How human creativity remakes the world

One of the questions I was most often asked as a lecturer was, “Can you recommend a good book about creativity?”  I usually struggled, and more often than not, felt that the idea was a contradiction anyway.  Then, last year, I heard a feature on a mid-morning show on BBC Radio 4 about this book during 2017, and it stopped me in my tracks.

“The Runaway Species” clearly and elegantly creates a way of explaining how creativity flourishes, and how we can apply to our own lives, as individuals and organisations (such as schools, and companies) to foster creativity and innovation.

The crux of the book is deciphering three key processes be which we transform existing ideas, and find or encourage creativity or innovation with them.  These are:-

Bending: modifying or twisting the original out of shape to create something new;

Breaking: the whole is taken apart, or smashed to pieces, to re-fashion it, or to find something new.

Blending: two or more sources are merged, to create something new.

Although I have had to retire due to Chiari, I still take part in my CIPR CPD, and as the deadline loomed large recently, it was clear that this book had to come ‘off’ the pile of books I had recently bought which are waiting to be read, because it had much to pass on.  I wasn’t disappointed.

One of the great things about the book  is that it uses many practical example from the worlds of art and science to demonstrate its formula, rather than leaving than leaving it as an abstract, impenetrable theory – and there are lots of pictures for a weighty book such as this!  My only disappointment is that I no longer have a course/curriculum into which to integrate this book as a lecturer.  I am genuinely impressed, and would have had a lot of excitement with students applying it.  It may have something to do with the book being written by Brandt (a composer) and Eagleman (a neuroscientist), with them both drawing on their respective passions for inspiration.

Forget the ‘eureka’ moments – we are talking more about ‘evolving sessions’.  This books demonstrates how our brains have been working, more like ‘jackdaws’, constantly fashioning a new nest, from the things they have collected.  It explains why human behaviour has these needs (such as the tension between predictability and surprise), and what we do to express them best – and how that can be harnessed to best effect.  And it looks at the issue of why some ideas take off – and others stay firmly in the sand-pit.

Bending; Breaking and Blending give us a kind of cognitive software –  an on-going way in which our brains are approaching the world, and coming up with new ideas, answers to problems, and creative flourish.  The more opportunity we give ourselves to do engage in this behaviour, the better.

Thoroughly recommend – much food for reflection: Brand, A. and Eagleman, D. (2017) “The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes The World”, Edinburgh:  Canongate Books.

Advertisements

Questioning what makes a good life

Drabble, M. (2016) “The Dark Flood Rises“, Edinburgh:  Canongate Books

It’s not often I’m compelled to buy a book directly from what the blurb has to to say for itself on the sleeve, but with this book by Margaret Drabble, I was sold when I originally bought the book back in 2017.  It spoke to me, and despite it being fiction, it seemed to speak to the stage of life I find myself in, and the mood I found myself in while I was looking to spend money in the bookshop at the time last year.

The offending paragraphs inside the cover of The Dark Flood Rises read as follows:

“Fran may be old but she’s not going without a fight. So she dyes her hair, enjoys every glass of red wine, drives around the country for her job with a housing charity and lives in an insalubrious tower block that her loved ones disapprove of. And as each of them – her pampered ex Claude, old friend Jo, flamboyant son Christopher and earnest daughter Poppet – seeks happiness in their own way, what will the last reckoning be? Will they be waving or drowning when the end comes?

“By turns joyous and profound, darkly sardonic and moving, The Dark Flood Rises questions what makes a good life, and a good death. This triumphant, bravura novel takes in love, death, sun-drenched islands, poetry, Maria Callas, tidal waves, surprise endings – and new beginnings.”

Morbid I know, but it seemed to have many resonating themes for me with my, what can often feel stalling, middle age life.  As I approach the age of 48 years old, I recently had to retire early due to a neurological condition which can play many wonderful tricks on my body and mind.  Not only that, two years ago, I downsized from my fast-paced life in London, to return to the house I grew up in in a much slower part of Hampshire, and seem to hang out with many more people aged over 70 than I do with people of my own age, so many of the issues the book says it was going to address are live for me, and the people I see regularly.

That’s what I thought it was – the highs, lows and frustrations of growing old, and the challenges of modern life.  There was some of that, but in fact, it was much darker than that.  Bigger themes lying beneath the surface of what adds up to a ‘good life’ and how to see it out at the end – something facing us all as we apparently live longer, but better lives?  And not just us, but our families and friends too.  A lot of dying.

