, he is obviously desperate to get noticed.”
“It’s not going in. Trust me.”
Trust is a funny word. It has been used and abused to the point of exhaustion. I would gladly ban the “t-word” forever – or at least campaign for its suspension from the English language for a decade or two. CEOs and politicians have become notoriously serial offenders – living proof that trust often spoken is trust rarely earned.
And over the past ten years or so, “trust” has somehow been kidnapped by the Public Relations industry. My alma mater, the world’s largest Public Relations firm, has placed its Trust Barometer (an annual “exploration of trust,” which it unveils at the World Economic Forum at Davos every year) front-and-centre of its intellectual argument. Others sell to endless promises of trust. A quick Google search will reveal the headlines, as so-and-so or such-and-such is hired by a bank/energy firm/oil major (insert an industry of choice) to restore their particular trust deficit. But trust is not a message. It is an outcome. We must beware the PR firm that suggests otherwise.
Excited by the calamitous state of world business, many opportunists in the Public Relations industry see trust as a vital lifeline for an otherwise moribund “profession” (please note the use of inverted commas; no professional qualifications are in fact required). But PR has run out of options and has missed its moment to lead. It is in terminal decline. About to be overrun and overwhelmed by the age of data, PR today is to communications what analogue was to digital at the turn of the century. I am afraid PR is dead, even though the body may still twitch for a while.
Few will mourn its passing.
THE DEATH OF PR
THE ONLY AGENCY WE NEED IS CHANGE
Dan was dying. It was October 2012 and I had come to pay my respects to one of the genuine legends – for many, the godfather – of the global Public Relations industry.
Dan Edelman, founder of the eponymous firm, had undergone major surgery only a few days before. I feared that this would be my last chance to say goodbye. I held deep affection for Dan and for his son Richard, now CEO of Edelman, my boss and a good friend.
I had flown to Chicago to pay respect and to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the firm for which I had worked for over eight years, since selling the company I had co-founded with Jackie Cooper to Edelman in 2004.
My business report was pretty straightforward. “Revenue growth is 15% year-on-year. Margin is improving. We have installed new, stellar management teams in Germany and France and headed off a major labour dispute in Russia. We continue to win awards across the region – especially in the UK and the Middle East. Spain and Italy are defying their economies and showing robust growth.”
Despite Dan’s frailty, and the pall that cast across us all, these were good times. We were on top of the world.
Walking through the quads and avenues of Kellogg University on that Sunday evening, I shared with Richard my deep concerns about the future of the Public Relations industry his father had helped create and shape: its failure to embrace data; its insistence on championing generalists in an age of mastery; its thinking about geographies before specialisms; the way it obsesses about advertising and the dreadfully-named “C-suite” (PR-speak for board-level executives), rather than focusing on groundbreaking ideas rooted in citizen truths; the building of bureaucracies rather than centres of excellence; and more. It was quite a long list. It was quite a long walk.
Richard listened intently. “Of course you’re right,” he said. “But we cannot change our model. It would take six years and too much disruption.”
He was right, too, and I told him so. Richard’s was the dilemma of many large professional services firms, who have to prioritise their own interests. Our relationship has always been an honest one. But it was there and then I decided to quit. I could not be a hypocrite. I felt like an impostor. I had fallen out of love with the industry I had spent the best part of 25 years obsessing about. I needed to call bullshit on what had become the bullshit industry and to figure out what came next.
The modern Public Relations profession owes as much to the likes of Dan Edelman and his generation as it does to the supreme commander of the consumption fetish, Edward Bernays.
Emerging from the debris of Europe in 1945, Dan Edelman and Harold Burson returned to their native USA to found the legendary companies that bore their names, and which would sit at the vanguard of the modern PR industry for the next 50 years. They defined PR, in a slightly sub-Mad Men kind of way. From humble beginnings in regional US cities, they headed first to New York and DC, then to London and beyond. They span before spinning had entered the vernacular as a PR misnomer. And, in so doing, they accidentally accelerated the obsession about buying (and selling) stuff that eventually led the entire system to the brink of collapse. From its US base, the web of subtle persuasion spread both east and west.
The world had, however, gone wrong. Unchecked consumerism was turning out to be the great philosophical cul-de-sac of the 20th century – and PR signposted the way. Marketing, advertising, communications (call it what you will) had been a huge part of the problem. As the writer Vance Packard had predicted in The Hidden Persuaders as far back as 1957, marketers “had invaded the privacy of our minds”. Worryingly, everyone was still in denial.
