Why claims that PR is dead are dead wrong

I can't be the only one who thinks former Edelman EMEA CEO Robert Phillips is dead wrong about us and what we do.

After a quarter of a century working in PR, former Edelman EMEA CEO Robert Phillips declared that "PR is dead" in a recent op-ed on PRWeek’s website.

In PR, we believe good communication (content) and a great reputation are built upon integrity, transparency, and evidence-based results – and that spin is bad PR, because it has no values or ethics. So this is a vindication of PR and a counterblast to his claims, because I can’t be the only one who thinks Phillips is dead wrong about us and what we do.

On the whole issue of spin and why it’s not PR. We all know spin is the deliberate distortion of truth. It’s the propagation of lies or a truth so diluted and vague that it’s no longer recognizable as such. PR professionals hate spin and what it stands for. Any self-respecting PR person, agency, or group will do everything we can to convince management of the dangers and tremendous risks to an organization’s reputation if they do try to spin. Whereas Phillips never shows how PR is systemically spin.

Phillips undermines his claim that "PR is dead" in three massive ways. First, the most glaring: he has spent 25 years in the PR industry. Isn’t this a case of having one’s cake and eating it and then and only then implying that it was never a cake at all – and, whatever it was, it is inedible for the rest of us. 

"PR has abused and exhausted trust. The restoration of trust is not a function of PR." Where’s his evidence? Worse, he once again uses "PR" as being synonymous with spin. It’s hoped that spin is nailed on the head by now. 

He states that: "Trust is not a message but an outcome…There is no single action, no silver-bullet campaign." Who in PR claims that trust is achieved by one message alone? It’s ongoing and long-term communications.

Phillips says that "If trust is the desired outcome, then PR is not the appropriate solution. Beware the PR firm that talks and promises otherwise." To state that we are untrustworthy is itself spin because it misrepresents the practice of PR and the individuals who do it. To scapegoat and denigrate an entire industry and group of people is discrimination, not fact. He says, "Institutional authority, intermediation, and media relations…now border on the irrelevant."

He doesn't explain why. He's the prosecution, so the burden of proof rests with him.

He adds a "a shift was needed from public relations to public engagement, reflecting the realities of a multiple stakeholder world."  No evidence. Anyway, aren’t relations predicated on engagement?

PR's business model is "dominated on the consultancy side by bloated networks selling bureaucracy over transformation and generalists over deep expertise [and it’s] broken." Is it fair to generalize that all PR consultancies are bloated and broken? Presumably he doesn’t mean Edelman, his former employer. Would clients be so naive or stupid as to tolerate this, if it were true?

In his words, PR has "failed to deliver transformation to scale" and "failed to understand the importance of organizational design." Sadly, this sounds like mumbo-jumbo and he doesn’t explain his jargon.

Phillips says PR has "failed to embrace data (still less measurement and accountability)." Nonsense. There are numerous examples from independent PR media sites. And don’t organizations as well as citizens already rightly demand these things? And if PR didn’t deliver, wouldn’t we all get caught and the profession would be dead, as he says?

PR has "spawned the ill-formed discipline of CSR, continuing to place tick-box compliance over values-led, good behavior." This is cynical at best and unfair to the great work by organizations, employees, and communities working together for a better world. CSR is essential to any organization with a conscience and set of values, and it uses PR as a communications method to inform those with whom it has a relationship – clients, environment, community, citizens, government, etc. Companies ignore CSR at their peril, but it appears the majority of them have embraced it.

He says that the philosophy of PR consultancies – in effect all PR – is "exhausted" because it "is rooted in selling stuff to consumers." Doesn’t he know that it’s marketing and advertising that sells, and we all accept that?

PR is not "addressing societal needs?" Phillips blames PR when he should be scrutinizing the boards and power structures of organizations that are presumably going to be his clients, not attacking PR people who are powerless over the issue on which he’s criticizing us.

My conclusion: as Lancelot in The Merchant of Venice rightly says, "truth will out" – and public relations is and always will be an effective channel of communication to make sure this happens.

Robert White is the principal and founder of PR Matters.

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