Because of my own situation, it did give much pause for reflection at times, and made me think a lot about people I know, places I pass on the bus, or charities I have considered partnering with on projects in the past.  In the work I have been doing on community podcasting at Sound Vault, for example, we have been thinking about doing projects on the role music can play in making memories, and have seen the difference simple conversations about music can have in people’s lives.

At times, I found the book a little too incredible – too many coincidental character links for example – only for a coincidental link to ‘pop-out’ at the very same moment I was reading about it, to match with a detail in my own life, so perhaps I was too quick to judge.  Too many of the characters in the book seemed to know each other by some twist of fate, but maybe that happens in particular professional sectors, even if they are separated by hundreds of miles at a particular stage in their life.

The book is powerful in that it creates a dark ‘oil’ which feels like it envelopes the reader.  It doesn’t judge, or prescribe.  It is not depressive (I finally got round to reading it during January 2018, when I am at my most optimistic, most proactive, most organised), but can help us all reflect a little more clearly, yet thoughtfully about the door marked ‘Exit’.  I don’t like to alarm anyone, but it’s approaching.  For many of my nearest and dearest, and others in my networks, it has already come.  And the public policy issues associated with it are growing.

 

 

Previous Reading (6):

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  Sixth up:-

“The Faraway Nearby”, Solnit, R. (2014) London: Granta Books

farawaynearby

A beautifully written book which manages to succeed in helping to make faraway locations seem nearby, and to take the nearby/everyday or commonplace to different or faraway contexts, helping to bring fresh perspective on them in the process.

Solnit’s book is an elegant piece of memoir, almost of therapy.  It takes what at times can appear to be a random stream of deep reflections, and weaves them amongst strands which take us deep into the territory of the craft of storytelling.  Rather than just trying to unpick what makes a ‘good’ story, it uses these insights to heighten the experiences it introduces us to, making those feelings personal, and intense, and provoking us to reflect on our own story.  It is difficult to not start looking for and making connections in your own life, just as she has in hers.

The book is as good an example of psychogeography as you will find on the shelves, without ever trying to formalise such a definition for itself, or explore the concept – but place is important.

Marina Warner, writing a review for The Guardian (June 2013) said;

“Dominating Solnit’s rich repertoire are two main thoughts: that imagination activated through reading and art, can help overcome the feeling of being a stranger in the world, lost among strangers, and second, that characters and places can build another home, and provide alternative stories to the dismal and constrictive plots of our own lives!”

“We are all the heroes of our own stories,” she writes, “and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you and to see your power, to make your life, to make others or break them, to tell stories, rather than be told by them.”

I’ll end, by sharing the beginning of Solnit’s book, so you can decide for yourself if it’s a journey you want to pick up, and begin for yourself.  I can thoroughly recommend it.  It’s an engrossing book – at times, I was so effected by it, I forgot I was reading a book.  And their is a delightful device running throughout the book of a pile of slowly rotting apricots from a tree in her mother’s garden, how she has to deal with them, what they mean to her, and what their legacy becomes.  Beautiful, for a reader who has become obsessed with the sourdough revolution, and other baking for neighbours.

“What’s your story?  It’s all in the telling.  Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.  To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.”

“Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of travelling from here to there.  What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the persons you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed.”

This book helps you find it, and feel it.

Previous Reading (5)

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  Fifth up:-

“Hope in the Dark”, Solnit, R. (2016) Canongate Books

hope-in-the-dark

Solnit’s book was originally published in 2005, but has been updated to reflect what seems like ever increasing reasons for social and political gloom – particularly for those on the left – which is what drew me to the book.  I consider myself a thwarted optimist, rather than an out-and-out pessimist, and was attracted to a book that promised to help define, and find grounds for ‘hope’ for those looking for progressive change on a range of social, political and environmental causes, when the forces lined up against such change seem overwhelming.

As she wrote in her piece promoting the book’s publication in the Guardian, “We may be living through times of unprecedented change, but in uncertainty lies the power to influence the future.  Now is not the time to despair, but to act.”

For President Bush, and the Iraq War when the book was published in 2005, read Brexit, the prospect of Donald Trump, and the disarray in the state of the UK opposition parties in 2016.