Professor Tom Watson sees two distinct forms of PR emerging from the 1950s onwards, the time during which consumer marketing rocketed and “publicity” effectively hijacked the title of PR and became a mainstream practice, confining Public Relations, as practiced by governments and corporations, to a minority role. “PR” thus became seen as short-term, sales-led and opportunistic. “This is at the heart of the constant bickering,” writes Watson, “over definitions, professional standards, measurement and evaluation.”
What is clear, however, as Professor Lynda Gratton has pointed out in The Shift, is that we now live in exciting, revolutionary times. “There are forces at work,” she writes, “that over the coming decades will destroy forever many of the old assumptions of a traditional job and career. Around the world, outdated hierarchies will crumble … our world is changing at an extraordinary pace.”
In 2012 and 2013, two terrible accidents befell garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The first involved a fire in which over 100 people were killed; the second a building collapse which claimed over 1,000 lives. Most of these belonged to working women. Building standards, notoriously sub-standard, were inevitably to blame. Regulations were non-existent. Doors had been locked and prevented escape. Human beings were burned alive.
Many of the developed world’s famous brands use the factories of Bangladesh as production hubs to minimise costs and maximise profits. One day after the 2012 fire, I received a call from █████████ █████████, the CEO of a global corporation. I had spoken with him before, but we had never met. He was after crisis counsel. In previous conversations, he had always seemed a decent bloke.
“I need some help with my chairman,” he started. “He’s giving me grief.”
“Go on,” I said, unsure about what was coming next.
“He thinks we’re failing to get our message across. We are not emphasising our CSR credentials well enough.” CSR: Corporate Social Responsibility, the programmes companies run to demonstrate their commitment to people, planet and society. He paused, almost embarrassed at what he had to say next. “He wants us to go on the offensive and play up how we’ve been investing in local CSR initiatives. He says our communications are failing us.”
“While one hundred women’s bodies are still smouldering?” I asked. I was struggling to contain both incredulity and temper.
“I know,” he said. “Please help.”
“You start with actions, not words,” I said. “You don’t try and spin the message and you certainly don’t trumpet your CSR credentials as some kind of distraction. You get company officials out there on the ground with resources and a chequebook. These people are our responsibility. Nothing else matters right now.”
“I know,” he said. “But I’m just not sure he gets it.”
In the wake of deep human tragedy such stories were told elsewhere. Some companies rushed to flaunt their CSR credentials. They would have been better advised to tackle the substantive issues: low wages, illegal working conditions, and the artificially and “unfair trade” low prices offered to customers. The smart organisation would have been the one that immediately addressed these issues and then chose to communicate with customers and stakeholders around real and important transformational change.
The future relationship between corporation and customer needs to be more open, honest and explicit.
Jackie Cooper and I had very little of substance to report since our last meeting with the Managing Director and Sales Director of Playtex (our client, once famous for its Living Bra’s “lift and separate” strapline). It was 1989.
We feared being fired – something that, in very real terms, we could ill afford. So, in the long-held tradition of PR, we began to type, and to, well, be creative.
The headline came to us in an instant: “Eight Out of Ten Women Wear The Wrong Size Bra.” And the sub-header underlined the point: “You Wouldn’t Wear The Wrong Size Pair of Shoes.”
It may be something of an over-claim to say that this flash of inspiration/fabrication set our careers on an upward trajectory – but it didn’t hurt. The client loved it, a campaign was launched, further research found that eight out of ten women were in fact not fitted with the correct back or cup size – and a memorable marketing statistic was happily born.
Several years later, sitting in the office of █████████ █████████ a legendary Fleet Street editor, we were discussing a joint promotion for a client. Underwear was again involved (it was a tabloid after all), but this time only indirectly. Said client did not manufacture knickers.
“We could do some research to launch the promotion,” I offered. “Our client will happily fund it.”
“Fuck the research,” he said, “just make it up. Say whatever you want to say. We’ll print it anyway.”
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. Having proudly told the world that “eight out of ten women wear the wrong size bra” in that epiphany moment, Jackie and I later brought the infamous “Hello Boys” advertising to life for Wonderbra. Twenty years ago, there was not very much that I didn’t know about women’s underwear.
