Yesterday, PR Week published a series of essays on the Future of PR. I have reproduced my copy below. The communications model of the future is one of the key, concluding themes in Citizen Renaissance – where we argue that marketing, having been part of the problem in the Twentieth Century, now can and must become part of the accelerated solution in the Twenty First. I very much hope that this new way of being can start within the PR industry, with my own firm at the vanguard.
THE FALL AND RISE OF THE C WORD
The future of PR belongs to the Citizen. The Consumer Age is coming to an end. Corporate Reputation and Brand Marketing are converging. In tomorrow’s world, constructive dialogue, engagement and a new tripartite contract between Citizens, Businesses and Government will drive the Communications agenda.
There is a free radical somewhere deep within me that believes we are facing the end of consumerism as we know it. The global financial meltdown of recent weeks has served as a timely reminder that the death of Capitalism may be upon us also. There are real lessons to be learned from recent events: consider the inconsistencies and the lack of responsible regulation in the financial sector over the past decade – and think through the implications this may have if Governments and Citizens fail to actively intervene on an environmental level, to properly safeguard our planetary future.
The Radical believes that tomorrow’s world is being shaped around Digital Democracy and the Citizen power that this brings; around the Wellbeing Imperative, and our thirst for a happier way of being; and around the Perfect Storm surrounding Climate Change – the acceptance that we cannot continue to over-consume finite resources. Tomorrow’s world may yet prove that the Consumer – the one we all grew up to know and understand – was nothing more than a Twentieth Century blip. Citizenship is more enduring.
You do not need to be an apocalyptic Green to recognise a changing world. We are all now learning to live within the necessary confines of a lower consumption, lower carbon economy – whether this is driven by heightened responsibility or economic need. We have witnessed the rise of Consumer Politics – impacting which brands we buy and how we buy them. We have seen the emergence of single-issue consumerist movements and campaigns whose aims are to encourage (Government) action to address perceived bad practice. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ‘hot’ areas of food, packaging, waste, fuel, energy and transport. Consumer Politics is now a very real consideration for all communicators. Businesses and brands are no longer in control. Fuelled by the immediacy and transparency of the web, power has passed to the people.
The Client Community is embracing this shift. The number of pure consumer plays is on the wane. There is an increasing acknowledgment that consumer brands need the added protection of Public Affairs or Corporate counsel (often, in a global context). Brand marketers can no longer just sell ‘stuff’ without a true appreciation of the impact this may have on their company’s License to Operate. Likewise, major corporations are working the brand-link thinking in reverse. Never before have Brand Marketing and Corporate Reputation been closer. The implications for agency structures and client org . charts are self-evident.
A new communications model is emerging – one that my own firm, Edelman, is calling Public Engagement. To understand the model, we need to accept five Truths:
First, we should recognise that the Consumer as we knew him/ her is dead. To paraphrase Python, he is no longer; he has ceased to be. The hard sell of consumerism just won’t cut it, in a more responsible, more thoughtful, more constrained world of limited resource and lower spend.
Second, the Citizen is emergent, if not resurgent. We are all re-discovering the Citizen in ourselves – recognising our real authority and our personal ability and responsibility to effect change; to hold businesses and brands, Governments and institutions, to account. We are driving a new democracy at breakneck speed.
Third, Corporate Reputation must be properly understood within the context of active citizenship and Consumer Politics. Old hierarchies have been denuded and demolished; pyramids of authority have collapsed and replaced by a new sphere of cross-information. Here, everyone has a say – regardless of age or status, gender or experience. Just ask the Road Pricing Petitioners.
Fourth, everyone means everyone. NGOs, Governments, Businesses, Brands, Employees and, yes, the Citizenship all play a part. A new system of checks and balances is in place – creating a new accountability that will clearly limit some of the more unpleasant excesses and poor practices of the past.
Fifth, we are learning to live with this new equality and equilibrium. Within this Tripartite Contract, constructive dialogue – real engagement – will prevail. And PR agencies – appreciating the Government agenda as well as the business agenda, the needs of the NGOs as well as the demands of citizen consumers, are uniquely placed to deliver.
PR can now claim a legitimate primacy among the marketing disciplines – properly understood within the context of the Tripartite Contract and Public Engagement. Conventional advertising, already constrained by its inability to escape from a world of monologue and the 30 second spot, may well have its long-term decline accelerated, as it recognises that it is fundamentally ill-equipped to cope with the wider communications demands of the future.
The challenge facing PR is equally great. Agencies and practitioners need to elevate strategy and strategic thinking. Insight must be properly understood and quantified. Spin needs to be denounced; the shallow world of celebrity rebuffed. A higher standard of ethics is needed, backed by more rigour, more discipline, more content expertise. PR stands at the threshold of achieving what it has always aspired towards and promised. We will have only ourselves to blame if we cannot now make this final step. We need a culture shift of our own to match the societal shift that has, accidentally perhaps, thrust us forwards. If we can be held to account for some of the excesses and the darkness of the past, then we can now be architects of a better future.