Rebecca Solnit writes compellingly.  She asserts, “Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities.  It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty first century has brought, including the movements, heroes and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.”  She is big on identifying, remembering, and celebrating past campaigns, and successes – which are many and varied.

She synthesises a range of other writers to help build her case for real hope.  “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivete,” the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova recently remarked.”

The key case for hope is laid out in the foreword to the 2015 edition:

“The tremendous human rights achievements – not only in gaining rights, but in redefining race, gender, sexuality, embodiment, spirituality, and the idea of the good life – of the past half century have flowered during a time of unprecedented ecological destruction and the rise of innovative new means of exploitation.  And the rise of new forms of resistance, including resistance enabled by an elegant understanding of that ecology and new ways for people to communicate and organise, and new and exhilarating alliances across distance and difference.”

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.  When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.  Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both the optimists and the pessimists.  Optimists think it will be fine without our involvement;  pessimists take the opposite position;  both excuse themselves from acting.  It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, and and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.  We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

So, that told me!  And it certainly answered a lot of the painful doubts I’d been having – and I know many of my friends have been having of late, on the topic of having hope.

By exploring past successes, particularly of the last fifty or so years, Rebecca Solnit gives us good reason to have hope – and plenty of source material from which to learn lessons as to how to build it.

“Mushroomed: after a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere.  Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown.  What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus.  uprisings and revolutions are considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organising and groundwork – or underground work – often laid the foundation.  Changes in ideas and values often result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists and participants in social media.  It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.”

“Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed.  How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of the centre stage.  Our hope, and often our power.”

The book is a reference guide for a number of liberation struggles throughout the world which have made for success.  As Solnit says, “Memory of joy and liberation can become a navigational tool, an identity, a gift”.

One final lesson worth noting from what is a fabulously uplifting book – and one that is incredibly pertinent for those on the left of politics who, like me, have concerns about whether the vehicles we are operating in quite get the magnitude of the problems we face.

“It’s an argument for tiny and temporary victories, and for the possibility of partial victories in the absence or even the impossibility of total victories.  Total victory has always seemed like a secular equivalent of paradise: a place where all the problems are solved and there’s nothing to do, a fairly boring place.  The absolutists of the old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come.  It is, in fact, more than possible.  It is something that has arrived in innumerable ways, small and large and often incremental, but not in that way that was described and expected.  So victories slip by unheralded.  Failures are more readily detected.”

Rebecca Solnit provides us with grounds for hope!

Previous Reading (4):

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  Fourth up:-

“Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World”, Grant, A. (2016) WH Allen

Originals_AdamGrant

This was the book I have been seeking for a long time.  Not only does it seek to distill the essence of creativity, it tries to discern what marks out those people who take creative ideas that one step further, and make them happen – ‘the originals’.  Using a series of true stories to which he returns throughout the book, Grant aims to chart what we can all do to make it more likely that we can move mountains – and he discovers that there are a number of often counter intuitive fixes that can increase the likelihood of fostering an environment where originals will blossom – and these are helpfully summarised in the final chapter.  For example, always questioning the ‘default’ setting in an organisation (it might be there for a reason – at least you will discover ‘why’ if it is); or, making your ideas more familiar (so those around you are more comfortable with your ideas, and so are more likely to adopt them); through to some tips for bringing through originality in children.  ‘Originals’ are not born special, but train themselves through experience, learning and common-sense is, I believe, his central argument.  We can all do it (well, maybe some more than others!)

Easy to read, and practical in approach, its strategies for encouraging adoption of new ideas have uses far beyond innovation in its narrowest sense.  I thoroughly recommend this book.  The video above gives a snapshot of Grant’s book from the man himself.

Previous Reading (3):

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  Third up:-

“Wasted: How Misunderstanding Young Britain Threatens Our Future”, Gould, G. (2015) Little, Brown Book Group

