Don’t Be a Dick

ACTIONSWhen it all boils down to it, life is pretty simple.

If you do good things, good things happen to you.
If you do bad things, bad things happen to you.

I know this is a generalisation and that very bad things do happen to very good people. I have a friend who was involved in a nasty accident that wasn’t her fault. I have a six-year-old nephew who has just had to undergo a bone marrow transplant, which he had no control over.

But as a general life rule, if you treat others with respect, kindness and generosity, life will repay you.

I’ve been through some difficult times in my 40+ years, but I’ve also done some pretty stupid and irrational stuff. And when I look back, the former is usually a direct result of the latter.

What I’ve learned is that all of your actions have consequences. It’s a form of Buddhist karma (if not the reincarnation part); if you behave like a dick, life will treat you like a dick. (I don’t think the Dalai Lama uses those exact words.)

So whatever you apply it to – building a business, creating networks of influential acquaintances, social media communications, customer service, internal policies – there are four words that I would tell my teenage self if I could travel back through time:

Make the right choices.

Freelance Diaries: Lessons from Q1

freelance_diaries_q1The decision to set up as an independent consultant, no matter in what field, is a big one. Though it sounds a bit ridiculous, for me it was a decision that actually took years to make.

I’d been drawn to the idea of working myself for a long, long time. The ability to be able to choose who I work with, what I work on and when I work on it was something I found hugely attractive. But for a number of reasons, mainly family-related ones, the timing never seemed right. The security of a regular wage was of too great a value.

Having eventually made the leap, I’d recommend it to anyone. Being able to make your own decisions is nothing short of liberating. I’ve previously written about the things I learned in the first few weeks of working for myself, and three months in I’ve encountered a few more ups and downs.

Variety is the spice of life

One day last week I spent the morning talking to microbusiness owner in a town near to my home, helping him to devise a strategy to drive footfall to his bistro using social media. I then spent the afternoon working on the high level strategic rollout of a content management and analytics platform across multiple European countries for a global motor manufacturer. The next day, I ran a digital media and SEO training session for a PR agency.

I absolutely love the fact that no two days are the same as an independent consultant. My client base currently ranges from a three-person boudoir photography studio to a forty-head communications agency to an international consumer brand. Each has very different challenges, and that keeps life extremely interesting.

The best laid plans…

Like any professional services business, you have to plan ahead when you’re an independent consultant. I have a working plan that looks three months ahead to projects that I have already secured or can see on the horizon. That’s the (relatively) easy part.

The difficult part is what happens when you carefully schedule projects in so that you’re busy but not overworked…and then one or more projects slip through no fault of your own. This happens all the time in the agency world, but as an agency with multiple staff you can shift things around and absorb the impact fairly easily.

When you’re on your own, the impact is far greater. In the last month a shifting project has left me with a quiet spell followed by an insanely busy spell. As an independent consultant, you’re somewhat dependent upon clients delivering when they say they’ll deliver.

Honesty is the best policy

One thing that has always wound me up about agency life for as long as I can remember is the ‘yes culture’ that exists.

“I know it’s last minute, but I’d like a meeting tomorrow to talk about the project.” “Yes, Mr Client.” “And I’d like a comprehensive presentation reviewing the status so far with together with all progress.” “Yes, Mr Client.” “Can we make it 5am in the Outer Hebrides?” “Yes, Mr Client.” “And please hop on one leg for the entirety of the meeting.” “Yes, Mr Client.”

I jest, but ‘yes culture’ is not healthy. It’s borne from a desire to exceed client requirements, but it leads to lots of stress and unrealistic expectations.

When I went independent I promised myself to be honest with people (at least as much as possible) and if that meant saying ‘no’, then so be it. And you know what? The world doesn’t collapse. As long as you explain why you’re saying no, people are reasonable.

The same applies if you haven’t been able to do something you said you would. Don’t spin it, just be honest. Explain why. People respect you for it.

Who knew?!