Other campaigns followed: some trivial, others less so. A colleague once commented that PR people knew about so many things but in such little depth, and he was probably right. From the UK launches of Snapple (“made from the best stuff on earth”) and “That’ll Be The Daewoo” cars, through to the creation of Britain’s leading mobile phone brand, O2, out of the dreadful dullness of its BT Cellnet predecessor, we loved every bit of what we did. We went on crazy escapades to the Arctic Circle for the government of Finland and did photoshoots on Mexican beaches with supermodels and the legendary photographer Herb Ritts, all in search of column inches and the money shot. We even managed to secure what we believed to be the first-ever branded Page 3 in The Sun, “Fozzies in their Cozzies” on Bondi Beach, in a week-long special courtesy of Foster’s lager.
In the old world of media, relationships were pretty straightforward and linear. Have good idea; will travel. It was less about the truth and more about the story. The brand with the best story wins.
In our own golden age of security, nothing much else seemed to matter.
I rarely wore a suit to work until about 2004. The shift was partly because, at 40, I no longer looked much good in jeans, but mostly because that was the year that Jackie and I sold the company that we had founded to the global Public Relations giant Edelman. People at Edelman mostly wore suits.
The Edelman adventure brought with it many things (not least my own career trajectory, which I had neither planned nor anticipated) but, above all, it reconnected me to my first love: social democracy.
As I moved from consumer brands “guru” (their word, not mine) to suit-wearing CEO, so I became increasingly fascinated with the PR industry itself. On reflection, I think I was already struggling with an inner voice that told me it was over.
When I published my first book Citizen Renaissance in 2008, with its call for a citizen revolution to help address huge issues of well-being and climate change, many saw it as a cry for help – or at least a dig at the world in which I professionally existed. It was probably both. We had, I believed, to start thinking of ourselves as citizens again, not as consumers, and to recognise that the power to change things for the better lay in our (increasingly digital) hands. Old structures were crumbling.
Writing Citizen Renaissance and subsequent essays crystallised what I know now to be true. Revolution is on its way. Our communications world is now social – of and between the people – and democratic, because it gives voice to all. Joined together, this provides a unique opportunity for communications to be transformative – the need for which should be apparent to anyone interested in the current state of business, politics and society.
Put simply – there is a better way.
Towards the end of 2013, as the core argument of this book began to take shape, I took to the pages of the ad industry bible Campaign to signal my first death knells for the PR industry. Shortly afterwards, I met a senior PR industry figure at a reception.
“Why did you give that to Campaign?”
“Because I wanted to. I’ve spent years arguing that PR is a higher evolved discipline than advertising; that the future is ours. And now I want to say I was wrong.”
“You’re shitting on your own doorstep.”
“No. I’m telling it as it is.”
And here is roughly what I said…
I had proudly spent the best part of 25 years arguing that advertising is over and that PR’s time had come. Now, I no longer believe that to be true.
I remain deeply sceptical about the relevance and core purpose of advertising, but I am also increasingly convinced that PR will never take its long-coveted seat at the boardroom table, where it will be recognised as an essential component of strategic business rather than a bolt-on.
As for so many brands and organisations before it, the reason is simple: a failure to modernise. The PR industry spent much of the past two decades talking about “its rightful place” and, for the most part, failing to earn it. PR did not take the medicine it should give to clients: it’s what you do that counts, not what you say. Amid all the verbose excitement of the late ‘90s and early millennium, PR did not appreciate that its business model, especially as it related to the large consultancy networks, was broken.
Opportunities to lead peaked and passed. Take Corporate Social Responsibility – a trend spotted early by PR folk. In the frenzy to monetise, the industry failed to think. Rather than lead a progressive agenda based on co-created, citizen-centric actions, it defaulted to selling stuff. What emerged was mostly “greenwash” and, thereafter, an ill-formed CSR industry that today is more about bureaucratic, tick-box compliance and reporting than it is about social movement and societal change. (Thankfully, as one recently re-branded CSR practitioner recently informed me, a “reform movement” has started within the CSR sector.)
Had the PR industry seized the moment 15 or 20 years ago, not only would it now hold a legitimate position in the boardroom, but the boardroom itself would also be a more enlightened place.
The same pattern emerged with social media. Technology platforms aside, PR recognised the “conversation economy” early on. The ad industry was surprisingly slow to get going in this space. As some of us warned at the time, however, early-mover advantage was quickly eroded by those with bigger budgets, if not brains. The true growth of many of today’s global PR networks is masked by work in social, ahead of “public relations”.
Arguments over “who leads in social media?” have been transcended by the world of data. The PR industry’s inability to properly embrace data is the first – and possibly the greatest – of five major threats to the sector’s relevance.