Wasted

Although rooted in politics, this was a fascinating read with much to inform public services, private corporations and all our our human relationships with young people – or as the former might call them, a primary core audience!  It was upfront in articulating how much intelligence young people can bring to campaigns and decision-makers, and how much this is often overlooked and paid lip-service to.  One of the fascinating discussions came over the role (or potential lack of it) for corporate social responsibility, in a world where entrepreneurs put mutuality and cause at the heart of their business models, rather than as a ‘bolt-on’.  There are so many lessons from the book, it is difficult to know where to start.  One is the importance of not just involving young people, or inviting them in, but actually putting them ‘in the driving seat’ of organisations – not making their involvement a special event.  In order for young people to make the most of their involvement, whether that be in the workplace, or in constructing campaigns, we need to increase the capacity for them to contribute – and that has implications for how the PR profession (not just politicians) engages with schools, and the National Citizens Service, so it can play a part in helping young people find their voice.  This is even more vital after the EU referendum vote, when many young people (and many others!) may feel that the political system does not speak for them.  There is also a lot of stress on ensuring conversations across generational groups, and across social groups – and PR can have part to play in this.  The bottom line for all of this is that it is not just in the interests of young people – but it ensures that the communication and messages the profession is seeking to engage with actually work with with the future generations of this country, and the profession can then be seen to have a positive reputation amongst potential recruits across a more diverse range of faces and voices.

Most importantly, the book is about making society function more effectively again, by involving young people properly.  Much of what it has to say about decision-makers embracing more creativity, and unleashing more autonomy is probably something we would all say ‘amen’ to – not just young people.  Thoroughly recommend this book for its showcasing of a range on quality example case studies from around the country, and rich voices captured through in-depth qualitative interviews.

Other reviews and links here from the Guardian and The RSA.

Previous Reading (2):

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  Second up:-

“Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole”, Ropper, A. and Burrell, B.D. (2015) Atlantic Books

Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole

Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole

Having been under the care of a neurologist since 1997, I was fascinated by a book written by a US neurologist of the old-school, outlining his approaching to patient care and crucially, diagnosis. At the same time, it is as much an account of a qualitative to professionalism, rejecting a numbers-based approach, to one that is based on human interactions, and looking out for the ‘particular’.

The account makes neuroscience sound more like an art, than it does a science, and goes some way to show why a young medical student might choose it as a specialism.  For someone who has a rare neurological condition, it is reassuring to know that the health services of the world still have figures like those revealed in the shape of the author, as he discusses how things went dealing with individual patients who crossed his path, ensuring he documents their lives with as much colour as is possible, without breaching any patient confidentiality.

A beautiful read about a beautiful organ, and a beautiful man.

Previous reading (1):

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  First up:-

“The Utopia of Rules”, Graeber, D. (2015) Melville House

The Utopia of Rules

The Utopia of Rules

Not an easy read, partly because of the density of the material, but partly because of the structure, but in my humble opinion, this book’s moment is now!  It’s central focus – society’s apparent fetishisation of bureaucracy, and our collusion in that onward march, has never been more apt.

While there is no clear manifesto to lance us of the boil that is all to apparent from personal testimony with which we can all concur, the book uses this as a starting point for reflection which incorporates a range of threads – bureaucracy as a diversion, from right wing oppression, but also from our own fright at embracing un-trammelled play, while this ‘utopia of rules’ at least provides a structured game, where there is at least some transparency on what basis we can expect decisions to be taken.

If you want to be left with a clear conclusion, this is not the book you are looking for.  However, if you are looking for signposts that will help unearth where the piece of the jigsaw might be that might help reveal a clearer sense of the whole picture of the crazy state of the world today, I think this book is on to something!

For a review elsewhere, see here.

Found in Translation

Back in June 2016, I was captivated by a programme on BBC Radio 4 about the Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms.  It chimed not only with me, but I felt with the times we find ourselves in, and ever since, I have been devouring his work.

Daniil Kharms - with thanks to an excellent piece by Chris Cumming

Daniil Kharms – with thanks to an excellent piece by Chris Cumming

Kharms was born in 1905 and died in 1942 – a suppressed Soviet-era surrealist and absurdist avant-garde writer.  Much of his work was not published during his lifetime, but was saved to be rediscovered in the 1960s and 1970s.  During the twentieth century, he was better known for his writing for children, which was tolerated by the authorities.  That toleration by the authorities didn’t last forever though, and he died of starvation on the psychiatric ward of a Soviet prison.  It was said he simulated insanity to avoid execution – but who can be sure?

You will find plenty of reviews and discussions of Kharms’ legacy on the internet (see below), but in the same way that I was transfixed by the playfulness of his work by the BBC Radio 4 programme, I wanted to share some of that excitement by reading a small number of his very short pieces.

