PR isn’t dead, spin is dead, and the future of PR is female.

I have been doing a lot of university talks and panel discussions recently, broadly on the “Future of PR” theme. I have debated with my friend Robert Phillips, whose crowd-funded book “Trust me, PR is dead” is out soon and worth buying.

I have made some statements that have caused disagreement, concern, alarm and pained expressions, and been retweeted without the supporting evidence.

So for the record, let me elaborate.


PR isn’t dead

If anything, it is growing in numbers and influence and “beyond traditional PR” reach. It is evolving, not dying.  62,000 professional PRs in the UK alone and rising. Attracting talented young people who previously would have gone into law or finance or management consultancy.

With digital and social media changing everything, it is moving beyond the media relations silo that it has been in for most of our profession’s lifespan. We were not created as a profession of press release writers, but print and then broadcast media were the main channels. That is no longer the case.

There is a lot of debate about whether, in a post (traditional) media world, “Public Relations” is an adequate descriptor for what we do. I am less concerned about this navel gazing. When I fell sideways into PR, having failed to make a living as a budding music writer, my first boss gave me a sort of idiot’s guide to PR. The opening chapter led with a definition of our practice: “The dialogue between an organisation and its publics”. Now we call them stakeholders. In a fast changing world where trust is challenged, dialogue and authenticity and transparency are demanded, it strikes me that dialogue and communications are more important than ever.

But to Robert’s point, the role of PR has to change. To summarise a point Paul Holmes made recently, PR has to move from trying to spin that a company hasn’t really polluted a river, to telling the CEO the firm has to stop polluting the bloody river.

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Colin Byrne and Robert Phillips

Interestingly this month PR Week in the UK published their PowerBook of the 500 most influential people in the industry. Leaving aside my own modest showing at, ahem, #9, the really interesting thing was their choice for #1. It was Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. The point is that whether it is the Dove campaigns, or Project Sunlight on sustainability and genuine brand purpose – witness the new corporate advertising campaign – that company and CEO are leading examples of authentic, engaging communications, business with purpose and what my pal Robert calls “public leadership”.

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PR Week Power Book 2015 issue cover

Growing in influence

We do a lot of research at Weber Shandwick, so these are not just my opinions.

Our Rising CCO survey charts the growth in influence of chief communications officers. Circa 60% of CCOs at world leading firms now report to the CEO, Chair or the Board – interestingly the region with the lowest percentage of seniority is Europe.

We also monitor the growing trend for convergence of the in house marketing and communications function. – the rise of the Chief Communications & Marketing Officer or CCMO. More than a third of CCOs now also oversea merge ting, a 35% increase at world-class firms globally in the past 2 years.


Spin is dead

I confess, I am a reformed political spin doctor, a phrase imported from American politics by Michael White, The Guardian’s political editor, nearly 30 years ago after his spell in Washington.

Reputation is what you do and what others say about you. Spin is what you say about yourself, and sometimes to vainly attempt to divert gaze from the truth.

When I was in politics, spin was hand to hand combat with bastard political journalists who were in turn controlled by the political agendas of their proprietors. I also lied. But I wasn’t in PR really. I was in propaganda. Very different thing.

So when I say spin is dead, and others cry no it’s not, what I mean is it is no longer effective, not that it is no longer used. Research shows that only about 40% of global citizens trust their elected governments.

I shared a panel with a journalist recently who complained of corporate PRs aggressively selling her stories, and cited this as evidence that spin was alive and kicking, I am not sure that being aggressive in dealing with journalists is right – and anyway they are only one route to  communicating with our audience in this digital world, not the only one, something that many journalists find threatening – though as a political spin doctor I did spend a lot of time slamming the phone down on hacks, telling them to fuck off, threatening to go to their editors etcetera. But that is not spin. It is hand to hand combat, and not very enjoyable in hindsight.


Malcolm Tucker, BBC’s The Thick Of It

I get a bit pissed off with journalists who project themselves as the love children of Joan of Ark and Woodwood & Bernstein, because in truth there is good  journalism, and bad journalism that is slave to the political agenda of their proprietor or just downright lazy. PR does not need morality lectures from journalists. But we do need to scrutinise our own ethics and behaviours.


The future of PR is digital, visual and female.

