Robert Phillips

Expert Adviser; Visiting Professor; Author & Commentator

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"There is no silver bullet to restore trust"

Time to Shatter Some Stereotypes: Transition & Transformation: The Future of PR and the Advance of Citizen Capitalism

17th June, 2011 in Article


PR, our profession, has suffered from an apologetic inferiority complex for way too long. For the best part of half a century, we have lived in the shadow of advertising, often criticizing our Madmen collaborators but then bizarrely measuring our success against their questionable metrics. We have historically justified our role as ‘hidden persuaders’ (at best) or (still worse) as masters of the dark art of spin. We have, so often, struggled to properly define ourselves and to find a genuine role for our profession within society at large. We can now seize a unique moment in time to change all this.

PR, today, has the opportunity to help engineer the transition from old to new models of business –to be a powerful transformative agent for wider society. We are thus placed because we understand that Trust underpins everything – and we understand the nuances and the fragility of Trust. We are the ones who have long-championed the seismic shift from broadcast models to engaged networks. We understand connections, the thirst for content, the role of conversation and the ascendancy of active engagement in an inter-dependent world. We know that Digital has changed the game forever but that the key is not the technology but the fundamental behavioural change that the technology has driven.

These points all play to our advantage. But they will count for nothing it we fail to understand the reformation of society and our clients’ businesses – and the parallel reformation of Public Relations itself. The three are intimately connected. This is therefore a pivotal moment.

The approach of the wider communications industry (and not just PR) since World War II has contributed significantly to the mess in which we now find ourselves – from the financial meltdown of 2008/9 to impending climate chaos. We have helped drive a society based on Wants, not Needs. We have pushed to consumerize everything, not least in politics, and frequently championed a drive towards super-consumption that is simply unsustainable, both for our own well-being and for the finite resources of the planet. These are some of the fundamental tenets of Citizen Renaissance, which I co-authored and published in the summer of 2008.

I am often asked how I can reconcile the Manifesto for Change outlined in Citizen Renaissance with my role within one of the world’s largest PR organizations? My fundamental belief is that communications can and should be a powerful agent for change, especially in the post-Crisis world. We, as PR people, can be transformative and we can help the transition to what Barack Obama called, in his inaugural address, the ‘new era of citizenship and responsibility’.

This ‘new era’ must apply equally to the way we behave and the advice we give to business leaders, corporations and brands. Only then can we take our rightful place at the Boardroom table – winning the battle on the wisdom of our thought, not the scale of their budgets. We can happily shed our inferiority complex in the process.

Let’s look first at the transitional world of Business, Corporations and Brands: I believe that the most consequential outcome of the global financial crisis is now the challenge to capitalism itself. This is at once exciting and energizing. As citizens – regardless of our PR monickers – we should welcome this moment as a huge opportunity not just to re-appraise but also to re-set our value system. We should stop obsessing endlessly about banks and bankers and stop looking only for top-down solutions from governments and regulators. The opportunity for reformation and renaissance lies within our power. I believe that Capitalism can be re-built from the bottom-up and be citizen-led and the PR industry has a real role to play within this.

The terms ‘shared values’ and ‘shared interests’ are very much in vogue right now – part of the buzzword bingo of 2011, along with ‘long-termism’ and ‘engagement’. The challenge is to actually embed these principles and make them endure. Business Leaders like Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo (‘Performance with Purpose’) and Paul Polman at Unilever (emphasizing the long-term) (disclosure: Edelman clients) are getting it right but they are sadly few in number. Citizen shareholders and citizen consumers can now openly advocate their support for companies and approaches such as these – and hold to account those business leaders who have no real appetite for transition and transformation. We need to recognize that real change is not going to come from the top – either from the financial system or the politicians. We need to consult our clients accordingly.

We are all actionists and activists now. Businesses and brands must understand this. The speed and immediacy of the web and the consequences of a hyper-connected society are bringing about radical and sometimes surprising change – and at speed. Just ask the residents of Tunis, Cairo or Benghazi. Democracy is more real and more unfettered than ever before – and anger can quickly turn to political revolt. This fragility of power and authority can be applied equally to business leaders and corporations as it can to politicians and governments. We should expect a ‘Tahrir Square’ in the corporate and brand world sometime soon. You may think this is crazy talk – but it is in fact the logical corollary of an activist society, empowered and connected in the Digital Age. Over-arching all this, we – as PR professionals – need to help Corporate leaders properly understand the new responsibilities of business – set within a new framework that promotes the equitable treatment of all stakeholders over the sole advancement of shareholder value. In simplistic terms, this will kill off, once and for all, what some describe as the Milton Friedman principle – that the social responsibility of business is to maximize profits. The Edelman Trust Barometer, tracking this shift from a shareholder to a stakeholder society over the past eleven years, offers quantifiable evidence that Milton Friedman is dead and that the social responsibility of business today must address the new ecology of interests within business on a more balanced footing: embracing the customer as citizen; the employee as citizen; and the corporate entity as a collective citizen of the community and the planet which it serves. We can do all this and still not undermine the profit principle.