The Tale of Fast, Cheap and Good

fast_cheap_goodOnce upon a time, there were three friends named Fast, Cheap and Good. One day they decided to seek their fortune in the big City. They loaded their packs with bread and mead and set off from their small village home in the country.

After nearly a day’s travel, Fast, Cheap and Good came across a river. The river was wide and deep, and there was no bridge in sight.

“What shall we do?”, asked Fast. “We cannot cross by bridge, and we cannot swim across as our packs will get wet.” The three friends sat on the bank and pondered their predicament, but could not come up with a solution.

Deeply saddened, they had all but given up and were preparing to turn back to their village when a man appeared further along the river bank, dragging behind him a rowing boat.

“Please sir,” shouted Cheap, “would you help us cross the river? We can pay you for your kind assistance with bread and mead made by our very own hands.”

The man looked at the three friends, and then looked at his boat. It was decrepit and falling apart in places. There was a small hole in the bottom.

“I would gladly help you”, he said, “but I fear this old boat is not strong enough to hold all of us. I am on my way to the big City to seek my fortune, and had only planned on using it once to cross the river. It will not last a second crossing.”

There was a moment’s silence as the man looked at Fast, Cheap and Good. They looked very glum.

“However,” he said, “let us see if the boat will hold us all.”

The three friends thanked the man profusely and helped him drag the boat into the river. The man stepped into the boat and sat down with the oars. A small well of water immediately seeped through the hole in the boat’s bottom.

Next, in stepped Good. More water started to seep in. As Fast followed him, the boat sank further into the river and the bottom started to slowly fill with water. However, it remained stable.

When Cheap also stepped into the boat, the leak grew rapidly and the boat started to sink. All four men jumped out quickly and dragged it out of the river to avoid it being lost.

“I’m very sorry,” said the boatman, “but I can only take two of you with me across the river. My boat is simply not strong enough for all of us. How do I pick which of you should come with me?”

The moral of the story

When it comes to service, you can offer (and expect) Cheap and Fast, but it won’t be Good. You can have Cheap and Good, but it won’t be Fast. Or you can have Good and Fast, but it won’t be Cheap.

You decide.

Hat tip to Louise Lloyd at Popcorn PR for providing the inspiration for this post.

Agencies or Freelancers: Which Are Better?

agency v freelanceI’ve written a couple of times recently about why I believe the traditional model is failing communications agencies and why freelance digital media consultants are the future.

As a result, Gini Dietrich from Arment Dietrich in the USA and I recently had a debate about the issue for The Social Media Show, the video for which you can watch at the bottom of this post if you want to. We don’t, as you might expect, see eye-to-eye on the matter, so we’ve agreed to let you in on the action, have your say and, ultimately, decide which one of us is correct. (Hint: it’s me.)

Below is Gini’s point of view, followed by mine. Take a read and leave a vote at the end.

And just so you know, this is important: bragging rights are at stake here!

The View for a Communications Firm

by Gini Dietrich

Any business owner starts out with the idea that he or she can do things differently. They either have a great idea or they have a different way of doing things.

The latter is why I went into business. I really believed communications could drive sales and I was working on a way to prove it. Now I have a way to prove it and all of our clients enjoy a hefty return on their investment with us.

But I couldn’t have done it alone. In fact, if I were still freelancing, I would be bogged down in the work and not have time to think about how to innovate.

A few years ago, a friend and business advisor said to me: “Do you want to be a kick butt communicator or a kick butt business owner?”

He said I had to decide; it’s impossible to do both.

I thought about it and decided I had to forgo doing the work (for the most part) to focus on growing the business. That decision afforded me the opportunity to grow the SpinSucks blog, write two books, and go out on the speaking circuit, which all drive new business efforts for us.

Now my job is coaching and training—both employees and clients—and business development.

My job is no longer the day-to-day work (I think the last time I pitched media was in 2007!), but I have a enormously talented team to do that work.

Here is the advantage to our clients: They have an entire team of experts to work with. If they need someone who has earned media expertise, they can call the director of that department here. Likewise for shared, paid, and owned media. They also have a director of operations to better understand how it all integrates and the types of metrics to track. And they have me for really strategic stuff, for stakeholder communications, and to trot out at their big sales meetings.

