It may sound dramatic, but public relations is no longer fit for purpose. Profound changes in society and communications over the past decade determine this. Circumstances have undermined the credibility and relevance of a discipline that long-considered itself heir to advertising and first among equals. The expectation of a permanent presence at the boardroom table has evaporated, not least because of a generation of PR folk are mostly under-qualified to take their seats. Urgent reform is now needed. The alternative is to sleepwalk over the cliff.
The fall of PR is not simply an inversion of the rise of social, although this is part of the story. Nor is it because of the collapse in the business models of traditional publishing, although this complicates the picture for sure. The churnalism defence - that PR will inevitably step into the gap left by an under-funded, under-resourced media - is simplistic and naive. The media sector is at least self-aware of its imminent disruption.
PR remains vulnerable on many fronts, internal and external.
First, the rise of data creates a more scientific base on which to build relationships. The PR sector is nowhere near properly embracing this. The major network players are investing their data dollars behind advertising agencies and media shops, not PR firms. Publicis chief executive Maurice Levy famously kicked-off a $4 billion (£2.5 billion), fiveyear digital spending spree last September - and it was not to support PR.
Second, PR people have for too long ignored the importance of organisational design. Deeper, structural issues are frequently overlooked in the rush to communicate. PR currently speaks to hierarchies in a world of networks and is therefore starting in the wrong place.
Third, creative ideas remain tactical and without scale. They fail to establish organising principles that transform businesses and brands. When was the last time a genuinely big idea (not an amplifying one) could be credited to PR? Maybe the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty came close - but the advertising agencies would dispute that this was ever a PR idea first.
And, fourth, PR remains obsessed about outputs rather than outcomes. This is perhaps the most fundamental failing of all. Without proper measurement, there can be no accountability. And, without accountability, PR will only become marginalised further: treated as a cottage craft, at the mercy of commoditisation and procurement. The Barcelona Principles have famously yet to be universally adopted.
These problems are mostly self-inflicted. The outlook deteriorates further when the real world charges into view. Public trust in major institutions - finance, business, media, government - has collapsed. The Edelman Trust Barometer has tracked this decline for over a decade. Individual empowerment sees power shifting from state to citizen; employer to employee; corporation to consumer. Activism is everywhere - including institutional shareholder activism, which is, according to the Financial Times, up five percentage points in the last twelve 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.
In this new world, transparency is the default position. Spin is dead. Ethics and values, not Mission Statements, provide the framework for communications (which is why Sainsbury's is probably more trusted right now than Tesco). Institutions must demonstrate leadership through deeds, not words. And yet PR is still too busy talking, not doing, and frequently advising its clients to do likewise.
Some of these problems are not confined to PR. The inconvenient truth is that conventional communications programmes, per se are redundant in a global, social, mobile, networked, post-crisis world.
For PR, though, control is eroding. Everyone is in communications now- both individuals and institutions - because everything is communications. Message massaging and media management are not really possible; reputation and issues management are easily broken open. The pages of the Financial Times are littered with such corporate victims. Politicians feel likewise trapped.
Real issues cannot be addressed via loud hailer media relations, just as they cannot by mass advertising or anachronistic media. Social/digital remains widely misinterpreted - not least by PR consultancies who instead see an opportunity to monetise, rather than the imperative to change the model. In fact, strip the social/ digital revenues out of most PR business financials (WPP and IPG would be good starting points), and you will most likely see a sector in decline.
Meanwhile, PR consultancies - though not all offenders in equal measure - continue to build the same tired bureaucracies to service client hierarchies, rather than addressing core issues of products, services and purpose. 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 recently 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.
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.
Clients 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. Communications firms are often brought in too early or too late to solve the wrong problems. In a world of increasing specialism and expertise, issues of substance need to be tackled by masters of substance. Only then, should a communications plan follow.
Take recent events in Bangladesh. In the wake of deep human tragedy, some companies, manufacturing in the sweatshops of Dhaka, rushed to flaunt their corporate social responsibility credentials. They would have been better advised to tackle the substantive issues: low wages, illegal working conditions, artificially and 'unfair trade' low prices 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.
The Bangladesh example is not isolated. The horsemeat scandal was equally a supply chain issue: a better response would have been to address issues of food poverty and supply chain security, rather than simply jumping into reactive, crisis mode. Issues of taxation and executive pay can be categorised in similar terms. Direct action is needed to address the issue, not the message.
The good news, though, is that decline can be arrested. This demands a re-think of the purpose of communications and how that purpose is best serviced. The answer lies in progressive communications.
Progressive communications is radical, transformational and democratic.
In practice, this means: there can be no progress without change; that business must speak to common good (and address the 99 per cent); and give a voice to all because everyone now has a say. Radical honesty must underpin everything - no more suave management of either clients or media. This is to where PR people should shift their attentions. PR needs to be re-built on fundamental truths, however harsh.
These are not empty words, nor a political agenda. It is the framework on which to build new trust and relationships -a communications model for the networked world. Admittedly, it is disruptive, slightly angry and impatient. But it needs to be.
Organisations and the consultancies that support them need to change the way they behave.
They need to be open because honesty and accountability are now non-negotiable. They need to be mutual because networks champion shared value. They need to be empowering because public interest is more powerful than personal ambition. And they need to be direct because bureaucracies are barriers and intermediation is essentially a fruitless exercise. It is not surprising that the John Lewis Partnership is more trusted than Royal Bank of Scotland or that Zopa is more trusted than Wonga.
For those running corporate communications departments, the added, powerful insight is that complex communications problems are often better solved by those currently working outside the traditional communications disciplines. In other words, we are looking in the wrong places for the right answers. To paraphrase Professor Lynda Gratton, this is the age of mastery - and business leaders need to turn to masters not generalists, internal or external, for sustainable solutions.
Business leaders themselves need to demonstrate the attributes of new, trusted communications: visionary, empowering , transformative, transparent and accountable. In other words, they must adopt the same behaviours as those who communicate alongside them. This is the advice corporate communications advisers need to give - along with the acceptance of fragility and fragmentation and the eternal loss of fast and easy solutions. The age of the 'rock star chief executive' is probably over. Unilever's Paul Polman and GSK's Andrew Witty are the poster children of the new breed.
It is time to come to terms with the radical honesty that lies at the heart of progressive communications, where ethics and valuesled leadership replace tick-box compliance and meaningless mission statements. It is time to ask some tough questions.
In truth, are you ready for the new world? Is your consultancy? Can your current advisors provide the progressive thinking and framework that can move you forwards, not sideways? The cliff looms large ahead. The choice is to sleepwalk over it or to join the progressive revolution.
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