Threat One: Data and Insight
The big network chiefs are clearly not putting their multi-millions in data investment dollars behind the PR companies in their empires. This is also an issue of substance. Publicis chief executive Maurice Levy, even before the 2013 (subsequently failed) merger with US giant Omnicom was announced, kicked-off a $4 billion (£2.5 billion), five year digital spending spree in September 2012 – and it was not to support PR.
Other sectors simply offer greater insight and more measurable success. There is now a purer evidential base on which to build relationships. PR is nowhere near fully understanding or embracing it.
Threat Two: Outcomes, not Outputs
Seventy-five years after Edward Bernays germinated the modern PR industry, there is bizarrely still no consistent application of proper measurement criteria. Show me one board-level executive who is prepared to sign off a significant budget against loose promises of increased awareness or engagement. The evolved form of measurement shifts away from measuring “stuff” towards accountability to a wise crowd and to society at large. The sterile measurement of absolutes is, in any event, a busted flush.
Without proper measurement, though, there can be no accountability. And without accountability, PR will only become further marginalised. The Barcelona Principles (a set of guidelines established by the PR industry to measure campaign efficacy) have yet to be universally adopted, some five years since first being raised.
For too long, many of us happily articulated the storytelling art – the clever words, smart positioning and opaque layering – over a calculated science of PR. We paid lip service to the challenge of measurement. Today, other residual issues notwithstanding, art without science will simply not cut it. PR can no longer be Creationist in its thinking.
Threat Three: Networks, not Hierarchies
There remains a perverse determination within PR to defend top-down behaviour in a flatter world. PR currently speaks to hierarchies in a world of networks. It is therefore starting in the wrong place, both for its own domain and the wider universe of citizens, companies and brands. PR can no longer dictate on its own terms
It is not about loudhailer broadcasting or “managing the message” any more. Shrill press releases are irrelevant in a world that sees through obfuscation and deceit. Building advocacy and activism from within networks is the way forward. The voices of regular people need to be heard.
Moreover, PR people have for too long ignored the importance of organisational design and the implications of its evolution. Deeper structural issues are frequently overlooked in the rush to communicate.
Threat Four: Scale
Creative PR ideas mostly remain tactical and without scale. They rarely establish organising principles that genuinely transform businesses and brands. When was the last time a really big idea (not an amplifying one) could be credited to PR? Perhaps the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign – but the advertising agencies might dispute that this was ever a PR idea in the first place. I was there when a few of them made their case.
Increasingly, numerous ad agencies look to their PR brethren only for added spin – an ugly and anachronistic need that too many PR practitioners happily fuel – but the PR industry has a responsibility to think and deliver big and accountably if it is to be taken seriously.
Threat Five: Talent
Ultimately, it may be the lack of talent in PR that finally kills it: too few big brains to do the big thinking required in a world of progressive communication. Lord Chadlington, the outgoing chief executive of global PR group Huntsworth, has voiced concern that it may be that not enough PR people are bright enough to engineer change. The talent pool is too shallow, the future-facing part of the industry is insufficiently enlightened, and the big industry players (dominated by multinational companies) are trapped by business models that force them to sell arms and legs rather than investing in whole new areas of talent.
The overwhelming majority of Multinational Corporations (MNCs) urgently need to re-evaluate their communications talent at a global level and reorganise to ensure that they have best-in-class practitioners in each of the identified expert areas: from employee engagement to brand marketing; crisis and risk management to content, social media and data.
This is not the current reality. An overhaul of outdated managerial constructs is necessary and the war for talent will soon become acute. Barclays’ Global Communications Director Stephen Doherty sees “a great schism” ahead as the war for talent intensifies. His shift is from external to internal agency, with professional communications advisors working within the corporation of the future. Stephen should know – he delivered precisely this while working alongside the legendary Ian Wright at Diageo.
These five existential threats are exacerbated by significant global trends.
Public trust in major institutions in Western economies – finance, business, media and government – has collapsed, not least because of the rise of individual empowerment, which sees power shifting from state to citizen; employer to employee; corporation to consumer. Activism is everywhere – including institutional shareholder activism, which was, according to a Financial Times report in late 2013, up five percentage points in the previous 12 months alone. Society is atomised and authority is now a rented space. Trust is understandably complex and fragile. There are no silver bullets. PR is not prepared, or even fit for purpose, in this age of activism, nor does it properly understand the restoration of trust.