So, while a freelancer might be really skilled at one of the four media types (or even two), they are still only one person.

A communications firm gives you lots of brains, lots of talent, lots of expertise, and lots of arms and legs to get lots of work done.

The View for Independent Consultants

by me

I’ve skirted around this a lot recently, but for this debate I’m not going to sugar coat things.

The fact is that agency structures benefit agencies not clients.

Agencies are structured around hierarchies based on experience. In the pitch you buy into what the directors (the most experienced team members) say. But in day-to-day life you deal with account managers, and much of the actual work is done by juniors (the least experienced team members).

This simply does not reflect the way business has moved. The days of recruiting for roles rather than skills should be long gone, but they’re alive and well within communications agencies.

The major issue with most agencies is that they haven’t adapted. The account director/ manager/executive model is outdated. It puts constant pressure on the firm to meet payroll, and the best way to do that is to sign clients up to long retainers.

But more and more clients want to work on short-term projects, or series’ of projects, which is an environment in which experienced and skilled freelancers can and do thrive.

With communications, you get what, or rather who you pay for. If you hire me, you hire ME. Just like Liam Neeson, I have a specific set of skills. Hire me and you get those skills, not the dubious knowledge of someone who’s been in the job for less time than they spent in diapers.

Agencies, due to their nature, are inconsistent. Pick a good independent consultant and you get far better value.

If you’d like more detail on this debate, you can watch the video if it takes your fancy. (It gets going after the first five minutes!)

Now Over to You

Which is Better: Independent Consultants or Agencies?

View Results

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And now you’ve voted, tell me why you chose the option you did…

This post (and poll) is running concurrently here on the SpinSucks blog, so pop across and check out what’s happening over there too.

The Chromebook Experiment: As Yet Undecided

chromebook_experiment_2A couple of months ago I posed the question: if Apple and Microsoft fell into a black hole, could your business survive?

Chromebooks, running on Google’s Chrome OS, do away with Windows and iOS completely. They’re cheap, they’re fast, they’re portable and they’re highly functional. I bought one instead of a Windows machine or a MacBook when I set up independently with the intention of finding out if they’re now a viable alternative for personal and, ultimately, business use.

I’m two months into the experiment now. The good news is that I’m still writing this from my Chromebook, and that I love using it. The bad news is that I’m not prepared to commit myself and tell you to go out and buy one. Not yet, anyway. Here’s why…

Chromebook Plus Points

My Chromebook is fast. Really fast. It boots in less than 10 seconds and without bloated Windows software it runs like a dream. And not having annoying system updates (as updates are done in the background) and Java prompts is amazing. That is, in itself, almost reason enough never to go back to Microsoft.

It’s also simple to use. The Chrome OS, though different to other operating systems and so something you initially need to get used to, is designed to make carrying out all tasks intuitive. So much so in fact, that when I’ve occasionally used other computers over the last few weeks I’ve been frustrated with the way they’re organised. Chrome is logical and well,  just makes sense.

This all makes the Chromebook a brilliant ‘pick up/put down’ machine if you work in different locations. Which is one of the main reasons I bought it. Log on to any wireless network in any location and you have access to everything exactly as if you’re working from your desk. And with a battery life of over 8 hours, the chances of even needing a plug socket when you’re out and about are limited. I’ve never, ever needed one, put it that way.

In conjunction with my HTC One Android mobile and a Chromecast I was recently given for my birthday, the Chromebook forms a complete communications ecosystem that is a joy to use.

Chromebook Downsides

So why, given all that, am I not yet willing to commit to Chrome for the long term?

Essentially, this is due to the way others work. Most people don’t even know what a Chromebook is and have never used Google’s suite of programs, let alone understand the differences.

The first glitch is printing. As with everything else they do, Chromebooks work by printing from the Cloud, so you need a Cloud-connected printer or a wireless connection to a network. I’ve worked in a number of client offices over the last couple of months, and not one of them uses Cloud printing. So I’ve had to email docs to others to print for me, which is far from ideal.

