Robert Phillips: Confessions of a repentant spinner

THE MT INTERVIEW: What made the ex-Edelman chief turn his back on the PR world? All the lies and spin for starters... Now he's trying to tread a nobler and more useful path.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 22 Sep 2016

For a repentant spinner with the cares of the world now removed from his shoulders, Robert Phillips is as chipper as you'd expect him to be. Three years ago one of Europe's top PR men threw in the towel on his employer Edelman. He had no job to go to. The face of the respected Trust Barometer, Wonderbra campaign deviser and consigliere to global megacorps CEOs had had enough.

Phillips then spent a long time walking the beaches of Aldeburgh - not to mention working out his non-compete period - and thinking. The book that resulted, Trust Me, PR is Dead, received mixed reviews when it made its crowdfunded appearance earlier this year. The FT was harshly dismissive. MT wasn't entirely convinced and its 24-year-old reviewer found it 'annoying and pretentious'.

In truth, the book - while filled with great apercus, some good gossip and nine courses of food for thought - could have done with the services of a strong editor. (He doesn't object when I describe it as 'a romp'.) Reflecting the wildly, lively mind of its author, it veers about and indulges in the bizarre practice of redacting many real names of big players in the world of global business because of defamation concerns (the author's sister is a libel lawyer).

Phillips challenges but somehow comes up short on specific dirt-dishing that might really hurt. He could have mercilessly satirised some of the venality and clumsiness of his ex-clients. But he lacked what Graham Greene said was the sine qua non of the writer - the 'sliver of ice in his heart'. Maybe the novel is yet to come.

Wounded though he was, Phillips doesn't bear grudges. Besides, he has his new business, Jericho Chambers, to promote - 'a flat network of experienced, differently skilled people. We're defined by ill-definition, which goes against all the rules of branding. But we've been hired by CEOs, HR departments, CMOs, strategy directors and CFOs. We don't mind saying, "Sorry we don't have the answer." We have no Messiah complex.'

So, here we are in his smart Charterhouse Square barrister-style set. Also, if anything, his views about the industry which spawned him have hardened further since he produced his manuscript. 'I never wanted it to be a kiss 'n' tell,' he protests. 'But it wasn't the book I had in my head at Edelman. I wanted to write about how large corporations are the city states of the 21st century but it took a different turn.

'I had a profound unease at the direction being taken by the PR industry. I believed that not just us but all the professional services firms were part of the problem and not the solution. All we were up to was doing and selling. Never actually thinking. We were not giving 'best advice'. I just couldn't do it any more. I reached the limit.'

He won't rubbish his ex-firm where he was popular for his energy and committed leadership. 'I did not do stuff against my will there. Nobody did. They were very good to me. Always listened. Even shouted at me, "You're not going to bring your fucking socialism in here!"' His boss Richard Edelman - who said Phillips was 'like a brother' to him - even called him on Boxing Day (after Phillips' December departure) for help on his Davos speech. 'Go away,' was the response. 'It's 8am here. I'm going back to bed.' So has Richard Edelman read the book? 'He has a copy ... He agrees with a lot of it but can't voice it publicly.'

Phillips is pretty punchy on a broad range of issues: swinging out at consumerism, CSR, 'trust', city PR companies. He sets out what sceptics find a wild, leftish, idealistic vision of where business should be - where enlightened behaviour and beliefs are in lock step.

Let's just take one of them - the trust thing. Many of us find this thing odd. I, for one, trust Ryanair to get me there without the plane going down at an OK price. But I really trust few outside my friends and family. I wouldn't especially trust Michael O'Leary to take my six-year-old across the road.

'Don't worry!' he replies. 'You're not alone. I think my low point with trust came the other day when I heard the boss of Samsonite saying trust was vital to his company. What? He makes suitcases. It's become part of the crazy CEO lexicon, where he's egged on by his comms people who haven't got anything better to do than pen him a speech on trust. What does it mean? Nothing, really. We need to ban the word for 10 years. And in the meantime why not replace it with 'trustworthiness'? Reciprocal vulnerability. Answering questions honestly, leaving behind command and control.'

Can communications ever move away from devious messaging and massaged froth? Are PR and principles incompatible? Are its practitioners just like barristers defending murderers, taking up the brief whatever the client's CV, on the taxi rank principle?

'Well, Tim Bell whose book I reviewed for MT thinks that's OK. I disagree. He does stuff I'd have problems with. The Bernays (Edward Bernays, the godfather of modern propaganda) principle and the Bell practice have disfigured the reputation of an industry. A senior US practitioner said we shouldn't have a problem with not telling the full truth. I disagree. I've told little white lies and I'm not proud of it.'

This is all very well but by opening yourself completely to the arguments of all manner of stakeholders, surely a leader stands no chance of keeping the corporate ship afloat and moving forward. You lose the rudder and all control to the mercy of the winds. It'd be anarchy.

'Two answers to that. Firstly, as CEO you're no longer in control anyway. The world is complex, activist. So, get used to it. Strong leaders admit this. (More women than men by the way.) Secondly, you don't have to be pulled in all different directions by stakeholders - NGOs and the rest - just agree to listen. And then make up your mind. I'm not asking every company to be on the side of the angels. You can survive as a practising and self-admitted arsehole company. But if you don't want to be an ethical company, just don't pretend you are because you'll get found out. If you are going to be a behaviour and belief company then you must be open and honest.'

