Bra-vo... Guru Robert has a plan to save PR

By Simon Yaffe

ROBERT Phillips was behind some of the most iconic campaigns in public relations' history.

But he believes the industry is in dire need of a radical overhaul - and that PR is no longer fit for purpose.

The 51-year-old Londoner sets out his own vision in Trust Me, PR is Dead (Unbound, £9.99), which was published yesterday.

In the book, Robert captures the story of an industry seemingly unaware of its own death throes.

And he calls for CEOs to behave like social activists.

He told me: "There are existential threats, running from the rise of data to a lack of talent.

"One of my issues is the way in which there still seems to be a 'prop-up plan' for businesses, which no longer works.

"The book explores the nature of trust and it starts by talking about how PR killed trust. Today, people rely on words - not on actions.

"PR is not going to die, as businesses will still buy their devices.

"Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, essentially created public relations in America in the 1920s as a way of controlling the masses, because he didn't trust the masses.

"However, now we live in a transparent age. There is no point in trying to craft the narrative because it probably is not true.

"People are just one click away from what the truth looks like - they want honesty and transparency."

The father-of-two, who is married to Venetia, was working at Edelman, the world's largest PR firm, as president and CEO for Europe, the Middle East and Africa when he decided to call it a day in 2012.

He recalled: "It felt to me that the PR industry was sleepwalking over a cliff.

"I suggested to (chief executive) Richard Edelman that we change our business model, but he felt it would be one step too far.

"It was a fundamental disagreement, but there was no falling out.

"He said to me, 'what you need to do is go and write a book and change the industry'.

"I am not that grandiose to believe I could do that, but it did start an important conversation.

"I hope to lead a structural and philosophical change. PR is seeking simplified, manicured and happy endings in a complex and chaotic world.

"People can see through the bulls**t of PR."

Robert, who now runs progressive strategy consultancy Jericho Chambers, is also a visiting professor at London's Cass Business School and a columnist for the International Business Times.

He believes the nature of trust has changed.

"Trust is an outcome, not a message - it is what you say, not what you do," Robert said.

"It is the typical English malaise that we should trust the bank manager on the high street.

"Forget it. We were told to trust them as we were told to trust teachers, doctors and Jimmy Savile.

"What we should be looking at is trustworthiness and how companies can be vulnerable to people around them.

"That way is much more personal and reciprocal. It relies on reciprocal vulnerability as the cornerstone of trust.

"A company which makes itself vulnerable rather than the other way round - it makes sense due to the way the world is going."

Raised in a north London Jewish family, he was sent to Charterhouse, in Surrey.

Robert said the independent boarding school was "rich in institutional antisemitism".

He recalled: "The prejudices of the teenage boys were inherited from their parents, but one teacher said to me, 'You're Phillips, the Jewish boy - you killed our Lord'.

"I said,'technically, that is not correct - the Romans did'.

"When I was 18 and a prefect, I went to the headmaster and asked him if he was aware of the antisemitism and racism in the school.

"He genuinely asked me, 'is that the same prejudice Scottish and Welsh people face?' without a hint of irony.

"My sense of justice was formed in those years.

"I have an institutional loathing of forms of religion and have ended up as a liberal, atheist Jew."

It was while at the University of London, where he was studying medieval and modern history, that Robert took his first steps on the path to PR.

His father, John, died at the beginning of his third year.

Robert recalled: "My dad ran a fashion business. A few weeks after his death, some of his Italian clients got in touch and asked if I was going to continue the business.

"I later found myself launching a bridal dress company in the UK and subsequently launched John Phillips Associates."

Robert spent 28 years at the top, co-founding Jackie Cooper PR in 1987 with Jackie Cooper, who is also Jewish.

One of their campaigns, the seminal 'Hello Boys' adverts for Wonderbra, which set Eva Herzigova on the road to supermodel stardom, was recognised in PR Week's Top 20 Campaigns of All Time.

Jackie also helped launch the PlayStation and its subsequent versions for Sony, as well as launching mobile telephone company O2.

"We helped to source Eva," Robert said.

"That campaign was pioneering in that nobody had used PR to leverage advertising in such a way before. It was deliberately strategic."

Robert and Jackie sold their company to Edelman 11 years ago and he was appointed its UK CEO.

He helped grow it from an $18 million business into a $40 million business during the recession.

During his time at Edelman, Robert spent a lot of time in the Middle East - its headquarters were in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates - and there were plans to open an office in Saudi Arabia.

"I never hid my Jewishness - I would never deny my heritage," he added. "I never had any problems at all in those countries.

"In Saudi, when I was there last year, I saw an awful lot of Jewish and Israeli businessmen wandering around.

"I have found more antisemitism in England than I did in the Middle East."

Israel and the Middle East were on the agenda for Robert last year after he resigned his Labour Party membership due to then-leader Ed Miliband's stance on the summer's Gaza conflict.

Miliband and Labour repeatedly berated Israel over its actions towards the Palestinians.

"I thought his stance was a disgrace," Robert said.

"I am the cliché of a liberal north London Jew, but I am also a proud supporter of Israel, even if I am a harsh critic of the Israeli government.

"I will defend Israel's right to exist as one of my fundamental rights."

But what of Israel's infamous PR skills, which have been sadly lacking for many years?

"They have not been great, because Jews do not listen," Robert laughed. "That is what they need to do.

"Israel has fundamentally shifted to the right politically - it has become a right-wing country.

"They have a siege mentality, which I understand, but it has become something of a vicious cycle."

A member of Westminster Synagogue, Robert claims his oldest son, Gabriel, is Jewish, while his younger offspring, Gideon, isn't.

"Gabriel wanted a barmitzvah, but Gideon did not," he recalled.

Away from work, he is also a lifelong Manchester United fan, due to his late step-grandfather, Mancunian Harry Thompson, who was a close friend of legendary United manager Sir Matt Busby.

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph