Can PR win back our trust?

The comms industry has had it, says the author. Not so, says Kitty Owen, so long as companies take advantage of new ways to reach out to people.

by Kitty Owen
Last Updated: 25 Sep 2015

Compared with the author, I am a newcomer to PR. I'm 25, have been an account manager for the past three years and came to the industry fresh from university. I have spent a lot of time questioning whether I had made the right career choice as I navigated the challenging and never calm waters of communications consultancy.

'Trust Me, PR is Dead' is a delicious dissection of the world I have recently entered, told through the stories of one of its most experienced veterans, Robert Phillips, one-time European chief executive of Edelman, the world's largest PR firm.

As the macabre subheading tells you, 'PR is dead. Few will mourn its passing'. The PR industry, Phillips argues, operates on a broken business model which, particularly in the largest agencies, is no longer workable.

One of the threats to the future relevance of the industry he identifies is its lack of proper data and evaluation (he, like many, no longer supports the counting of media column inches and the use of AVE, advertising-value-equivalent, as a measure of PR's value). Tied to this is the difficulty of holding PR accountable for the work it undertakes. This makes it difficult to justify its role in, for example, a boardroom, where everything comes down to the impact on budgets and the bottom line.

What I had hoped would be a book about an industry disrupted was in fact a book with its sense of story dislocated. Often the arguments are very hard to follow because of the fragmented nature of the narrative and a lack of structure to his arguments. Phillips jumps around from issue to issue and the punctuation with anecdotes breaks the flow and is irritating.

And then there is the naming and shaming. Or lack of it. At one point, Phillips accuses a character within his book of name-dropping. This author isn't shy of doing the same, although not in the normal sense. Thick black lines appear on page after page; there is more redaction here than a secret service report. I found this annoying and pretentious. Rarely did Phillips's redacted story or anecdote add anything but remind you of his previous influence with global CEOs, chairmen and politicians.

A further disruptive factor is a series of 'Wise Crowd Contributor' articles that appear periodically throughout. In their own right, these are interesting pieces but, within the already staccato narrative, they only serve to distract the reader from the points Phillips is making.

But my main issue with Phillips's book, however, is that I really struggled to understand how it was truly about PR at all. And I didn't recognise the image of PR he projects.

What the book is about is the wholesale change in the nature of business and the erosion of trust in our society. He attempts to tar the PR industry with all the ills of recent years and suggests that spin-doctors are responsible for the terrible examples of corporate behaviour we have seen in recent years.

Pages pass without reference to PR and then the final paragraph of an argument often brings in the enemy, PR, at the last minute to take all the blame. This is entirely unconvincing.

My sense and experience of PR is so much more varied, interesting and rich than the stereotype Phillips portrays of a stuffy, traditional (male-dominated) industry that is on its last legs.

And while I wholeheartedly agree with Phillips's argument that we are now living in an increasingly disintermediated world in which businesses are having to re-examine their relationships with their customers, shareholders and the general public, none of this is new. And nor does it put me out of a job.

The public is more demanding of business, which now has to engage in a far more direct manner. Social media and rolling news make businesses more vulnerable and more accountable. This 'new' world is all about engagement, participation and explanation. This is my sense of what PR is.

The industry must adapt, certainly. But the ability to broaden the scope of our work and draw together, through the development of clear and consistent narratives, the many different ways in which businesses must now communicate is deeply exciting. Companies now have the chance to build closer relationships with the people who matter most to them, and I firmly believe that PR has a fundamental role to play in helping them do so.

Whatever Phillips's brand of PR is, I am glad it is 'dead'. For people like me, fired up by what's happening in communications, ours is just beginning.

Kitty Owen is an account manager at Headland Consultancy. Tweet her @KittyOwen1.

Trust Me, PR is Dead by Robert Phillips is published by Unbound at £20.

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