Robert Phillips leads the way

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

I’m saddened to hear the news that Robert Phillips has died aged 57, and I admired the classy way his family used his Twitter account to share the news.

This is not an obituary: these are appearing. This is not a recollection (I never met him); others will provide these.

But it is an attempt to memorialise by sharing some lessons he has taught us, focusing on his views on public relations.

We will get to his 2015 book Trust Me, PR is Dead, but only once that title has been placed into context. The way to do that is through his earlier essay in Where the Truth Lies, a collection edited by Julia Hobsbawm and published in 2010, and also with reference to his 2008 publication Citizen Renaissance co-authored with Jules Peck.

Robert Phillips contributed a chapter Citizen Truths and Civic Principles: The Reformation of Public Relations to Where the Truth Lies.

The then senior Edelman executive believed at that time that public relations was capable of reform. But what was the problem it needed saving from?

In a few paragraphs, he provided a lucid account of the development of public relations as a subtle and powerful form of persuasion alongside the advertising industry in the postwar years. This development had run its course in a more open information age, he argued.

The problem was the pursuit of consumption. ‘We see this manifest in the historical inversion of the ‘Wants and Needs’ relationship; the consumerization of everything, not least in politics; and a relentless drive towards super-consumption that is simply unsustainable, both for our own well-being and for the finite resources of the planet.’

The problem was wellbeing and sustainability, two concepts much more fashionable now than they were just a decade ago.

Phillips, let me remind you, joined Edelman when it acquired the consumer agency Jackie Cooper. Phillips then went on to hold senior UK and European management roles within the global firm. But his career had been spent in consumer public relations, successfully promoting consumption.

He had more than a front row seat; he was an important player in creating the problem he describes. Yet he could see a way forward and was keen to share his thinking.

He envisaged a ‘citizen renaissance’ alongside a reformed communications industry, based on three pillars: the vitality of trust; the call for engagement; and that digital has changed the game.

The belief that PR is merely the art of crafting messages and persuading others to fall into line and ‘believe’ is now part of a historic (and increasingly discredited) lexicon….In an era of active engagement, the PR professional must not position him/herself either as kingmaker or communications serf, but instead as a true and substantive facilitator: bringing together networks and active partnerships that can share and advance interests for the common good.

Robert Phillips

Some will note why this involves a renaissance – literally a re-birth. Because public relations has always been capable of being used to forge these networks and alliances for the common good, but has instead so often been used for more limited promotional purposes.

The call for society to be a key stakeholder may once have seemed like the fringe obsession of idealistic academics. Today, it’s written into the ethical principles of industry associations (and it’s there in the latest version of AMEC’s Barcelona Principles too) and it chimes with current conversations around purpose and of ESG (environmental, social, governance) metrics to measure long-term business prospects.

So, this thinking may not have been unique, but it put him in the vanguard of thinkers in our industry. But his emphasis on citizens was distinctive (note his Twitter handle @citizenrobert).

We urgently need to change our language and to appreciate that citizenship is a more vital element of a healthy society than consumption without constraint… The implications for PR are this: rather than selling to consumers, we all need to listen to citizens and to root our listening and our thinking in true civic values… to enable us to rebuild a real sense of community and society. These are the very values that consumerism has badly eroded over the past few decades.

Robert Phillips

If this still only feels relevant to those in consumer public relations, Phillips then turned to what this means for employees among other stakeholder groups. Again, many are learning this lesson and the focus inwards has been intensified through the pandemic.

‘Citizen power does not start at the till. In the business context, employees must have a voice equal to and as powerful as those of customers and shareholders when it comes to critical issues – concerning, among other things, climate change, supply chain ethics, employee democracy and sustainability.’

This short and brilliant chapter summarises his thinking and explains his 2015 book Trust Me, PR is Dead.

By then Phillips had left Edelman. As he wrote: ‘I had fallen out of love with the industry I had spent the best part of 25 years obsessing about. I needed to call bullshit on what had become the bullshit industry.’

The author feels passionately and speaks freely in this book. He’s also speaking from experience and writing with intelligence, so we should listen to his warnings however uncomfortable they may make us feel. ‘I had proudly spent the best part of 25 years arguing that advertising is over and that PR’s time has come. Now I no longer believe that to be true. I remain deeply sceptical about the relevance and core purpose of advertising, but I am also increasingly convinced that PR will never take its long-coveted seat at the boardroom table, where it will be recognised as an essential component of strategic business.’

Among the many missed opportunities he cites Corporate Social Responsibility. ‘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, an ill-formed CSR industry that today is more about bureaucratic, tick-box compliance and reporting than it is about social movement and social change.’

His book did upset some in our industry (one senior industry figure called him a traitor to his face). Yet if the title had been ‘Trust Me, CSR Is Dead’ I doubt that many would disagree – or certainly not vehemently.

Just as CSR is better thought of from one perspective as purpose, and from another as ESG, so Phillips offers us a manifesto for a reformed and enlarged public relations which he called public leadership.

I view Robert Phillips as a leading thinker. Whatever he came to think about public relations and whatever you may think about it, one thing that we can probably agree on is that it’s good to be surrounded by curious, challenging, visionary people.