In December of 2012, Robert Phillips quit his high-profile, high-paying job as President and CEO of Edelman, EMEA – the world’s largest public relations agency, responsible for over 1,200 people and 19 offices across 14 markets. (To understand the sheer size or Edelman, consider that in 2013, globally, client fees exceeded $734 million.) The decision to leave came less than a month after also being appointed Global Chair, Public Engagement & Future Strategies for Edelman.
There were no unspoken conspiracies or massive disagreements behind the move. Under Phillips’ leadership, Edelman grew 55% in the UK in three years. The reason was simple: he no longer believed in either the business model or the purpose of the business he had chosen to profess. He felt like an imposter and a hypocrite and knew it was time to quit.
Phillips is a co-founder of Jericho Chambers, a Progressive Communication Consultancy, a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, London, co-author of Citizen Renaissance (2008) and a frequent essayist, speaker and media commentator on citizenship and business. He has appeared on BBC TV and the BBC World Service – and contributed to The Sunday Times, The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, among others.
He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford and the University of London. He is a Trustee of The Creative Society; a Fellow of the RSA; an Associate at the Centre for London; and a Fellow of the Public Relations Consultants Association and Vice Chair of its Diversity Network. Past memberships have included the Advisory Board of the Global Economic Symposium (the Kiel Institute for World Economy) and the Steering Committee of the Circle of European Communicators plus spells as a Trustee of the New Economics Foundation and on the London Council of the Confederation of British Industry and its Climate Change Taskforce. Phillips sat on the Edelman Global Executive Committee and created (and chaired) the firm’s Global Ethics Committee as well.
I contacted Phillips after he shared a recent post of mine concerning the current state of Public Relations on Twitter. We soon discovered that it’s a topic we have a shared passion for, and I knew that Editorial IV readers, myself included, could learn a lot from his perspective. Having come to this realization, I asked if he’d be willing to do a Q&A with us. He graciously accepted.
Phillips’ newest book, “Trust Me: PR is Dead,” explores his views in a way that is part personal, part wryly observational and part survival manual. He has developed fresh ideas for citizen-centric leadership, with radical honesty and radical transparency at its core. Smart and trusted leaders and organizations are already embracing these principles. But for those who fail to do so, “their own Tahrir Square moment awaits,” he says.
I encourage you to support “Trust Me, PR is Dead” on Unbound, read the interview below and follow Robert Phillips as he helps usher in a new era of progressive communication.
At the end of 2012, you resigned from your position as President and CEO of Edelman EMEA, the biggest public relations firm in the world, because you no longer believed in the big agency business model and were beginning to feel like a hypocrite. What was it that made you come to this conclusion?
In the book, I recount a conversation in October 2012 with Richard Edelman, sitting on a park bench in Chicago:
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: its failure to embrace data; championing generalists in an age of mastery; thinking about geographies before specialisms; obsessing about advertising and the dreadfully-named “C-suite”, rather than focusing on ground-breaking ideas, rooted in citizen truths; building bureaucracies, rather than centres of excellence; and more. It was quite a long list. It was quite a long walk.
Richard listened intently, which was not always par for the course. “Of course you are 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. Our relationship has always been an honest one. But it was there and then I decided to quit. I could not be a hypocrite and felt like an imposter. I had fallen out of love with the industry I had spent the best part of twenty-five years obsessing about its ascendancy.
Essentially, the current model of “Public Relations” is no longer fit for purpose. It was born in a diminishing age of hierarchies and institutional authority and relies too heavily on command-and-control communications. Persistent talk about “crafting narratives” and “managing messages” are just two examples of this.
We now live in a chaotic age of networks and we therefore need a communications discipline that can deal with this: more activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first. I have chosen to call this Public Leadership.
A parallel point is that, like it or not, the term “PR” has become saddled with the monikers of deceit and spin, while some PR folk have often promised to “restore trust” through PR. This is impossible. Trust is an outcome, not a message and is the product of actions, not words.
PR is dead because we need to kill it for the professional health and survival of the next generation of practitioners – and to replace it with a new model of comms.
When I left big agency life to start Pulsar Strategy, it was because I believed big agencies were poised to fail (or “sleepwalk over a cliff,” as you put it), the barrier to entry was embarrassingly low, and the old guard needed to be replaced (no offense). I still think all of this is possible. You, on the other hand, believe that Public Relations is dead and that Public Leadership is the way of the future. Care to elaborate on that?
You are certainly right about “low barriers to entry.” It is one of the significant weaknesses of the industry, especially when considered alongside a consistent failure to embrace proper measurement (outcomes, not outputs), and the real-time data that is now available to us.
However, while it is broken philosophically it is not yet broken commercially. As long as clients keep on buying, the “old guard”, as you put it, will keep on selling. This cannot go on forever, though. Clients are recognising the time of intermediation through agency is over – they can happily and better build their own capabilities anyway and go direct.
This problem is not restricted to the PR sector, by the way. It afflicts all large Professional Services firms – hence my challenge that the industry is about to sleepwalk over the cliff.
The wider point I am making is that we live in an age of mastery. Networks and coalitions, not institutional hierarchies, are the business models of the future: collaboration, not control; thinkers, not technocrats.