Neat Widget Mic (left) and H5 digital recorder (right)

Neat Widget Mic (left) and H5 digital recorder (right)

The first four are recorded on a new desk mic I’ve bought which gives pretty good quality, but the remaining are on my digital H5 recorder which I’m trying properly for the first time here – a humdinger of a crystal clear sound (I can’t guarantee the quality of my voice!)

Tumbling Old Women is probably the best known of his works, and the one that really caught my ear first.

Fedya Davidovich embraces butter and toe clippings – which pretty much sounds like the story of my life!

Four Legged Crow spits at you – and pretty much hits the nail on the head about the state of relations on Twitter right now.

The Connection puts life in some philosophical context with the aid of a bed-bug.

An Incident on the Street is typical of his writings where an incident is seemingly leading us one way, only to lead us nowhere at all.

The Death of a Little Man vividly captures an important moment in a man’s life – his end.  No niceties or unnecessary gore – just as it comes.

How One Man Fell to Pieces seems to be a lesson about getting carried away, all the while showing that things still carry on as normal when we do, whether that be the use of the dustpan usually reserved for clearing horse manure, or the sweet smell of ‘puffy’ ladies.

Blue Notebook #10 is another signature piece of his writing, beginning by writing about one thing, but by the end of it, because the piece contains none of the things it was intending to cover, the writer either gives up and walks away (as in this case) – or dumps something completely different into the text.

kharms

Most of his works are hard to come by now, and a little on the expensive side, as I have found to my cost.  I can recommend “Today I Wrote Nothing” if any of the above plants a seed with you – available from Amazon and AbeBooks.  It is ‘hit and miss’ – a lot of the work can be more hard going or completely obscure, but that is also part of the charm of it.  There are are great reviews in the New York Times and in the London Review of Books.

As someone recently said on one of the UK’s soaps, “You only had to give her a cassette player and a block of cheese and she thought she was in heaven.”  That’s pretty much how Kharms has made me feel of late.  Thank you for indulging me.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

In the fields, factories and workshops – is PR really dead?

I eagerly awaited my copy of ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’ after so much pre-promotion earlier in the year. The hard copy of the book had been unavailable until June, and since one of the knock-on effects of my neurological condition is a loss of control of muscles in my eyes, and a bad case of double vision, I’m not able to read e-books at all well, which is the only form the book had been available for many months.

"Trust Me, PR is Dead", written by Robert Phillips and published by Unbound.

“Trust Me, PR is Dead”, written by Robert Phillips and published by Unbound.

I was in equal part excited, and equal part exasperated with the case the book attempted to make for burying the PR industry.

There was much to be found to agree with in the lessons drawn from the vast treasure chest of personal and professional experiences raided by Robert Phillips (former EMEA President and CEO of Edelman) with regard to ‘bad PR’. I have long felt that the traditional model of large PR agencies (and some established publicity-driven strategies) can have an in-built interest in depriving organizations and individuals of the ability to communicate naturally and effectively, so that the agencies continue to have a market for their wares. The fact that PR trade magazines/websites are mainly full of stories of agencies losing their accounts, and them then being awarded to a new agency could be said to imply that all activity inevitably ends in failure. For far too long, individuals and organizations have been too eager to ‘sub-contract out’ all responsibility for their communication, both actions and words. It has meant that when they come to perform, they can no longer ‘dance’ instinctively.

But the tone of the book instead reads as if he has a private ‘beef’ with an industry that he was quite prepared to operate within for decades. When I became dissatisfied to an extent with some of its drift, I felt I could make a greater contribution by helping to coach and mentor the next generation of practitioners going into the industry, so that they had the confidence and the tools to question the way things are done much earlier in their careers.

Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips

At one point in the book, Phillips shares with us a conversation he had with Richard Edelman about his deep concern about the future of the PR industry. He goes on to list a series of characteristics which I have to say I do not recognize as being the future drift of the industry. They may be characteristic of a particular type of agency, but that is no reason to tar all with the same brush. These are:-

  • the industry’s inability to embrace data;
  • an insistence on celebrating generalists when it should be elevating specialists;
  • a focus on physical growth rather than developing ‘skillsets and intelligences’ required to serve clients effectively;
  • an obsession with the advertising industry and getting on the board;
  • ignoring the concept of ‘citizens’ over ‘consumers’;
  • celebrating ‘bureaucracy’ over excellence.