The second area of annoyance is document formats and sharing. First, let me clearly state that all MS Office documents are supported in Google Docs; working with a Word, Excel or Powerpoint file started my someone else on a Windows machine is easy. It’s when you’re done that you can run into frustrations.

Surprisingly, not everyone knows what to do when you send them a link to a file stored on Google Drive rather than as an attachment. So I have found myself having to download to MS format and send conventionally, which is frustrating not because of the process but because it limits (and sometimes negates) the benefits of working in the Cloud.

There is, of course, Microsoft Live which enables you use to use the full Office suite online. But essentially, the efficiencies of Chrome and Cloud-working, which I love, are lost.

Next up: software. For the most part, you can do everything on a Chromebook that you can do on an Apple or Windows machine. But there are two areas where it can be frustrating. Neither Photoshop or Skype are currently available as web applications, so you can’t use them. There are alternatives of course, notably Pixlr and Google+ Hangouts.

Pixlr is a fantastic alternative to Photoshop unless you’re a graphic designer and use it very heavily. In some areas, in fact, it’s better than Photoshop. The one annoyance is custom fonts. There’s no way of adding fonts easily like there is on other operating systems, and I’ve hacked into my Chromebook to add custom fonts for client Facebook graphics; again, not ideal.

When it comes to Skype, some people are just wedded to Skype in the same way they’re wedded to Office. Suggest you use a Hangout instead is like suggesting they go to the top of their building and jump off. They’re just not going to do it.

The final area of concern is the need to be connected to wifi all the time. 95% of the time, not an issue, but there are times when you want a file and don’t have wifi access. You can work locally on a Chromebook without wifi, you just can’t access saved files unless you’ve previously saved them locally.

That said, tethering to your mobile phone’s internet access negates the issue for the most part, and I’m not really sure this would be any different with any other machine if you work in the Cloud, as I prefer to do.

Keep or Kill?

So there you go. As I say, I love working with my Chromebook. But I find myself limited by others’ lack of technical nous and the way others work. Hence, though I want to commit long-term to this way of working, I can’t quite endorse it 100% just yet.

I’m going to give it a bit more time to see if I can work around the frustrations I’ve encountered and to really consider whether it would be any different were I using a MacBook or a Windows laptop, or whether it’s just a symptom of working as a freelance consultant in a very mobile way.

100 Days to Impress

100_days_to_impressA few years back, I quit a senior role at a communications agency without having another job lined up before I did so. We needn’t go into the exact circumstances that led to me quitting, but suffice to say I’d had enough.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was an email, sent to me in error one evening. Funny how small and insignificant occurrences can have such a big impact, isn’t it?

The next day, I walked into my boss’ office, email in hand, and resigned. Some called it brave, some called it risky, some called it stupid. I think my wife called it all three, given we had a small child at the time. (We still have the child; she’s just not so small now.)

I’ve since thought about what went wrong at that agency and why it didn’t work out. Not with any sense of regret as leaving was absolutely the right decision to make, but with a sense of wanting to understand better so that I might learn from it.

And something I’ve read about since has stuck with me and is not only guiding me in my new independent consultant status, but was actually part of my thought process in setting up the way I have done.

The 100 Days Rule

There is a theory in leadership called the 100 Days Rule. The concept says that in any new job or role, a leader has 100 days to make an impact. The consequence of not doing so could mean, at best, not meeting expectations within the first 12 months and, at worst, the person either leaving or being fired.

The 100 Days Rule can be traced back as far as Napoleon. In 1815, it took him 100 days to return from exile, reclaim power in France and wage war against the English. Well, 100 days ‘ish’.

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You’ll never bring as much value to something new, whether that’s a new project or a completely new job in a completely new company, as you do in the early stages. New ideas, new thinking, new approaches, new insights…they all manifest in the first three months. After that time, you start to become, to one degree or another, a part of the wallpaper. You start to normalise. It’s standard group dynamics stuff.