If, therefore, we begin to see PR as an agent of transformation – as a force for good – then as principled PR professionals, we can begin to articulate a real manifesto for change, together with our clients. We should, together, look towards a Capitalist system that is both citizen-led and environmentally responsible. This would put us in position of both authority and responsibility with the people whom we advise. We would, I believe, be talking to them about the advance of Citizen Capitalism.

What does this model of Citizen Capitalism look like? What does it demand? First, it will demand reform of a capitalist system that moves beyond box-ticking compliance. Citizen capitalism insists on a more fundamental re-examination of principles and leadership. Second, it will insist on ‘profit with purpose’, asking for more than the narrow and selfish focus on money alone. Third, citizen shareholders will play a more active and empowered role, through supervisory boards and a non-executive presence. Fourth, it will build ownership models on a broader stakeholder basis, safeguarding longer-term value. Expect more mutuals, partnerships and co-operatives. Fifth, it will demand institutional reform – from UK government and our ‘constitution’ through to the poorly constructed and increasingly problematic legacy organisations of Bretton Woods. Sixth, it will work hard to improve Financial Literacy across the board. And, finally, Citizen Capitalism will measure success in terms of material wellbeing and ultimately happiness – and not just in growth or through financial metrics.

These principles of Citizen Capitalism can, of course, be applied with equal importance to our own businesses and to the world of PR at large. We are business leaders in our own right and must surely play by the same rules. We cannot advise clients one way and then behave another. We must, ourselves, begin to build our businesses on the same models as those of our clients. We must measure progress with the same metrics of success.

So what does this mean for the PR industry? For us? I believe we can only achieve transition and transformation for our clients if we, ourselves, recognize the four Citizen truths that underlie this thinking: First, and most fundamentally, we must stop thinking of citizens as consumers. We urgently need to change our language and appreciate that citizenship is a more vital element of a healthy society than consumption without restraint. This has to be the starting point. Second, we must appreciate that citizens are equal partners in the drive for change. This cannot be papered over with lazy talk of ‘empowering people’ but must recognize, at the most fundamental level, the new tripartite contract between business, government and citizens. This must shape our thinking. It asks for more than Big Society spin. Third, we must understand that the power pyramid has been inverted. We know that we are no longer in control. We can only participate now, not dictate terms from above. We must no longer sell; we must always listen. In a citizen-centric world, we must root our work within true civic values – pride, prudence, justice, respect and trust – to enable us to rebuild a real sense of community and society. Transparency and Truth are everything; no more lies; no more deceit; not more being , to quote Alan Clark, ‘economic, with the actualité’. Fourth, we must embrace the re-alignment of power in the workplace. Our employees – just as with those of our clients – must have a voice as powerful as those of our clients and shareholders, not least when it comes to critical issues – including, among other things, climate change, supply chain ethics, employee democracy and sustainability. This is our new reality.

The fact is that nothing works in isolation anymore. The key word is engagement. We live in a connected world and we have to learn to advance shared interests together. This, in turn, requires new behaviours from those who lead us. We need to be wholly transparent and wholly accountable if we are to be Fit For Purpose. We cannot just accept the ‘cab rank’ principle and work for any old despot or dictator in pursuit of the money. We have to ask tough questions of ourselves. We need leadership that speaks to the values of principle, not to the opportunism of politics or profit. And this principle must, in turn, always be citizen centric and rooted in our civic truths.

In the recently published Road from Ruin, Matthew Bishop and Michael Green argue that now is the time for capitalism to re-discover its soul. They are right. But capitalism with a soul has the citizen at its heart. And when we, the citizens of the PR industry, look into our heart, we know we can help build the much-needed new form of capitalism together. We know that our principles have become eroded and some of our essential values lost. We know that we have been feeding a world that has been living beyond its means – not just in financial terms, but within its increasingly fragile planetary eco-system also. We know we have all been driven by wants and not needs – and that this is ultimately counter-productive for us all.

As we re-think our own values and our sense of community, therefore, we would do well to heed the wise words of Professor Tim Jackson. We need to STOP ‘spending money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about’. Tim Jackson’s words offer a metaphor for our times and for our PR industry. They help re-calibrate the Wants and Needs relationship. They speak to the political leadership and often the business leadership, too, with whom many of us work, everyday. More importantly, they speak to each and every one of us as citizens in our own right.

If a new capitalism – our capitalism – is to emerge from the chaos of recent years, it must be properly values-based and values-driven. It must focus on shared interests and recognize a healthier, purer and more transparent, radical democracy. It must be citizen-led – and wholly accountable to the people. Our businesses and our profession must advise – and likewise behave – within this framework. Then we can rightfully claim our place at the vanguard of the peaceful revolution.

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Copyright 2015 Robert Phillips. Jericho Chambers