There are so many examples of people, both in-house and in agencies, and PR practices which do not operate in this fashion. In his book, Phillips singles out examples such as California outdoor apparel company, Patagonia; engineering firm, Arup; the inevitable John Lewis; Spain’s co-operative federation, Mondragon, and Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign.

This is what the Domestos 'Flushtracker' website looked like for World Toilet Day.

This is what the Domestos ‘Flushtracker’ website looked like for World Toilet Day.

For myself, I could highlight the #RainbowLaces initiative (see video above) on homophobia in football by The FA, Stonewall, and partners like Metro and Paddy Power, so skilfully and humorously executed by Arsenal players like Oliver Giroud and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain last year. I could signpost initiatives like World Toilet Day, which only do not receive as high a profile as it deserves in the UK because of a clash in dates with Children in Need. It was only because of the ‘Domestos’ backed ‘Flushtracker’ website (it really does what it says on the tin) that I discovered about diarrhoea killing more people each year than HIV/AIDS – and there are a whole host of other organisations who have got involved with a range of innovative fund-raising, awareness raising, and life-changing projects, thanks to PR.  I have been a long-term admirer of Ben and Jerry’s, and how the ice cream company lives and breathes the values it articulates, rather than them being a ‘bolt-on’ CSR project. The principles behind its charitable foundation read like something beyond what Jeremy Corbyn might articulate in politics.  Then there is the way Burberry has integrated digital engagement seamlessly into its consumer strategy, renewing its reputation. And on a personal level, I have to celebrate how someone like DJ Stephanie Hirst has handled her own personal profile, dealing with her gender transition by kicking it off with a powerful piece of live radio on BBC 5-Live with Stephen Nolan last Autumn, which has then seen her developing a large following on social media, and an appropriate development of media appearances on TV, radio and newspapers.

Giving PR a 'legal' re-brand.

Giving PR a ‘legal’ re-brand.

When my students were presented with Phillips’ arguments as they had appeared in the trade press and online, and with his new organization ‘Jericho Chambers’ earlier in the year, they were a touch cynical. They felt he was using rather traditional PR tools to generate controversy by saying ‘PR is dead’, to generate interest in his book and in his new venture, and branding his ‘agency’ using ‘legal nomenclature’ to give him brand value, and possibly so he could charge higher fees! ‘Spin’ is such a subjective concept.

Old-skool 'Tamagotchi' pets

Old-skool ‘Tamagotchi’ pets

Phillips’ prognosis is ‘Public Leadership’, but if you tried to explain the practical realities of that to many parts of society who have very real needs of PR, it would sound too much like the ‘jargon’ he is quick to criticise other practitioners for. I agree with his point about ‘action, not words’. I agree with the point about the need for us all to take responsibility for our actions. The concept of ‘organic systems’ where we see the organizations PRs work for as more like a tamagotchi pet may be more appropriate. But the idea of public ‘relations’ is definitely appropriate, and maybe the problem that Phillips has encountered is that PR is too often confused with being merely part of sales.

A 'leadership' hero - just a shame he's a work of fiction - President Bartlet.

A ‘leadership’ hero – just a shame he’s a work of fiction – President Bartlet.

Do we really need another term or activity of ‘Public Leadership’, when we already have plenty of literature on ethics? The four principles of ‘Public Leadership he outlines are already embedded in public relations literature – activist (issues linked with professionalism debates); co-produced (issues linked with curation); citizen centric (issues linked with power), and society first (issues linked with ethics).

"Wot no Bob Maclennan?" - the original SDP Gang of Four.

“Wot no Bob Maclennan?” – the original SDP Gang of Four.

His solutions appear to stop short at the PR industry, rather than going much further to tackle what I would argue are his real targets – the power structures of society, and the economic model of capitalism. Phillips seems particularly wedded to the concept of ‘social democracy’, but in the way he presents this, it appears to be through a sense of nostalgia because of his involvement in the launch of the SDP in the 1980s. I personally have nothing against this. I will ‘out’ myself here. My head was turned as a teenager by the ‘new’ SDP in the mid 1980s, and it was only because my local constituency had a better populated Liberal Party that I chose them to join over the SDP.

"Fields, Factories & Workshops" by anarchist writer, Peter Kropotkin.

“Fields, Factories & Workshops” by anarchist writer, Peter Kropotkin.

