OpinionPOSTED September 14, 2015

Review: Trust me PR is Dead

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Trust Me, PR is Dead

In Trust Me, PR is Dead, former Edelman executive Robert Phillips shares his epiphany that public relations is no longer relevant in today’s society. In his view, “PR is not prepared, or even fit for purpose, in this age of activism, nor does it properly understand the restoration of trust.” He proposes a new model, Public Leadership, which, in his view, is “activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first.”

The title of the book is somewhat misleading. As observed by international PR adviser Stuart Bruce, “the book isn’t really that much about PR. In fact it is far more interesting. It’s a broader analysis and dissection of society, politics, business and even the economy as it is today.”

The most striking observation about this book is that Phillips’ idealistic aspirations for a radical transformation of democracy, capitalism, and business is held in stark contrast to his pessimistic view of the current and future state of public relations, the corporate business landscape, and government leadership.

Trust Me, PR is Dead is a war cry for a better, more ethical and more holistic approach to business, PR, media reporting, government and democracy.  Phillips also suggests that public relations practitioners are oblivious to the fact that the world is changing and ill-equipped to adapt.

However, PR researchers Berger and Reber suggest that “public relations is a growing social practice that is powering and empowered by globalization processes and new technologies.”[1] And partner and editor-in-chief of the Holmes Report, Arun Sudhaman suggests that while Phillips’ claims have merit, “it overlooks the seismic changes that are taking place among more enlightened PR consultancies and people.”

Phillips is hardly the first PR practitioner to suggest that we are now more than ever in a great position to react and communicate quickly when required. McMaster University researcher Terry Flynn points out that “technology now enables, or in this case compels, organizations to be almost nakedly transparent – communicating raw data in real time with little opportunity for analysis.”[2]

Social media has transformed the communication landscape, and, as renowned PR academic Grunig suggests, “provides an increasingly sophisticated, interactive supplement for relationship building.”

The majority of public relations professionals have not turned their back on this industry – rather, they advocate and promote embracing change within the context of an ethical framework. To this end, Phillips does not present much in the way of suggesting future research. Other than presenting five lofty principles for Public Leadership, his main lament is that there is no clear conclusion to resolving misperceptions of PR because we must embrace the chaos and complexity of a new, empowered society.

Phillips’ mission was to shake things up and be controversial. The debate spurred by his provocative statements demonstrates the power of his topic. As blogger Dan Slee put it, Phillips is “starting a debate. Or rather he has lit a Molotov cocktail and thrown it. His book Trust Me, PR is Dead is that incendiary device.”

This book is an insightful read not only for PR professionals but for business people, students, leaders, and managers in all sectors and countries. While I don’t agree with everything that Phillips presents – most importantly that PR is dead – I believe he is right that business, PR, communications and democracy is changing dramatically. We need to adapt rapidly to respond to society’s needs for powerful networked communication.

Merissa King is an account manager who loves a good industry book. This month, APEXers are going back to school and writing book reports. (Or documentary or TV show reports.) See what else we’ve covered.

[1] Berger, B.K., & Reber, B.H. (2013). Power and influence in public relations. In K. Sriramesh, A. Zerfass, & J. Kim (Eds.), Public relations and communication management: Current trends and emerging topics (pp.178-192). New York: Taylor & Francis.

[2] Flynn, T. (2006). A delicate equilibrium: Balancing theory, practice, and outcomes. Journal of Public Relations Research, 18(2), 191-201