The Challenge

For me, new projects are an exciting time. There’s often a challenging and intense learning curve and a balance between strategic priorities and task-driven activity.

There are usually new relationships to build and sometimes legacy issues to address. And there’s always a clash between moving too quickly without considering everything and moving too slowly and not getting the job done.

Consultancy work of the type I am currently undertaking maximises the impact of the 100 Day Rule. A three month project to get under the skin of a client; analyse data; devise a strategy; commence the tactical implementation; test, learn, evaluate and hone the strategy; and then provide a detailed handover allows me to make a real impact in a relatively short space of time.

It also plays to my core strengths and enables me to invest time in what gives me energy. In return, that produces better results for my clients, who get a (relatively) intense burst of concentration, ideas and focus.

As such, this points to one of the core benefits of employing specialist freelancers to work on specific projects rather than agencies on a retained basis or, in certain circumstances, employees.

As long as you do your due diligence with the consultant(s) in question, it can be a win/win for all parties.

So back to that job I quit a few years back; what has the 100 Days Rule taught me?

Well, I’ve learned to accept responsibility for my own part in it not working out. In those pivotal first three months my first baby was born and I was closing down a previous business endeavour. So aside from other factors that were not my responsibility, I probably wasn’t as invested in the job as I could have been.

I’ve made myself a promise now that I’m an independent consultant. I will always be completely and, if I need to be, brutally honest with my clients. I will never, ever take on a project that I can’t give 100%.

In fact, I’ve already turned work down that, although I could have made time for, I didn’t feel I could give proper attention.

So if you work with me, you’ll always get all of me; an opinion (sorry), challenging ideas (sorry) and flowery shirts (especially, sorry).

Embrace the Crazy!

embrace_the_crazyPick the content strategy of a brand or a person you know. Could be a brand you work on or the company you work at. Could be your own blog. Could be Coke. Anything or anyone.

Now imagine I’ve put a ten point linear scale in front of you, with 1 marked as ‘predictable’ and 10 marked as ‘bizarre’. Where on that scale are you going to mark the content of the brand or person you chose?

Chances are, if you’re really, truly honest, it’ll be on the lower end of that scale. And there are many reasons why that might be the case, from regulatory and legal limitations to lack of creative inspiration to lack of understanding of the social media mindset to good old fear.

But whatever the reason, you’ll never build a truly engaged online community until you can let go of the reigns, bypass your control freak tendencies and welcome in a bit of uncertainty and chaos.

Weird engagement is good engagement

The most engaged community I know of on the web is on the Spin Sucks blog. I am reliably informed by head honcho Gini Dietrich that their posts can gain well over 100 comments. When commenting on blogs is supposedly dying as conversation fragments across social networks, that’s pretty extraordinary.

But you know what? Spin Sucks also has the most random, weird and downright odd community of people I’ve ever encountered.

Gini et all have a name for them: the Spin Sucks Crazies. Maybe your [sic] one of them? If so, hello (he says, nervously). I’ve left you a little gift here – you’ll like it, I promise. I’ll wait for you.

A couple of years back I was formerly introduced to the Crazies via Spin Sucks’ FollowFriday feature. Amid the 55 comments on that post, I was subjected to what the army calls a ‘beasting’. I haven’t been back since :)

Joking aside though, what happens within the Spin Sucks community is a wonderful lesson in building trust and advocacy. Pick any post and many of the comments will be random conversations between two or more of The Crazies using the post to tease and joke with one another. But underneath it all, The Crazies totally respect Gini and her crew for their opinions and their knowledge.

I’ve worked with brands who’d go into crisis mode if someone mentioned something off-topic on their social channels, no matter how harmless. They’d certainly never encourage it. But the craziness and the creativity within a community is what makes it hum.

Where to find randomness

Have a think for a moment about your own communities. Where are those gems of random, fun conversation likely to happen? The truth is, you probably don’t know. And it differs from brand to brand and from person to person.