He cites an interesting project on tax he's doing with KPMG. Responding to the widespread opprobrium about the avoidance of corporate tax, KPMG set up an inquiry into Responsible Tax with roundtables, an independently curated website and contribution from pressure groups like ActionAid and Christian Aid. The conversations get very feisty indeed. 'It shows that all sides are better off listening than shouting at each other,' says Phillips.

Phillips loves this kind of thing. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that he didn't jump ship because he felt bad about himself, but because he just got bored trying to talk unimaginative and stubborn captains of industry round to another comms campaign. Far from being a burnt-out mid-50s spinner, he wants to be right in there at the strategic heart of things - a McKinsey, an HR guru and Charles Handy all rolled into one. How does he see himself?

'Well, I'm a recovering PR person. My only true legitimacy is through communications. I don't have authenticity to start from anywhere else. But I did want to write about the future of leadership. The book codifies what I believe on the basis of what I've seen over the years.

'Do you know the number of times we got asked in to big companies because they thought they had an internal communications problem when this simply wasn't true? It was actually a structural problem, a leadership problem, an organisational design problem. Even an IT problem. But we never said, "Not us, guv. Get someone else." We said, "It's a million dollar opportunity. When can we start?"'

And he goes further with the knife. 'Any agency CEO these days says the most important thing is that, 'PR should not be in the company C suite. It should be in the boardroom.' Well, that's bullshit. PR is not well enough equipped. I talked to a headhunter about this recently. She said the ones who have got to the boards have screwed it up, and the chance is then gone for a generation.'

But surely he's over-rubbishing the communications industry. Bright people with experience and good judgement in PR are still immensely valuable. They know how vital a role protecting corporate reputation remains and, to use a phrase of his, there will always be turds requiring a polish. 'Yes, but you come back to the systems and empathy thing. PR has always over-indexed on the latter because PR is arts based. It's filled not with specialists but generalists who often don't know what they're talking about. Like it or not data is going to change how we all behave. It's a scientific discipline.'

He's correct that the ways of measuring the effectiveness of PR are lamentable. The bizarre old-fashioned method of adding column inches of PR-induced editorial and pricing them as according to ad rates is laughable. 'And in need of self-examination,' he replies, 'I just read a headline "Thomas Cook reorganises PR department after recent fiasco". The implication being that had they had better PR, they would have avoided any trouble over not giving that money from that Greek hotel to the family of the child that died. Bad PR? What planet are they on? How about having a culture where people don't behave like that in the first place?'

Phillips is gossipy, warm, brightly Tiggerish. May well have made an excellent journalist, in fact. Except he'd be far poorer. He's very comfortable with his wife and two boys up in Islington, a constituent for nearly 20 years of Jeremy Corbyn - 'as mad and wrong as he is, Corbyn has authenticity. But the Labour Party, of which I was a member from John Smith's death until Miliband took up with Hamas, is now pretty irrelevant.'

Phillips himself had quite a rough time at university. He was loudly political, studying History at Balliol, Oxford getting himself into all manner of scrapes in his first year while a member of the SDP's militant tendency. He got on the wrong side of the college authorities and left. He says he doesn't know if he was actually 'sent down' (expelled in Oxbridge parlance).

He brushes it off now but things got seriously serious in his final year at Bedford College in London (to where he transferred), when his father to whom he was very close dropped down dead in Italy while plying his trade as a fashion agent. 'Shortly after he died one of his Italian clients turned up at our house. I told him I had a marketing company and pitched for £100k of Italian bridalwear business.'

So he's been running businesses since he was 21. He met his long-time business partner Jackie Cooper, built that consultancy - doing Wonderbra, Snapple, Daewoo, among many others until it was sold to Edelman in 2004.

'I wasn't great at business at first. I never listened. I was short-tempered. I got to the mountain top quickly and would get irritated when others couldn't climb so fast. I have one friend and am a workaholic. I love working.'

If I had a serious conundrum - strategic, professional - I'd probably go to him for advice. (Not that MT could afford his rates which must be through the roof by now.) He's smart, wise and has been round the block many, many times.

All three political parties have urged him to stand for them at one time. Unlike politics, which is going through an especially sickly phase at the moment, the industry from which he came isn't 'dead', despite his book title. 'Well, no. Luke Johnson says there are still plenty of buyers for PR and it's in rude health. But,' and he'll always have the last word, 'That doesn't make it fit for purpose.'

THREE CHALLENGES FACING ROBERT PHILLIPS

Growing his new business with careful client selection

Never being caught out being inauthentic

Not hoping for too much this season - or any other season - from Manchester United

PHILLIPS IN A MINUTE

1964: Born 17 March in London. Attends Charterhouse School and then Balliol College, Oxford for less than a year before completing his History degree at Bedford College, University of London

1985: Forms John Phillips Associates

1987: Establishes Jackie Cooper PR

2004: Sells out to Edelman PR becoming president and CEO of EMEA

2012: Leaves Edelman and later founds Jericho Chambers

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