Communications. Leadership. Trust.

PR is dead, so what comes next?

Photo by Shelagh Murphy on Unsplash

I never thought the Trump presidency or Britain’s exit from the European Union would be weaponised against me.

For some, both offer strange “proof” that my arguments around the death of PR, first socialised five years ago, are misplaced. Fake news – a term little-used until 2015 – is evidence that PR is alive and kicking, albeit in a rather unpleasant way.

Industry critics, especially journalists, love exposing the apparent fakery of PR. They are sometimes right - leaders turning too quickly to spin doctors to make a problem go away (it rarely does). Diversionary tactics – Australian election expert Lynton Crosby’s “dead cat” – are favoured by many practitioners. The journey to fake news – “a type of propaganda …. published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines” (Wikipedia) - was never too difficult. Edward Bernays, founding father of public relations, would be smiling, not spinning, in his grave.

Fake news, fake leadership and fake trust are very real business problems. Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, poster-boy for better capitalism, has called for a cohort of “heroic CEOs” to fight climate change and global inequality. This is founded upon a recognition that business – key within the social compact – has performed poorly and has contributed to the erosion of trust in business and growing popular antagonism. Polman is right. To be truly “heroic”, modern, enlightened leaders should follow a path of humility and vulnerability.

The so-called crisis of trust is mostly overblown (deployed as a “dead cat”, convenient proxy for sh*t gone wrong) and not supported by data. Trust figures for business have not shifted substantially in half a century, as employees, customers and stakeholders maintain a healthy scepticism around priorities and profit motives. This is not to say that trust is not a noble ambition for business; but the starting-point should not be lazy responses that simply churn the headlines from the Edelman Trust Barometer and blame someone/ something else for the current condition. Fake trust is as disingenuous as fake news. The crisis of trust remains a crisis of leadership.

There is a better way to address leadership and trust, communications and engagement, as evidenced in the global Responsible Tax project (see accompanying case study). It is complex and requires careful design, curation and negotiation. But there is now a proven, workable model for a range of organisations on an array of societal issues: the future of work; housing, transport and infrastructure; technology and the digital economy; adult social care and more. At its heart lies a determination to properly tackle “purpose”, a word as abused as “trust”, and establish new operating principles: activism, participation, accountability and dissent. If PR really is dead, this is what comes next.

What comes next?

Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci identified the interregnum – the period between a world where the old is not yet dead and the new is not yet fully born. Here, morbid symptoms persist. Written in the 1920s, Gramsci’s words resonate today, in a world struggling with populism; the privacy-intrusions of data; and the potentially terrifying consequences of tech-led monopolies, courtesy of Google, Facebook, Amazon and others.

The corporate interregnum presents its own morbid symptoms. “Purpose peddling”, or “woke-washing”, is as corrosive as fake news – presenting a significant threat to those committed to a better society and the common good. I am not alone in calling for a revolution in corporate social responsibility, as well as PR: the case for radical reform, escaping tick-box compliance, is overwhelming.

As Polman argues, in a dysfunctional, polarised world, there is real need for activist business leadership. Actions speak louder than words.

Activist leaders require activist organisations and activist peer groups alongside them. Hence new coalitions – as established on Responsible Tax, the Future of Work and elsewhere - built on a robust, peer-to-peer basis and escaping old methodology, where an elite decides who are/ (not) relevant stakeholders. Research for UK charity Business in the Community exposes the scale of the challenge: 86 per cent of companies have a stated purpose but only 17 per cent have a plan, drilled down to team level, on what to do.

However, as Go-Ahead group customer and commercial director Katy Taylor, warns: “the risk to a company of speaking out on a given issue makes it harder to hear reasonable voices on many topics; we are often left with only extreme views, amplified by the proliferation of fake news or emotive, fact-less information.”

Debate, not dictation

The need for reasonable voices and concrete behaviours – together with the shift in the communications landscape – is recognised by those at the vanguard of new action. Yet the adoption of new models remains niche. “There is definitely an increased awareness of where business is letting society down and that they urgently need to do something”, says Business in the Community chief executive, Amanda Mackenzie; “the investment community is fast recognising that future values will be decimated if the right actions are not in place”. Outdated purpose and engagement strategies present a genuine threat to an organisation’s mid- to long-term licence to operate, heightened for those working in controversial sectors – for example, alcohol, pharma, sugar/ fast foods.

“The more progressive companies”, observes Sarah Alspach, brand, marketing and communications director (EMEIA) at EY, “know that it’s not about managing messages so much as cultivating the conversation.

“Understanding the issues and convening the debate has become a role for business in addressing its public interest responsibilities. Those helping shape the discussion, create platforms for engagement and invite diverse voices to contribute are helping build trust.”

This thinking is reflected in the real world by Jericho’s work and the coalitions and communities of influence it has built.

The Future of Work is Human programme, curated on behalf of CIPD, the professional body for HR, embraces a community of 1300 – an eclectic mix of politicians and policy-makers; corporates; academics, authors and experts; NGOs and civil society; media and commentators. As with the Responsible Tax project, this diverse coalition has grown organically, peer-to-peer, from humble origins: an initial roundtable of just fourteen people. Crucially, no one has been paid to participate. Those actively engaged are committed to effecting change for good.