The inimitable Danny Brown says he’s seen massive uptake on Google+ recently and has now implemented a commenting system on his blog that relies heavily on that network. Personally, I’ve seen an uptick in (sometimes weird) engagement on my posts on Facebook over the last few weeks. Like I say, it varies.

But wherever that is, too many brands and companies are scared of having fun and desperately lack any sort of personality online. What they don’t understand is that you have to earn the right to market to someone through social media. And the way to do that is to build a relationship with them founded on trust, goodwill, openness and other very emotional, human characteristics. Like fun.

Authenticity and transparency are hardly new concepts to social communications. But so few brands truly understand what they mean.

So come on, social marketing types. When did life get so serious?

Going back to the scale we spoke about at the start of this post, have a think about how you can push the needle of your own content one point along that line. For you, ‘crazy’ might just mean removing your logo from images you post on Facebook (steady…!), but try bringing a little crazy into your life and into your communities. In the long run, it’ll pay off.

If you’re one of The Crazies, please leave a comment below and say hi! But no beasting… :)


This post is part of the Spin Sucks Scavenger Hunt (see? Crazy…) You’ve still got time to join in the fun, but it’s running out fast!

Also, if you buy a copy of Spin Sucks the book before 8th March, Gini will send a free package of goodies your way. Just email your receipt and mailing address to And even if you don’t, if you work in communications it’s a book you should read. When I reviewed it, I said: “Spin Sucks is a book that will scare the living bejesus out of some in the PR industry”. Quite.

Surely Experience Can’t Be More Important Than Skill in PR. Can It?!

experience_over_skillThere’s no point in sugar-coating it, the CIPR’s State of the Profession report makes for depressing reading. Pick a subject it covers – gender balance, pay equality, diversity – and there is very little to smile about.

Others have published their own summaries of the findings, notably Stephen Waddington and Rachel Miller, but I wanted to focus on one specific area that really caught my attention; that of competencies.

I was given the chance to read the report last week ahead of its publication yesterday, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Or worse, depending on your perspective.

I’d just finished scheduling my last post suggesting that agency structures are outdated and that recruiting for roles not skills is doing no-one any favours. Having done so I opened up the CIPR report to read that in-demand competencies remain focused on traditional PR, and that that the digital skills gap is exacerbated by recruitment trends.

My heart sank. There are times when you you’d almost prefer to be wrong.

The Cycle of Doom!

The report says that a massive 79% of PR professionals believe that ‘experience’ is a professional’s most valuable asset. Don’t get me wrong, experience is important. But there is no way it should rank above skill. For me, this is something borne of the hierarchical structure that communications teams are so wedded to and drill into employees.


Elsewhere in the study, which covered over 2000 UK PR professionals, 64% identified traditional PR skills (such as writing and interpersonal skills) as key competencies for new hires, with only one in five identifying digital skills (like SEO and HTML). In fact, digital and social skills don’t feature at all in the top five competencies sought by professionals seeking senior candidates.

It all points to a self-perpetuating cycle. Senior people are hired according to their experience in traditional PR; they drill into their teams that experience in traditional PR is important; and they then recruit for experience in traditional PR when they move up or change company.

So how are things supposed to improve?

No Professional Standards. At All.

A further disturbing finding in the report is that 55% of PR professionals believe that “satisfying clients/employers” is what defines professional standards. That’s just depressing and highlights the ‘we must please at all costs’ mentality that’s prevalent in PR due to the very fact that there is no professional standard whatsoever.


Chiropractors need to comply with specific regulations protecting patient safety. Accountants have standards of performance enforced by several regulatory bodies. Even someone setting up a cake decorating business from home needs a certificate from the local environmental health department.

But to set up in PR you need nothing other than a computer. NOTHING.

This was posted in a Facebook group I’m a member of last week:


It highlights the problem more eloquently than I ever could. If this person who has “done a few bits for myself” could work on “making a brand a household name” (*le sigh*) with no possible ramifications, it doesn’t say a hell of a lot for the PR industry, does it? More so perhaps that this person is, technically speaking, as much of a “proper PR” as most of the rest of the industry, who have no specific qualifications anyway!

