Robert Phillips: PR is dead, long live the new model

In Robert Phillips' ideal world of doing business many of your jobs would simply not exist, finds Daniel Farey-Jones.

According to Richard Edelman, Robert Phillips left his job as global chair for public engagement and future ­strategies and CEO of Edelman EMEA two years ago "to write a second book and improve how people perceive public relations". Well, he was half right. Phillips has written a second book. Whether Trust Me, PR is Dead improves perceptions of the PR industry is another matter.

Its title masks the fact that its central theme is actually capitalism. Phillips argues that ­today’s corporate leaders must shed the 20th century’s worship of profit maximisation and adherence to top-down hierarchies andcentralised communication. They should ­instead give employees and ­outsiders the chance to participate in business decisions, thereby helping themselves and their companies adapt to a world in which ­people want ­corporations to mix profit with social purpose.

In between examinations of such thinking in action, Phillips takes potshots at the PR ­industry for shielding and pandering to the type of CEO who still seeks to "manage the ­message to the people rather than let the people speak for themselves".

He mixes in recollections of his own private conversations with such unreconstructed bosses, though he frequently saves their blushes, and his legal bills, by anonymising them in the book.

PRWeek invites Phillips to back up his call for leaders to restore trust with actions, not words, by asking what he would do were he CEO of RBS (a recurring target). It turns out he would ­abolish free banking (it is not transparent for customers), end crazy bonuses, give employees an ownership stake in the business and listen to a "wise crowd" of employees and external stakeholders.

It is this thirst for bold change that seems to have inspired him to write the following ­dramatic savaging of the hand that fed him so well for so long: "It is time to put a discredited function, PR, out of its misery and to build a new model afresh, for the world as it is now, not the world as it once was. Arguing for the ­rebranding or evolution of PR will not do."

However, there seems to be a contradiction between this stance and the easier ride the book gives to in-house comms heads, such as HSBC’s Pierre Goad and Barclays’ Stephen ­Doherty. Phillips rejects this, arguing that he backs Goad and Doherty, as well as Vodafone’s Matt Peacock and Heineken’s Sean O’Neill, ­because they have "thought through this stuff". 

So, can he clarify what he would have his comms director do, were he a CEO? Without hesitating, he answers he would give them the budget to staff up their teams with talented people and the brief "to be like a social activist".

"Communications departments need to build capacity not dependency. The agency world has built a business model out of [client] ­dependency," he asserts.

Comms directors and their teams should have a wider remit than just comms, and be qualified in business strategy. In addition, chief comms officers should see themselves as chief community organisers or chief citizenship ­officers. "I would encourage my chief comms officer to think and behave like a social activist to channel the activism of employees and ­customers to positive effect. Think about a ­company as a social movement. The CEO and his or her leadership team have got to be ­activists within that movement and lead from within, not lead from the top."

But doesn’t this sound like the evolution of PR that he rejects? It is an oddity that the book casts its author somewhat as a lone voice, when in fact the desire for change is shared by many in the PR industry. Challenged on this, Phillips says the industry has "over-abused" the ­evolution argument. He sees its present success as separate from its structural fitness for the ­future and invokes comparisons to Blockbuster versus Netflix and London cabbies versus Uber.

"My challenge to the evolutionists is, are they really interested in evolving it or are they just trying to protect the industry that’s making money for them?" he questions.

Public value
Some context here. Phillips co-founded a small consultancy, Jericho Chambers, after ejecting from Edelman, which he paints as a kind of ­supertanker, the course of which he failed to convince his ultimate boss Richard Edelman to change.

Jericho is a very different beast, consisting of just 12 partners who are experts in fields ­unrelated to PR and have their own outside ­interests, and no account executives.

Phillips reveals examples of his work with KPMG on responsible tax (see responsibletax.org.uk), and AkzoNobel, helping to empower its employees to drive its Human Cities ­programme. He is also advising two other ­clients on his book’s notion of public value, but will only let on that they are in the chemicals and construction sectors.

Phillips is disappointingly discreet, dashing PRWeek’s hopes of hearing juicy details hidden by the book’s redactions (advised by his libel lawyer sister), which memorably include about 60 blacked-out lines between the phrases "I hate Starbucks …" and "… And I told them so".

But he makes up for this with frank, passionate words on diversity, accusing the PR ­industry of discriminating against mothers, the old, people affected by mental health issues and students not from privileged backgrounds.

He is keen not to let "every generation of 50-something white males always hire ­successors from among a bunch of 40-something white males" and is currently ­advising an ­embryonic think-tank that will ­encourage the wider corporate world to think carefully about its next generation of leaders.

Over 90 minutes Phillips brims with intellectual idealism and PRWeek found his book and his company much more enjoyable and less ­patronising than it had feared.

Finally, we can reveal that another book is in gestation – but don’t expect Stone Me, PR is Alive After All. It is not about PR, Phillips says. Of course, that’s old hat now, isn’t it?

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