This new world is a long way from the early, optimistic days of Bernays, Dan Edelman and Harold Burson. Transparency is the default position. Spin is dead and ethics, values and behaviours, not mission statements, provide the framework for future communications. Institutions are being asked to demonstrate leadership through actions not words. Yet PR is still too busy talking, not doing, and frequently advising its clients to do likewise. Talk is cheap and control is over. Message massaging and media management, once the mainstay of corporate PR folk, are no longer possible; reputation and issues management are easily broken open. The pages of most national and international newspapers are littered with such corporate victims.
Advertising agency VCCP co-founder Charles Vallance, with whom I helped launch the O2 brand in 2002, emphasises this point: “you cannot control your customer. Empowerers thrive.”
“Brands,” says Vallance, “have to organise themselves to be free. Really good communications concedes that not everything works.”
The “philosophy” (again, PR is not a profession) may be moribund, but just because PR is dead doesn’t mean that the industry will actually vanish overnight. This is, after all, where people make money.
As the entrepreneur Luke Johnson said to me at a drinks reception (I paraphrase): “You may think that PR is dead. But that doesn’t mean the industry will disappear. Where there’s a market, there will be buyers. Where there are buyers, there will be business.”
Luke may be right, but the PR consultancy model is increasingly redundant. Its demise is only a matter of time. Global PR firms – though not all offenders in equal measure – continue to build the same tired bureaucracies to service client hierarchies, rather than addressing core issues of purpose, products and services.
They have an entrenched addiction to sales and revenues (selling stuff to clients), and many have lost focus on solving strategic problems. They are obsessed about their competitors, less so their clients. “Value” evaporates from the relationship, like steam off a kettle. One friend resigned from a consultancy when, returning to the office after winning a new client, the chief executive asked not what the issues were or about the work involved, but when and what the client would pay. I have, myself, been guilty of asking exactly this question in the past. This is what the system does to all of us.
Another friend, the Chief Marketing Officer of ███████████████, a FTSE 100 company, summed up the sentiments of many: “I am so sick of my agency fobbing me off with junior teams when what I need is a couple of hours with the guy I hired who, incidentally, I never see.” It is a familiar refrain.
Vodafone’s Group Communications Director, Matt Peacock, puts it this way: “when I find an adviser who I like and trust and whose judgment and skills are proven, I don’t give a toss what logo he or she has above their door: my money follows the person, not their employer.”
“Selling a PR agency full-service proposition to a client,” he continues, “is like trying to sell the merits of a general hospital (great x-ray department! Great catering!) when all I want is the name of the world’s best cardiovascular surgeon.”
Clients, therefore, need to challenge the perceived orthodoxy of their consultancies. Too many consultancies get away with it because so many organisations see business problems as communications problems, when they are not. PR and Communications firms cannot transform a bad product or business plan into a good one, through any amount of spin or anything else. It is time to recognise this and to change not the way we communicate but the way we act.
“You are essentially a financial shop,” I said to one of the directors of █████████. “You take a 40% margin and a massive win-fee in the good times and re-position yourselves as corporate experts and squeeze a 25% margin when the deal-flow goes slow. As soon as the economy picks up, you return to your specialism.”
“How come you know this?”
“One of your fellow directors told me.”
I have long been fascinated about how the big ██████████ communications firms make their money and, to be frank, how they get away with offering strategic corporate advice when they rarely themselves believe in a world beyond shareholder value. Their world and the real world essentially do not connect.
“What do you do when someone comes to see you with an employee engagement issue?” I asked.
The pinstripe-suited smoothie smiled in that knowingly patronising way, as perfected by so many in City firms.
“We send him down the corridor.”
His words had Orwellian overtones. “And what happens there?”
“Well, he just meets one of us, wearing a different hat. And we sell
him the programme.”
“So, you don’t have the expertise?”
“We don’t need the expertise. The clients buy us anyway.”
Never buy a man with a different hat.
It was Go Ahead Group’s communications strategist Simon Craven who shared with me the story of Blockbuster and Netflix. It is a sweet parable.
“In 2000,” he recounted, “Netflix had only 300,000 subscribers for DVD rental by online order and was losing money. Blockbuster, based on physical stores, had been valued at $4.8 billion in its IPO the previous year.
Netflix had a vision of distributing films over the internet, but fast internet for the mass market wasn’t ready. Netflix offered Blockbuster 49 per cent of itself, suggesting it become Blockbuster’s online video division. Blockbuster didn’t see internet video as a threat, and turned Netflix down.
“In 2002, Blockbuster reported a $1.6 billion loss for the year. In 2003, Netflix made its first annual profit. In 2004, Blockbuster launched an online service, but it was too late. By 2006, Blockbuster was valued at a mere $500 million. In 2010, it went bust.”