But I question his attachment to the term ‘social democracy’ with regards to a solution to the kind of problems he outlines in the book. ‘Social democracy’ would imply something which is more state-centred, or centrally dictated in terms of direction or solutions. This book’s solutions, if they are to have any meaning would do better to draw on more anarchist, co-operative or social-liberal philosophies, decentralized, and placing more stress on individuals taking more responsibility for their own actions, both within the profession, and within wider society. I quote Phillips himself here: “Real people need to be liberated to make decisions, rather than allow abstract instruments of economic imperialism to take hold. As Diogenes the Cynic is quoted as saying, ‘the markets are the places men go to deceive one another.’”

Aristotle

Aristotle

Ancient Greece looms large in a number of places in the book. As well as Diogenes, Phillips draws on Aristotle for references to an active polis. He argues Aristotle may have been an early ‘social democrat’ because of his support for the principles of fairness and social justice – core pillars of the ‘common good’. What Phillips fails to touch on is Aristotle’s role as arguably one of the first public relations practitioners, as the architect of rhetoric – a beautiful concept when practiced properly, and not in an empty form. Persuasion is a legitimate activity.

The dichotomy between hierarchy and networks - ably represented by this diagram, courtesy of http://edbrenegar.typepad.com/leading_questions/hierarchy/

The dichotomy between hierarchy and networks – ably represented by this diagram, courtesy of http://edbrenegar.typepad.com/leading_questions/hierarchy/

Many of the issues he deals with across communication are being addressed by practitioners large and small, in actions and words – and by academics across the globe. So, ‘Yes’, I can agree wholeheartedly with his analysis of many of the threats to the sector’s relevance which it must embrace and play with – ‘Data and Insight’ (happening); ‘Outcomes, not Outputs’ (happening); ‘Networks, not Hierarchies’ (happening); ‘Scale’ (happening); and ‘Talent’ (happening).

Iain Duncan Smith

Iain Duncan Smith

FIFA's Sepp Blater, put on the spot by Lee Nelson's 'stunt'.

FIFA’s Sepp Blater, put on the spot by Lee Nelson’s ‘stunt’.

The real issues lay beyond PR, as Phillips seems shy of actually admitting. One of his ‘Wise Crowd Contributors’, George Pitcher is actually quoted in the book as saying, “But the problem isn’t PR. How could it be? The prosperity of public relations has only been enabled by its paymasters. The be-suited PR flaks are but the suppurating buboes on the plagued bodies of our national institutions. Nor will shooting the rats which carry the plague help very much – banging up bankers, or simply rescinding their knighthoods, may provide temporary satisfactions, but they hardly address the disease…… Freeloading MPs, thieving bankers, lying police officers, gangster utilities, treacherous journalists and fraudulent retailers have collectively demonstrated that spin was an effect, not the cause of our malaise.”

Surely these are the bigger villains of the piece?

A particularly bad case of a 'cut and shut' car.

A particularly bad case of a ‘cut and shut’ car.

Some technical points. I found the book easy to read, and it is to be commended for that, but at times I found it repetitive. In style, I thought it could appear a little ‘cut and shut’, with material (some anecdotal) being stitched together to make the case for points the author held dear, rather than an effective case being built. The book would particularly have benefitted from ‘in-text’ referencing throughout the book, to ‘copper-bottom’ the arguments being advanced.

Redacted text.

Redacted text.

I understand totally the need to ‘redact’ or censor identities, and conversations, to prevent litigation, whilst still providing insights. However, it would appear to go against the whole point of the book, which would surely argue for ‘open’ communication at all times. Instead, it would appear to be a device to promote salaciousness, and further interest in the book. The redactions prove that communication cannot always be fully ‘open’, and sometimes there are other interests that have to be considered.

That being said, I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone working in PR. It is a good wake-up call for the industry, but we should be under no illusion that it deploys many of the promotional tools that it decries the industry for. At times, I laughed out loud – I loved the story about the ‘Brainstorming Consultancy’ where a colleague seemed to forget she was not at a drinking game, and jumped into the middle of an ‘away-day style’ circle of colleagues, and said, “Jump into the middle if you have ever had a three-some with your boss” and no one followed, leaving her exposed in the middle! I could easily have seen it happening in a number of my previous workplaces.