“Developing movements for change aligned to organisational purpose”, argues CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese, “creates dialogue to bring audiences with you and give space to their voice. Shared voice creates a connection which builds a much stronger foundation for trust to thrive.” As we have learned from the Future of Work and similar programmes around transport and the built environment, it is not just “trust” which benefits. Better, dynamic, radical policy recommendations can emerge from the consensus.

These recommendations can be interrogated through People’s Forums and monitored through an accountability framework. Big Ideas are no longer the preserve of corporate elites. Those at the frontline of tax, work, adult social care and the built environment (as examples) now have an active say in future direction, policy and programmes. Those who initiated the movements are held fully accountable to the communities. There is no point “the great and the good” talking about the plight of Amazon workers, if the workers themselves do not enjoy participation and voice.

IKEA’s Karen Rivoire is a supporter of this new methodology: ”Trust is an everyday conversation and set of behaviours that require the right cultural and structural conditions to thrive. Purpose-peddling is breaking down trust brands have built with people, so it is more important than ever for brands to be embodied by people. Only coherence between what brands say they do and what people really do will avoid a further breakdown of social norms. This is not PR: it is humans at their best.”

“Trust” distorts discourse. A decade of research and writing on the subject led to my very real struggle with the problematic relationship between purpose, communications, leadership and trust. Trustworthiness is, I believe, a more reliable framework within which to offer professional counsel. Trustworthiness – as academic research confirms – has four principal drivers: honesty; competence; reliability; benevolence. Each can be made tangible for those seeking greater trustworthiness between stakeholders, together forming the bedrock of a new accountability model.

“I remain convinced that trustworthiness rather than trust is what matters”, notes philosopher Professor Onora O’Neill, “but globalisation and digital technologies often make it harder to secure and evidence trustworthiness.”

Technology, transparency and trust

The role of technology in potentially upending the trust landscape is something of deep concern to author and Jericho partner, Margaret Heffernan:

“The increasing connectedness of companies can mean that one bad player infects an entire sector. Facebook has trashed the tech sector as thoroughly as some banks trashed the entire financial sector. Your reputation many now be as good only as that of your least ethical colleague. So, setting yourself apart requires higher standards than ever.

“Credibility demands a willingness to stand alone. On some level, that’s how you gain trust: by willing to go against the tide. This challenges the personal and professional morality of anyone who expects to be called a leader.

“My wilful blindness research showed that companies didn’t do badly out of ignorance but out of a failure to look, listen and challenge. So real integrity now is about enquiry: do you ask hard enough questions? Do you listen to a meaningful cross-section of voices? Can you tolerate the scepticism that needs to be your friend? Or is that all too much like hard work?”

The Responsible Tax project – pioneering flagship for this new model of engagement – has embraced “tough enquiry”, dissent and scepticism under the activist leadership of KPMG’s Jane McCormick and Chris Morgan. It would be a lie to say that it has not been hard – but rewarding nonetheless. It represents constant work in progress, as Morgan recognises: “I was recently invited to speak at a civil society conference. When the organiser said that some of the participants told him ‘we like what Chris says, but is he just the face of Responsible Tax, which KPMG puts up publicly?’, it really demonstrated the power of coalition-building to facilitate honest discussions. It also demonstrated how much more building we need to do.

“I think they were only expressing what we already see – many NGOs still don’t trust us or business more widely. What’s interesting is that they were able to raise this via an organisation with whom we are in active dialogue.”

A call for radical transparency, a determination to ask bigger, better questions and honest conversations around organisational and societal purpose was the rallying cry of Trust Me, PR is Dead. Five years on, we are still trapped within the PR interregnum, as Neal Lawson, Jericho colleague and Chair of Good Society pressure group Compass, is at pains to stress: “the future can only be negotiated, not imposed”.

The old regime of PR – especially the global consultancies that dominate the industry – spent a century imposing dogmatic corporate worldviews on stakeholders; attempting to “manage the message”; dabbling in fake news; masking this with platitudinous purpose-statements and CSR. The world has moved on and now demands greater accountability and constant enquiry. There are few easy answers to our fragile condition. “More PR” is not one of them.

The new models developed by Jericho and KPMG, CIPD, Go-Ahead, BRE Group and others are not perfect but offer a path to the future, where enquiry trumps imposition and where bigger, better, tougher questions are invoked. Maybe if Donald Trump (himself a “morbid symptom”) had asked of his nation “what will it take to make America great again?” rather than imposing an aggressive MAGA dogma and consistently trashing real news as fake news, the world would be in a more thoughtful, even happier, place. Integrity in communications and leadership demands – and celebrates – good activism, participation, accountability and dissent.

Executive summary

Established definitions of corporate trust and purpose are no longer sufficient: outdated purpose and engagement strategies threaten an organisation’s mid- to long-term license to operate. Instead, consensus-based activist organisations that engage in conversation on societal issues are the future of communications, PR and engagement

Big ideas are no longer the preserve of a corporate elite: to flourish, activist business leaders require activist organisations and activist peer groups alongside them.

The new operating principles are therefore: activism, participation, accountability and dissent. Companies/brands can no longer impose their worldview. The future can only be negotiated.

Robert Phillips

Robert is the founder of Jericho Chambers and the author of Trust Me, PR Is Dead (Unbound, 2015). He is a visiting professor at Cass Business School, University of London, and was UK chief executive of Edelman from 2007-2010 and EMEA CEO of the firm from 2010-2012.