The 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 And that hierarchical agency structures are equally outdated.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:
— Paul Sutton (@ThePaulSutton) February 11, 2015
‘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:
— Gus Ferguson (@TetradGus) February 11, 2015
I pressed Phillips further on Twitter:
@ThePaulSutton Industry is alive. Where there’s a buyer, there’s a market. Therein the problem. Practice of old-form PR is dead.
— Robert Phillips (@citizenrobert) February 11, 2015
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:
If something is called out as dead dying it is almost certainly changing and likely thriving but never ever dying. — Stephen Waddington (@wadds) February 11, 2015
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.]