Earlier in the year, Phillips got entangled in a Twitter conversation with a good friend of mine – Kevin Rye – latterly a PR of some repute with ‘Supporters Direct’ – the movement campaigning for fan ownership in football, and proof of PR going with the grain in terms of societal change. Phillips didn’t seem to be able to defend the central thrust in the title – indeed, he even revealed that the title was NOT his idea, and gave up debating with us by saying that Kevin was obviously better read, and better researched than he.

Phillips may have been being ironic when he said Kevin was better researched, and better referenced - but he appeared to give up the argument advanced in the book far too easily.

Phillips may have been being ironic when he said Kevin was better researched, and better referenced – but he appeared to give up the argument advanced in the book far too easily.

Phillips reveals that the idea for the title of the book was not his - perhaps he doesn't really think PR is dead after all?

Phillips reveals that the idea for the title of the book was not his – perhaps he doesn’t really think PR is dead after all?

Kevin argues that PR can be used to 'shape' and 'frame' - while I replied to the debate, arguing that I shifted from politics into PR because that's how I felt I could achieve more for societal change!

Kevin argues that PR can be used to ‘shape’ and ‘frame’ – while I replied to the debate, arguing that I shifted from politics into PR because that’s how I felt I could achieve more for societal change!

As I replied to their debating, “I shifted my focus from politics into PR because I wanted to be part of societal change.” This seemed to totally blind-side him, but it’s true. Whether it’s as a trustee with a charity, as a volunteer with the local Citizens Advice, or coaching the next generation of practitioners (which I continue to get involved with through the ‘PR Fraternity’ at the University of Greenwich) – or the way I practiced PR with a variety of clients and employers, I genuinely think I have done things differently – paying attention to the particular, taking responsibility, and keeping an eye on the common good. I do not think I am a freak. Equally, I think there is a great deal of need for change, just as there is in most industries. Changing PR’s name to ‘Public Leadership’ though won’t make a jot of difference to the staff of the Citizens Advice where I volunteer.

It would have been far too easy for me to illustrate the next paragraph with a photo of a urinal here - I have used the power of social media to campaign about the state of the toilets in a previous university where I have taught. Instead, here is a plate of 'Happy Faces' biscuits! Just make sure you wash your hands before you take one.

It would have been far too easy for me to illustrate the next paragraph with a photo of a urinal here – I have used the power of social media to campaign about the state of the toilets in a previous university where I have taught. Instead, here is a plate of ‘Happy Faces’ biscuits! Just make sure you wash your hands before you take one.

Phillips said that his original suggestion for the title of the book was ‘Biscuits and Bathrooms’ because of the industry’s preoccupations with debates over spending on biscuits in meetings, and on initiatives to put organizational ‘value statements’ on ‘wipe-clean’, laminated signs in staff toilets, as the best companies can do on employee engagement! But these are not just a PR problem – this is a problem with business as a whole. It’s a problem with quality management, just as we all have a problem with automated call-centres, and self-service checkouts. You get a sense that with Phillips, it has become personal, and maybe after a break, he can re-start his obvious love affair with what PR makes possible.

Phillips lays out plenty of analysis for future behaviour in business, but having been a lecturer and trainer in public relations since moving on from 20 years in the industry, I can vouch for the fact that many of his themes are being embraced. PR is not all about shouting buzz-words in order to sell things, but can be about helping an organization or an individual become more ‘naked’, and learn how to dance. PRs can be the ‘eyes and ears’ as well as the mouth; an ‘inner voice’, more often than not saying ‘No’ if it effectively speaks truth to power. I would have loved it more if the book got more excited about a range of disciplinary contributions – whether from sociology, anthropology, economics or psychology – to help communications flourish, wherever their contribution is needed. And social media has media it easier to signpost many of these, and debate between ourselves, and share/grow a body of ‘good practice’.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros - dancing!

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – dancing!

I get a sense that Phillips and I would ‘get on’ . In one of his final chapters, ‘It’s OK to Be an Asshole’, he establishes the principle that it is good to mis-behave, and it is good to dance – two professional qualities I have tried to instill in my graduates. I never dreamed I would be inspired to come to the defence of public relations, but this book has done just that.

* Phillips, R (2015) ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’, London: Unbound

** ‘In The Fields, Factories and Workshops’ is one of the seminal texts by anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

*** Links to the PR Fraternity at https://www.pinterest.com/prfraternity/ and https://instagram.com/uogprfraternity