I’d love to hear your views on this and my last post (which are closely linked) if you have time. Does skill go unrecognised in PR? Does it matter? Do hierarchical team structures suck? Is the lack of professional standards a concern? Have your say below…

Why the Traditional Model is Failing Communications Agencies

agency_structureImagine, just for a moment, working in an environment where you are channelled into a role that solely concentrates on and celebrates your strengths. Your weaknesses don’t hold you back. Just think what you could achieve.

Now think about your own role. Does it match up?

If the answer is yes, you’re either extremely lucky or you’re lying to yourself. Because generally speaking we are conditioned to be defensive about our weaknesses and to put time and effort working on them if we want the promotion, the salary and the successful career.

The interview question everyone dreads and few know how to answer properly is ‘What is your greatest weakness?’ It’s asked because the interviewer wants to try and get a sense of what you’re really like to work with by the way you answer.

But should it matter if you’re not very good on the phone if you’re a web developer or if you’re a poor writer if you’re a media buyer? It shouldn’t, but it invariably does.

The things that give you energy

I was listening to an extremely interesting chat between Nathalie Nahai and ‘the wizard of Moz’, Rand Fishkin, on Nathalie’s podcast a couple of weeks back. Rand made some excellent observations about investing time in gaining a full and accurate understanding of what you’re good at and, more importantly, why you’re good at it.

He asserted that in doing so you can identify the things that give you energy, and you can start to invest continuously in enhancing the strengths you’re passionate about rather than spending all of your time on the things that drain you. It’s well worth a listen.

This is smart, right?

I know myself well enough to know that I’m good at and passionate about solving digital media problems. I love the challenge of digging into data, devising and testing communications strategies, and refining tactics that work. I also love passing on my knowledge and training people.

But once a problem is solved, the day-to-day work bores me. I find admin and process tedious. I’m not a great people manager and I have no patience for office politics and dealing with people I have little respect for.

It’s no coincidence that the business I have chosen to pursue concentrates pretty much entirely on the things I’m good at and that I love.

Hierarchies are not effective

So why, in the workplace, is so much emphasis placed on shoring up weaknesses rather than on developing strengths? Why are people not channelled in ways that do the opposite?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the hierarchical structures employed in communications agencies, prompted by Robert Phillips’ book and by an online debate I had with Gini Dietrich about the traditional agency model.

Hierarchical team structures make little to no sense whatsoever.

The Wisdom of Teams from the Harvard Business School defines a team as: “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable”.

The key word in there is skills. What it is not is ‘job roles’. Effective teams work collaboratively with a keen awareness of interdependency. They pool people with the best skills to achieve the goal, regardless of how senior they are.

Hierarchical teams don’t. They pool people according to length of time in the job based on available capacity, often regardless of their individual talents.

That’s just dumb.

Why not get people to focus on what they’re good at and, rather than forcing them to address their weaknesses in order to fulfil a role, hire other people who are good at those things instead?

Using myself as an example again, if I ever decide to expand my business into an agency I will implement a very flat, skill-based structure and a culture where job title is irrelevant.

I’d want an analytics geek to provide insight and to help steer campaigns; I’d want an SEO guru; I’d want a media expert; I’d want someone who is great with people to handle clients; I’d want a top notch content marketer; and I’d want a specialist media buyer.

What I wouldn’t want is a generalist account director, two generalist account managers and four generalist account executives, no matter how bright they are.

I spotted this graphic from Brands2Life on PR Moment last week which sums this approach up very nicely.


It is, admittedly, not easy to switch from the traditional role-based agency structure to a more progressive skill-based structure. But that doesn’t mean you can bury your head in the sand and ignore the way the world is developing.

More to the point, there will come a time when a square peg can no longer be forced into a round hole.

The Problem with ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’

pr_is_deadThe claim that PR is dead has been doing the rounds again recently with the release of former Edelman EMEA CEO Robert Phillips’ new book. It’s an old argument. A quick Google search for ‘PR is dead’ returns no less than 204 MILLION results.