Currently, none of the major PR networks are aligned with the reality of the new world – they tend to focus on expansion by geography, not deep expertise; and on management, rather than public leadership. Furthermore, there is a structural problem in that they cannot free up the investment dollars to make the necessary shifts. It is too disruptive to their business models. In addition, the dominant network players (like WPP, Omnicom etc) are investing their big bucks in data and social and search… and not in PR. Again, hence the cliff analogy.
They need to shift from generalisms to expertise; from selling to thinking; from obsessing about themselves to absolutely focusing on their clients; to learn to collaborate within agile networks (of their own and with third parties) and not in aggressive silos; to become fully transparent about the way they make money – which means differentiating between offering “arms & legs” support to clients and true, consultancy expertise.
They need to move from the twentieth century traditional/ marketing model into the 21st century creative/ collaborative one.
Above all, they need to root everything they do in actions, not words.
Some say that a shift must be made from Public Relations to Public Engagement. You don’t think that’s enough, and that the shift must be to Public Leadership. What do you say to critics who chalk these arguments up to splitting hairs or getting bogged down in semantics?
I chaired Edelman’s Global Public Engagement and Future Strategies group and helped the firm engineer the shift from PR to PE. As you point out, I no longer think that this is enough.
Public Leadership is stronger philosophically because it represents an evolved form of behaviours – not just communications – that are better suited to the realities of the post-crisis (some may say, post-capitalist), Social Digital world.
It respects the world as it is now, not as it was twenty or fifty years ago.
PR has traditionally been too fast to communicate. You see it whenever a politician sweeps to power or a new CEO takes over. They rush to agree their “message”. For me, Public Leadership sits at the end of a four-stage process that involves re-defining goals, re-appraising values, re-setting working practices – and then agreeing how to communicate, based on actions, not words.
Many of my detractors have screamed at me “PR is not dead, it’s evolving”. I think this is a false argument. There has to be a more fundamental shift because of the way the world is: power and influence are atomised, activist and asymmetrical. Individual empowerment is everywhere – power is shifting from state to citizen, employer to employee, corporation to citizen-consumer. A fundamentally new model is needed to deal with this.
Think about it in terms of any disruption to traditional models: Uber versus “old” cab companies; Netflix versus Blockbuster; Expedia versus the travel agencies. We need thinking that is relevant for tomorrow, not applied to yesterday.
PR still looks for manicured messages and eternally happy endings but I think the real world now is messy and chaotic. The old model cannot deal with this.
You have a new book coming out, “Trust Me, PR is Dead.” What was the inspiration behind it and what do you hope to accomplish by publishing it?
I wanted to think about the future. I wanted to help people understand that incremental change is not enough. I guess the missionary in me wanted to help the industry save itself from itself.
I actually started off thinking about the future of business as Business States, a bit like city states. This led me to think abut the future of business itself, the future of leadership and, ultimately, therefore, the future of communications (and thus PR).
The final inspiration was accidental: the CEO of one of the UK’s largest energy firms giving possibly the worst and most inauthentic speech on trust I had ever heard. Something desperately needed to be said to call bullshit on bullshit.
With the book, I hope to codify a better way of thinking about communications and to nail a number of myths, although I readily accept I do not have all the answers.
One of the things that’s been bugging me is the way PR continues to be used, falsely, to allegedly gain or restore trust. I hope the book finally nails the trust myth. This, in turn, leads to an examination of leadership in business and politics and, again, to the corrosive role “old” PR can play here.
A new capitalism needs a new form of communications.
The book looks at the paradox of the corporate future – and the role communications plays within this, specifically in relation to purpose, values and social utility.
It also calls for a shift from the bureaucracy of Corporate Social Responsibility (which I hate) to an imaginative idea around Corporate Social Enterprise.
It speaks to the wisdom of crowds, not the (false, in my view) determination to control via elites and institutions.
In this sense, the book is about a whole lot more than just PR.
Some in the PR industry seem dis-proportionately perturbed by the book’s title. It is of course meant to provoke – but in a good way. That said, I firmly believe Public Relations as it has been needs to be replaced by Public Leadership as it should be.
Since leaving Edelman, you’ve co-founded a new agency in London, Jericho Chambers. There’s a quote on the homepage that I love: “Progressive Communication is about what you do, not what you say, or what you say you do.” What impact do you hope Jericho Chambers will have on the industry?
Jericho is not, in the conventional sense, a communications agency. It is built on a different model – along the lines suggested in the book. You might call it a “courageous change agency” because we are determined to change the way the world works – across business, politics, economics and society.
At its heart are sixteen hugely experienced senior counsellors, each with a dedicated expert area – from trusted leadership to political campaigning; social movements to change management, data and Public Ethics. As with the progressive corporate future, communications is only one part of what we do. It is not our everything.
In many ways, Jericho Chambers is the consultancy delivery of the thinking described above: a disruptive and radical model; a belief that communications can and should be transformative; and that, ultimately, a vision that there isa better way – for society, for business and for PR and comms.
Anything else Editorial IV readers should know about you?
I don’t like fish.
You can follow Robert Phillips on Twitter @citizenrobert or click one of the many links above to find out more information.