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PR’s Alive?! April 6, 2014

Posted by normanmonkey in Consumer PR, Media.
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flash25smThe spirit of Francis Fukuyama (now there’s a name to say after a few drinks) was summoned this week with Robert Phillips’ PR Week article entitled ‘PR is dead: Public leadership is the future‘.

After the collapse of the Iron Curtain Fukuyama famously wrote a thesis in 1992 called The End of History, not foreseeing among other things: the Balkan conflict, 9/11 and Al-Qaeda, the global financial collapse, the rebirth of Russia as an economic and military power, the tyranny of quinoa and David Moyes. And as anyone who has ever watched a Hollywood horror film will know, declaring the end or death of anything without a certificate inevitably leads to a pair of zombie hands round the throat to open the door for a lucrative franchise.

So I came into work last week expecting an eerie silence, Maddie the receptionist sobbing into a Kleenex and to be handed my P45 by a solemn faced usher as I surveyed the windswept debris of a PR agency that had been singing, dancing and telling jokes only the day before. Not so. We were alive. Rejoice.

Now there is much to laud in the article. PR, laden with many human character traits, does tend to follow the buck. Too much CSR is flawed or tokenistic. Lots of the food that is marketed as healthy is quite the opposite (low fat usually means high sugar and don’t even start me on Omega 3 bread) and so on. But PR is also about forming an argument, debate, building communities and battling it out across media and social networks and direct to consumers. That applies to anything from GM crops, the fifth runway to your choice of soap powder.

However Robert argues that this is not enough. Engagement should be replaced by public leadership and should address societal needs. This same argument has notably been applied before not only to PR but to everything from literature to pop music and, of course, politics (where his argument definitely applies, as this is an area that now consistently follows rather than leads).

We are not only dead but ‘broken’, ‘tired’ and ‘bloated’. That is a broad brush stroke that doesn’t make any exception or allow any give. Especially as every day I see work and ideas that are creative, original, bold and invariably delivered with wit and warmth.

So where does this leave the world of consumer PR that many of us work in? Consumers are pretty good judges of what they like and they vote not only with their money but their heads. It also assumes that those of us working in these fields will peddle whatever message pays the best rates and that’s simply not true. It’s in our interests to give the best advice and stop a client aiming a gun at their own foot as we’ll a) have to clear up the mess and b) get the blame for not seizing the firearm.

Will we see Hob Nobs with a conscience, organic-only Asdas or the Avon Lady quoting Antonio Gramsci on her rounds? I doubt it. Why not? Because consumers will go elsewhere to brands they can relate to and delivers them the best value. That is the flip side of progressive capitalism – you can’t enforce an argument for social change, only deliver it. People make the final decision. Businesses are free to embrace radical change but they can also go bust.

Ultimately, there are different schools and practices of PR serving different needs – all listening and responding to consumers. Sometimes PR is just about being maverick, entertaining and disruptive because that’s what excites many audiences and makes brands stand out. Paddy Power can shock at times but then it can also use its power of reach and influence to pull Rainbow Laces out of the hat when it wants. One example of many.

So is PR dead? Well, if it isn’t then Robert’s headline certainly made good copy, grabbed everyone’s attention and ignited a debate. That in itself is good old-fashioned PR, so in declaring it dead it’s safe to assume that PR is alive and kicking after all.