With that in mind, I had no intention of writing this post. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

But after a Twitter debate with Mr Phillips on Wednesday, I feel compelled to offload my thoughts. So here goes. Buckle your seatbelt, put your tray in the upright position, and please take a moment to locate your nearest emergency exit.

The argument that PR is dead

Let’s first take Phillips’ book itself. As much as it is possible to summarise it in a few sentences, the central tenet to the firm claim that PR is dead is that the practice has failed to adapt fast enough (if at all) to the data revolution.

Phillips asserts that the industry is stuck in an age of employing and developing generalists at a time when specialists rule the roost. And that hierarchical agency structures are equally outdated. He says it is obsessed with bureaucracy and definitions rather than professional standards and working out how to prove its value.

I totally agree with all of this, and more. If you work in the industry and you don’t, you’re probably one of the very dinosaurs that’s holding it back.

The argument that PR is alive and kicking

If I agree with Phillips, what’s my issue?

One word: sensationalism.

Yes, PR has fallen behind the times. Yes, it can be a seriously frustrating industry to work in. And yes, if it doesn’t change it is indeed in trouble. But ‘dead’?

It will come as no surprise to Daily Mail readers that there is tendency in journalistic circles to use attention-grabbing headlines to draw people in. Headlines that are, by and large, unsubstantiated.

Only a couple of months ago, the marketing world was a-flutter with news from Ofcom that UK social media use dropped by 9% in 2014. It made for a great headline, but failed to consider the way use of social networks is fragmenting and evolving. At the time, I wrote a post titled ‘Everything is Dead’, calling bullshit on this.

The same goes for PR; it’s evolving, not dying.

You know what’s dead? The manufacture of penny farthing bicycles. To my knowledge, there was not a single person doing that in the UK last year. On the other hand, there were approximately 62,000 people working in PR in the UK in 2013 [source: PRCA Census].

I put this point to Phillips on Twitter:

‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’ is certainly a call to arms, of that there is no doubt. It’s a superbly written assessment of what PR should be about in 2015.

But it’s not what the sensationalist title promises it will be, and above all, it’s nothing new.

An out-dated argument?

I myself have been extremely vocal in calling for change more times than I care to remember, and I’m far from the only one. As long as five years ago I wrote a post entitled Are PRs Really Up To The Social Media Task?, which addresses some themes similar to Phillips’ book.

That was five years ago.

I had a major rant about ‘what’s bloody wrong with PR’ back in July 2012.

And, for me, that doesn’t reflect well on Phillips himself. There were plenty of us pointing to the warning signs years before he resigned from Edelman in the summer of 2012. So did it all suddenly catch up on him?

This tweet from Gus Ferguson kind of sums it up nicely for me:

I pressed Phillips further on Twitter: 

And this gets to the crux of my issue with the book. Phillips says in this tweet: “The practice of old-form PR is dead”. I repeat: the practice of old-form PR.

I don’t think anyone would debate that. But just because old-form PR is on its last legs does not for a moment mean that one can call out an entire industry of 62,000 people as irrelevant or dead.

Former President of the CIPR Stephen Waddington tweeted this on Wednesday:

Change is occurring

I get frustrated at times by the lack of speed of evolution in PR. All of the things that wind Robert Phillips up wind me up too, and the short-sightedness of many in the industry is breathtaking.

But I have seen change in the last five years. The industry is, if not marching, then crawling towards a new future. It is far from dead.

Had Phillips’ book had a different title and a slightly different approach around reformation, I’d have been the first pushing it to every manager of every PR agency I know and come into contact with.

But without the sensationalism would we even be talking about it? Would it even sell?

To his massive credit, Phillips himself is a master of public relations. The way he’s whipped the industry up into a frenzy over the last year is a fantastic example to anyone of how modern PR works. And work it does.

The final irony of using PR to such great effect to generate publicity around a book that says PR is dead has not gone unnoticed.

Over to you. Is Robert Phillips right? Is PR dead?

[Disclosure: the original title of this post was “The Massive Issue with PR is Dead”. More on the reason for the change in a future post.]