I’ve recently been reading a book called ‘Trust me, PR is dead’ by Robert Phillips, which I bought on the basis of its title at the Hay Festival earlier this year (and if you think that perhaps I included that phrase simply to gloat about being at Hay, you’d be right).
Phillips is a former CEO of the EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) division of Edelman, one of the world’s largest PR agencies. He ‘saw the light’, realised that PR was dying, resigned from Edelman, and established a ‘progressive strategy consultancy and think-tank’.
The premise of the book is that public relations is a dying profession that has failed to adapt to the changing business landscape. For Phillips, public relations is another term for ‘corporate spin’ or ‘message management’, which is always intended to present an organisation in the best possible light without any need for authenticity or meaningful action.
Phillips argues that we are moving from an age of message management into an age of activism and individual empowerment. He suggests that power is shifting – from state to citizen, from employer to employee, and from corporation to citizen-consumer. Public relations is being replaced with data analysis, customer response, citizen empowerment, democratic work practices, and authentic engagement with audiences.
Phillips suggests that public relations is a young and short-lived profession (actually, he takes issue with the word ‘profession’). He traces PR back to the 1940s, when people like Edward Bernays, Dan Edelman, and Harold Burson began to focus on ways to communicate organisational messages in the most persuasive way possible, with an eye to maximising corporate profit.
I can’t help but wonder whether Phillips is confusing the tools of public relations with the purpose to which they’re put. The book almost reads as though it’s the result of an epiphany on the road to corporate greed: a flash of understanding that it’s not OK to spin a message simply to maximise profit if there’s no substance sitting underneath; messages should actually be true, and words need to be backed up by action.
At its core, public relations is about establishing/building/maintaining relationships/communication pathways with audiences/publics/stakeholders. From my perspective, this is not a single profession, nor a role that can die. It was not established by promotional whiz-kids at the close of World War 2. The theories of public relations – and of human communication more broadly – are based in concepts of psychology and sociology, with links to things like mass media effects, diffusion of innovations, and persuasion. These theories can be traced back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Public relations draws on and is part of all conversations about human communication.
What Phillips says about the role of good communication is not new. Many practitioners (whether they identify with the term ‘public relations’ or not) have long understood that an ethical approach to communication is honest, practical and real. They have also understood that the tools of public relations – things like word craft, messaging, and persuasion – are without moral value. These tools can be used, adopted, and adapted by anyone with knowledge and skill, to suit any issue or practice.
Maybe the term ‘public relations’ has become so tainted by concepts of greenwashing and spin that it will disappear from use. But no matter what it’s called – communication strategy, citizen democracy, collaboration, progressive strategy – the underlying principles are the same. Organisations need to work with and communicate with people and organisations. They need to listen; they need to work alongside; and sometimes they need to persuade.
Footnote: I wonder how many Australians (like me) might be confused by the unexplained initialism EMEA … clearly widely used and understood in its region (Europe, Middle East, and Africa), but less likely to be seen here.