Brand PR: a failure to modernise

The expected shift from advertising to PR never really happened. Former PR agency CEO Robert Phillips explains why.

Dove: PR can amplify ideas such as the ‘real beauty’ campaign, but struggles to scale up its impact for brands
Dove: PR can amplify ideas such as the ‘real beauty’ campaign, but struggles to scale up its impact for brands

I have spent the best part of the past 25 years arguing that advertising is over and that PR’s time has come. Now, I am not so sure.

I remain deeply sceptical on the relevance and core purpose of advertising (on which more another time) but I’m increasingly convinced that PR is unlikely to ever take its long-coveted seat at the boardroom table.

Like so many brands and organisations before it, the reason is simple: a failure to modernise. PR has spent much of the past two decades talking about "its rightful place" and, for the most part, failing to earn it. PR has not taken the medicine it should give to clients: it’s what you do that counts, not what you say.

Actions, not words. In case no-one noticed, "spin" is officially dead.

Amid all the verbose excitement of the late 90s and early millennium, PR did not appreciate that its business model is pretty much broken. The IPA’s recent Bellwether Report, showing PR spend lagging behind that of marketing as a whole, seems to confirm this.

Opportunities to lead have peaked and passed. Take corporate social responsibility – a trend spotted early by PR folk. In the frenzy to monetise, the industry failed to think. Rather than lead a progressive agenda based on co-created, citizen-centric actions, it defaulted to selling stuff. What emerged was mostly "greenwash" and, thereafter, a CSR industry today that is more about bureaucratic, tick-box compliance than it is about social movement and societal change.

Had the PR industry seized the moment 15 or 20 years ago, not only would it now hold a rightful position in the boardroom, but the boardroom itself would be a more enlightened place. Those advising the "big six" energy companies might want to reflect on this.

The same pattern emerged with social. Technology platforms aside, PR recognised the "conversation economy" early on. The ad industry was surprisingly slow to get going in this space. As some of us warned at the time, however, early-mover advantage was quickly usurped by those with bigger budgets, if not brains. The true growth of many of today’s global PR networks is masked by work in social, ahead of PR.

Arguments over leadership in social have been transcended by the world of data. The PR industry’s inability to properly embrace data is the first of five current threats to the sector’s continued relevance.

The issue is partly one of scale – Messrs Sorrell and Lévy are clearly not putting their multi-millions in data investment dollars behind the PR companies in their networks – but, more importantly, one of substance. There is now a purer evidential base on which to build relationships. PR is nowhere near fully understanding or embracing it.

This underlines the second fundamental failing: an obsession about outputs over outcomes. Seventy-five years after Edward Bernays germinated the modern PR industry, there is still no consistent application of proper measurement criteria. Show me one chief marketing officer who is prepared to sign off significant budget against loose promises of increased awareness or engagement.

Third, there remains a perverse determination within PR to defend "top-down" behaviour in a horizontal, networked world. This may have its origins in a legacy of control-freakery – for example, the work by Alastair Campbell (pictured) to get New Labour elected in 1997 is perhaps the lastepic command-and-control campaign – and/or because too many journalists have entered the world of PR, as their own models have faded.

Either way, it is no longer about loudhailer broadcasting (ad agencies, please take note also) or "managing the message". Shrill press releases are irrelevant in a world that sees through obfuscation and deceit. Building advocacy from within networks is the way forward. The voices of regular people need to be heard. Companies and brands should think and behave like activists in our complex, activist world.

Fourth, creative PR ideas mostly remain tactical and without scale. They rarely establish organising principles that genuinely transform businesses and brands. When was the last time a really big idea (not an amplifying one) could be credited to PR? Perhaps the Dove "real beauty" campaign – but the advertising agencies would dispute that this was ever a PR idea in the first place. Increasingly, too many ad agencies look to their PR brethren only for added spin – an ugly and anachronistic need – but the PR industry has a responsibility to think and deliver big and measurable if it is to be taken seriously.

Ultimately, it may be about a lack of talent in PR: too few big brains to do the big thinking required in a world of progressive communications. Lord Chadlington, the chief executive of Huntsworth, recently voiced concern that it may be that too few PR people are bright enough to engineer change. The talent pool is too shallow; the future-facing part of the industry insufficiently enlightened; the big industry players (dominated by multinational companies) more interested in selling arms and legs than in rethinking their own contributions.

Ultimately, it may be about a lack of talent: too few big brains in a world of progressive communications

"Renewal" is something that the ad industry has proved remarkably good at. It has emerged from darker days more resilient, more creative and more data-ready. Its historic business models (large networks; selling bureaucracies) will rightly come under the same scrutiny as those of its PR counterparts, but it has greater strength in depth and a more certain and secure starting point.

The historic insecurities of the PR industry are exacerbated by its failure to modernise. The sector really has only itself to blame.

Robert Phillips is the former chief executive, EMEA, of Edelman. He is the head of chambers at Jericho Chambers, a communications consultancy, and a visiting professor at Cass Business School. His book, Trust Me: The Future Of Business Is Safe In Our ?Hands, is published by Unbound in 2014