This is the one that really divides my student audiences. The digital bit speaks for itself. The visual bit is based on a number of facts about communications and consumers, as well as my own love of visual arts and storytelling. (Frustrated film director.) People assimilate visuals 60,000 times faster than text and only remember 20% of what they read. Average attention spans have fallen from 12 seconds to just 8 seconds – 1 second less than a goldfish! – in just a decade. Half the photographs every taken in history have been taken in the last two years. The fastest growing and most influential aspect of communications is engaging video-based storytelling, from Like A Girl to Dove Sketches to the Epic Split.



The future is female gets a mixed reception. It shouldn’t. (And one of my top moments of 2014 was hosting Emma Watson and the HeForShe campaign at our London office. Her UN speech was one of the epic YouTube moments of the year.) Despite the male dominated PR power lists, women rightly drive evolution in our industry. And yesterday I was proud to name Rachel Friend as MD of our London operations. The three largest Weber Shandwick offices worldwide are now run by talented, inspirational women.

But my point was gender neutral and about behaviours. Men have traditionally dominated advertising because it is a broadcast industry. Big budgets, macho ideology, a “push” communications discipline. PR is about dialogue, A lot of PR people think their job is to talk. It is more about listening. To the client, to colleagues, to the beat of consumer insights, global trends and inspirational thinking. Listening, emotional intelligence, are female traits that we all need to adopt. The future of PR is about young talent, thinking like and supporting young female talent.

Have a great Christmas and here’s to a transformational year for PR with Purpose  and bigger ambition in 2015.

Yes we Cannes (and do)

PR people often remind me of my kids. They moan how unfair things are but do nothing to help themselves make it better. Thus it has been – again – in Cannes this week as ad agencies continue to sweep the board in the PR awards.
I am unphased by this.
Firstly, although this is PR’s fourth year being represented at Cannes, it is still pretty much advertising’s party and we are the gatecrashers drinking their free booze, nicking the CDs and occasionally breaking the plumbing.
Secondly, as its new name spells out, Cannes is basically a festival of creativity. PR has to be about creativity – as my team know it is one of the four strategic pillars of our business at WS in Europe – but about creativity with consequence. For our clients that is about creating real engagement and dialogue with customers and stakeholders, engagement that entertains and informs and drives more than just brand awareness. Story listening not just story telling. Not just creativity that wins gongs.
I don’t entirely agree with my friend and sister-agency colleague Matt Neale at GolinHarris who talked with UK PRWeek of a groan when briefs come in stressing the importance of national print media. It still takes a good deal of creative thinking to get break through in an increasingly stunt and spin weary mainstream press, but I do agree with Matt that clients need to take a more holistic view of engagement in an INLINE world.
Thirdly, Cannes is a huge learning experience to be embraced. It is a unique melting pot of people and ideas and entrepreneurs and cultural influencers. For me it is an opportunity to cherry pick ideas and adapt them to my business, and learn about the roads we just don’t want to go down. One of the most professionally rewarding experiences I have had in recent years was as a judge in Cannes. Yes an ad agency won the top prize, and deservedly so (though WS London won a Lion that year also, which was a blast), but boy did I learn a lot.
Fourthly, as my chief digital creative James Warren put it to me over a bleary eyed expresso session in Nice airport yesterday, we do different things to ad agencies in PR. We don’t sell a one off idea, we sell services and insights to drive engagement around that idea, from traditional media to social media to experiential etc.
Fifthly, our industry is in the ascendancy. We should enjoy the ride, not moan that we have not got it all and got it now.
Earlier this week we had a really interesting round table of clients and agency creatives jointly with US PRWeek, which they will be reporting on on their website, where we picked over the key issues for PR raised by Cannes. For me one continues to be our recruitment strategies. I worked in house for years before moving into consultancy. I love talking with in house folk about how they see their role and the client-agency relationship. Truth is we as agencies have whole ranks who go straight from college into consultancy. They see public relations as activating a client initiative. In house people see the initiative itself as real public relations. I think all agency recruits should be made to spend time seconded in house to learn, not just see in house jobs as less risky and better rewarded jobs after they have put in their time agency side. Otherwise we will end up like UK politics, dominated by very clever people but who have never done anything but work in a bubble. Our people need to understand the clients’ businesses, not just their short term communications goals.
So, let’s not be downhearted by what’s happening in Cannes. Let’s look, learn, party, recruit more broadly, take the best ideas and strategies from disciplines like advertising but not beat ourselves up that we don’t beat ad agencies at their own game. For me Cannes really is about taking part and not just winning.