Today, in 2014, Netflix is valued at anything between $19 billion and $30 billion.
The choice is now straightforward and immediate. PR, like all businesses and indeed politics, can embrace the progressive revolution. Or, like Blockbuster, arrogantly swagger forth … and sleepwalk over the cliff.
WISE CROWD CONTRIBUTOR:
THE (FINAL) DEATH OF SPIN
It’s a little over a decade since I published a book predicting that our “spin-culture” was coming to an end. I’ve just taken The Death of Spin (Wiley, 2003) down from my top shelf and I’m pleasantly surprised – or perhaps smugly reassured – by my prescience.
It was written in the shadow of 9/11, not long after the dot-com bubble burst, when Tony Blair had only just embarked on his Iraq misadventure, but before 7/7, Gordon Brown, the 2008 financial crisis, MPs’ expenses, phone-hacking and the Coalition. It was, with all the implications of the old Chinese curse, an interesting time.
I noted of “traditional” financial PR that, “it knew of no existence other than the equities up-trend” and, “was left with one of two options before it – deny the existence of change or find something new to do.” More broadly, when the Big Society was but a twinkle in the eyes of David Cameron’s focus group, I asserted that the “responsibility for social provision lies as much with business as it does with government.”
I wrote that a necessary change could be forced on us by “a prolonged reversion of the economic growth cycle,” which has come to pass; that the re-invention of the Tories was solely about image and that they would have to confront their demons in Europe (ditto); that honesty was “the new brand value” and that its outcomes could only be about “how you behave, rather than what you claim.” We’re still waiting on that last bit.
“We have covered politics and business with the tarmac of a spin-culture and then wonder why the grass isn’t growing,” I wrote. “There is more to life than what we think about it. We have to do too. That means being brave enough to use communications as a means of action, not positioning; of joining the debate, not evading it… It is for the mass of people to alter the culture in which they live.”
This isn’t an exercise in I-told-you-so, nor a grubby attempt to get a two-for-one deal with Robert. I was unwittingly addressing a symptom of PR’s terminal disease in 2003. That symptom was “spin,” which was an over-developed talent for posturing and positioning one’s political or business interests in relation to critical issues, rather than tackling the issues themselves.
At the start of the new millennium, I believed (I was in a minority, but I wasn’t alone) that this tendency towards spin, which had its roots in American politics and was imported into the City of London, could be corrected by imaginative communications professionals.
But I was treating the symptom rather than curing the disease. The patient, in the shape of British business and politics, had presented with “spin”, but the underlying condition was far more serious than a bunch of PRs coining it from clients who could no longer distinguish substance from style, nor perception from value.
While much has changed since then, much has stayed the same. Freeloading MPs, thieving bankers, lying police officers, gangster utilities, treacherous journalists and fraudulent retailers have collectively demonstrated that spin was an effect, not the cause, of our malaise.
As it happens, I believe that my conclusions from 2003 mostly hold good. PR, as it had developed as a parasite on the body corporate, had a Hobson’s Choice before it: denying the existence of change was not a long-term solution, while finding something new to do required it to be something it was not.
But the problem isn’t PR. How could it be? The prosperity of public relations has only been enabled by its paymasters. The be-suited PR flaks are but the suppurating buboes on the plagued bodies of our national institutions. Nor will shooting the rats which carry the plague help very much – banging up bankers, or simply rescinding their knighthoods, may provide temporary satisfactions, but they hardly address the disease.
Back in 2003, I wrote that there was time to win back trust, but “you cannot trust someone who is not honest with you. Honesty doesn’t have a moral genesis in this context – it is a practical demand.” And we can’t recreate an honesty that our forebears took for granted – a capitalist free market in which my word is my bond, in which asset-ownership depends on a mutuality of interests, in which the buyer need only beware of his or her poor judgment rather than the deceits of marketers – unless we know what sort of domestic society we believe in and what sort of world we want to build.
I recall a conversation I had in 2002 with Richard Addis. He had just returned from Toronto and could compare the cultures of the UK and North America. In Britain, he said, it’s usually sufficient to offer a clever-clogs view gleaned from the media. Across the Atlantic, this is likely to be listened to politely before you are asked: “Yes, but what do you believe?”
After Lehman Brothers, Enron and WorldCom, that kind of demand on our credibility may be harder to accept from that source. But we can aspire to make it ourselves once more. And we should. Because without belief there can be no remediation of our social sickness, only quack cures offered by the mountebanks of PR. Which is perhaps, when I wrote The Death of Spin, why they were called spin doctors.