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Is PR Really Dead?

02/11/2015 08:18 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

Is PR dead?

When I ran my first software business in the U.S., I was predictably eager to get the word out about the great technology we were doing. So I hired one of the big PR firms, paid them a monthly retainer, invested a lot of time in briefing them and then sat back and waited for the magic to happen. It didn't, of course. The strategists gave way to kids who cranked out press releases no one noticed. I was just another sap lured into covering the agency's overhead.

According to PR veteran, Robert Phillips, my experience was standard. In his new book, Trust Me, PR is Dead, he marshals a powerful argument that no one in the world trusts PR any more. As clients, we've all been duped into deals like mine. As consumers, we've been blasted with spin that has left us cynical and disengaged. PR is dead because neither the clients nor the market believes a word it generates.

The PR talent pool is shallow. The industry deploys no reliable measurement and glories in its lack of accountability. In the aftermath of the banking-economic-democratic crisis of the last eight years, trust has been destroyed, not leas t by the PR agencies hired to restore it. Hiring these flaks today is tantamount to hoping your drug dealer will help you kick the habit; it was, Phillips argues, PR nonsense that destroyed trust in business in the first place. New technologies and social media make it impossible easy for spin to be revealed for the nonsense it is. Trust is shifting from institutions to citizens and no amount of expensive rhetoric can stop it.

Nowhere is Phillips more vitriolic than his removal of the of CSR fig leaf. "Corporate Social Responsibility is the equivalent of a managerial coup of what should be a leadership discipline: Usurping true values-led actions with a compliance culture that is de facto the enemy of powerful, progressive thought." Derided and unmasked, the CSR departments should pack up and go home.

What's thrilling about Phillips's is that, as CEO of Edelman EMEA, he has had access to worldwide business leaders whose hypocrisy and cant he is unafraid to reveal. Although names are visibly redacted throughout the book, the brutal honesty of their exchanges are not. He vividly articulates how profoundly the challenge of transparency undermines corporate control - but not everyone will listen. "What you don't understand," Phillips is told when he tries to warn CEOs, "is that people like ME pay people like YOU to keep us in control."

Trust Me, PR is Dead is the passionate revelation of a once confident, always creative communications maestro on his road to Damascus. Nothing he once believed seems real any more. Everything is subject to scrutiny, doubt and reinvention. But the revelation is simple but tough: instead of talking themselves up, companies should just start doing the right thing - for real. Employ people on decent wages. Eschew stupid bonuses. Pay taxies. Care about customers. Listen. Share ownership. Stop spinning. Don't say you will - do it for real. Trust isn't a message; it's an outcome and the only way to win it is to earn it.

His former colleagues will find it hard to kick the habit. And this won't be just because their livelihoods are dependent on it or because they've forgotten how to do anything else. Their corporate masters are highly conflicted. Anthony Jenkins, the new broom at Barclays, may believe in change - but his lieutenants don't. Whose message will be believed? Some leaders within Goldman Sachs abhor references to 'muppet' clients; some just snigger at the political correctness which attempts to excise it from conversations. PR these days isn't just talking to consumers; it's also a lever to try to change the debates happening within corporations where the change agenda has not fully landed.

For that reason, I'm not sure PR really is dead yet. Factions still use their fictions to fight battles inside and outside their organizations. Politicians still lie and get away with it. And young, naïve companies still hope a few thousand a month will make their name. Social media is crowded and untrustworthy too. I'm sure Phillips is right when he says that visible, demonstrable and measureable change is the only way to win back trust. But the death throes of PR may predictably prove hyperbolic, long and expensive.

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