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The great propaganda game is over says Robert Phillips

19th March 2015


If Robert Phillips had listened to his school career advice he may have become an interior designer rather than ending up working in communications. Here he describes his rather strange start in the industry, why he set up strategy consultancy Jericho Chambers and how he found time to write his latest book, Trust Me, PR is Dead.

Phillips says that PR was not the first career that was suggested to him, or that he considered: “At school, when we did those weird multiple-choice questionnaires about our future careers at about 16 years old, it was suggested that I become either an antiques dealer or an interior designer. To be fair, I have always had a love of aesthetics – one of my fictional heroes is Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac with his love for poetry and panache. I cannot stand dullness. Other than that, I really wanted to be a town planner. I studied geography at A Level, but was told that it was not a “proper” academic subject, so I went to Oxford to study history (which I also loved) instead … and then got chucked out after only two terms.”

So how on earth did Phillips end up working in comms? He says that he “fell into it. Completely by accident” adding, “That said, I flirted with student politics and, like so many Social Democrats of the mid-1980s, I found a comfortable home in the world of PR and PA.”

Discussing how he got started in business, Phillips says: “I set-up my first company whilst still at University, in my third year. It was my father’s fault – he died rather unexpectedly and one of his former business associates assumed I would take over running his company. The only problem was that John (my father) was a fashion agent and I was completing a degree in Medieval and Modern History … hardly a natural fit. But I seized the opportunity nonetheless.”

“So, at the age of 22, with no business experience except a management apprenticeship with Marks and Spencer in my gap year, I ended up launching a consortium of Italian wedding dress manufacturers into the UK and inadvertently creating Britain’s first major bridal-wear exhibition. All very strange. But true.”

By 2007, Phillips had become UK CEO of PR firm Edelman, but decided to quit in 2012 to focus on a new type of comms. Describing why he left, Robert says: “The bottom line is that I no longer believed in the business model or the way the world was approaching PR. It had been nagging at me for a while – but I felt like a hypocrite or an impostor and had to quit. I had no plans to launch Jericho or anything similar back then. I just wanted to take some time out and think through ‘what was next’ for comms.”

“I still maintain only the highest level of respect for Edelman, though, and Richard [Edelman] is for sure one of the industry’s good guys. And my lifelong friend and business partner for 25 years, Jackie Cooper, is still very much part of the Edelman set-up, so I have to respect that.”

Running consultancy Jericho Chambers doesn’t leave much time for hobbies, but Phillips has managed to carve out time (“Late nights, early mornings and weekends”) to write the book, Trust Me, PR is Dead. “It is actually my second book, having published Citizen Renaissance (written with Jules Peck) on-line in 2008. Both books were in my head. I just needed to write down everything I had been thinking.”

“Trust Me, PR is Dead actually started out as an exploration of city states, the new business states that multinational corporations effectively represent and business leadership. It evolved into a book about trust and communications, as it soon became apparent that PR had for too long been responsible for a world gone wrong and the abuse of trust. But it was a book about cities that was in my head when I quit Edelman.”

Discussing the lessons he has learnt through his career, Phillips says: “My personal mantras, such as they are: ‘no fear, no mediocrity and no assholes‘. I would urge everyone starting out in any business sector to adopt these. No one should ever be bullied or repressed by hierarchies, nor intimidated by age or experience. I am an absolute believer in social democracy – politically and in the workplace: social – of and among the people; democracy – give voice to all. Too many people mistake management for leadership and too many (often not very good) managers force themselves upon others as leaders.”

If there is one message Phillips wishes to pass on to PROs it is that “the great propaganda game is over”, he explains: “It is about what we do, not what we say. ‘Crafting’ or ‘managing’ the message is bullshit. Public engagement (which I championed whilst at Edelman) is no longer enough – we live a time of constant chaos where only permanent engagement (including with those who disagree) will suffice. We need to think more in terms of public leadership (which is activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first) and public value, where we are accountable to wise crowds of stakeholders, rather than to sterile and often pointless absolute measurements. Permanent engagement, public leadership and public value are the future. For now.”

Follow Robert Phillips on Twitter. For more details on his book: Trust Me, PR is Dead


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