Lanny

As with the main dynamic of this book, when reviews of Lanny” by Max Porter first started appearing, it was as if I could hear this book talking to me, and I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed at all.

Bluebell Wood at Eversley, Hampshire.

A number of themes spoke to me.  The first and over-riding one was that of the voice of the land, and the spirit of the generations through time speaking to us through nature, through our landmarks and customs, particularly in rural communities – those kinds of things often referred to as ‘the Particular‘, or celebrated by the likes of Robert MacFarlane.

Having returned to the semi-rural area where I grew up, I have been embraced by the bosom of the common-lands which surround my village, and am never happier than when on a long walk with my dog, and each finding myself travelling through time, imagining myself talking to people who may have previously trodden those same paths, whether ancestors through the generations, or air-crew who served on the old RAF base which are now disused runways, being encroached upon by gorse.

Disused runways at Blackbushe Airport, Hampshire, eith encroaching gorse.

“The village belongs to the people who live in it and to those who lived in it hundreds of years ago.  It belongs to England’s mysterious past and its confounding present.”

The second was the character who lends his name to the book – ‘Lanny’ – a child who who is a bit of a loner, never happier than when playing amongst those rural surrounds, talking to nature – or more accurately, singing to himself.

Little Paul in 1974, most likely to be seen singing/swinging on the garden gate.

One of the first images which was conjured up for me when I returned to the area in 2015 was of me swinging on our front gate, a loner, happy and singing to my heart’s content.  One of our neighbours said it is was her abiding memory of me as a small child.  I had no real memory of this.  Much of the way ‘Lanny’ is described reminds me of how my neighbour described me.  I remember getting an ‘ear’ for stories, listening to my Nan’s conversations with neighbours, as I hid under her kitchen table.

The third is how it deals with more of the darker side of modern discourse – a harshness, a rush to judgement, a binary nature, and the sheer volume of gossip, thanks to social media, particularly thanks to Twitter, and Facebook community groups, but more usually, just simple word-of-mouth.

The book was a sheer joy to read – I just could not put it down.  Some of the devices it deployed gave it a particular excitement.  As a lover of the vernacular, and of picking up on and borrowing snatches of everyday conversations, I was enthralled by how it was able to serve up the nature of village life.  And as a relatively recent subscriber to the embrace of the land, and celebrant of the ways of what are called ‘the particular’, the development of the character ‘Dead Papa Toothwort’ to cast this shadow or articulate its voice was genius. (see also Sarah Ditum, “Max Porter’s Lanny is a story of our fraught relationship to the countryside”, New Statesman, 10/04/19).

I wasn’t expecting the central storyline – I could very easily have still have devoured the book without it – but I suppose we would not have been able to explore many of the aspects without it.

One of the reviews I read said that “It’s not as political commentary or state-of-the-nation study that Lanny speaks most forcefully.  It’s the formal inventiveness that will stay in the mind, the shapes and pairings, the sudden eruptions of imagery.  It’s the idea of Lanny’s DNA as a magic trail shimmering through back gardens and playrooms, or his mother’s dream of herself as a Renaissance painted Madonna.  Porter’s writing is poetically concentrated while also deploying a wonderfully common-or-garden kind of language, loved and used, rolling off the tongue.” (Alexandra Harris, “A joyously stirred cauldron of words” – The Guardian 08/03/19)

While I agree wholeheartedly, I don’t want to lose sight of that wider commentary of taking of the temperature.  I’ve been reading the book with the backdrop of the Local and European Election campaigns of 2019, and the stasis around the downward spiral of the Leave versus Remain circus show.

On a personal level, I’ve never identified more with my four year old self, singing and swinging on that gate than I do today.  I can feel myself retreating from the hot-air and bustle of Twitter (where contributions rarely seem to add anything to a debate, and merely serve to enable the contributor to be seen to be throwing their tuppence into the pool for the benefit of a crowd), and swerving away from, for the main-part, the binary nature of loud, ill-informed postings on community Facebooks.

Castle Bottom, Hampshire – a great place to sit, reflect, & possibly listen out for Dead Papa Toothwort.

Reading ‘Lanny’ has helped me reflect on many of these issues.  I’d ended up working in PR, not just because I wanted to help people amplify their messages, but also to help them understand the benefits of being quiet or silent sometimes when it helps benefit a reputation, or a message to be understood.  All those years ago, when I first started working in such a role, the PR would have more of a ‘gatekeeper’ role, in which ‘listening’ was as crucial a part as the communicating.

Now, with everyone having a myriad of social platforms (and being on them 24/7), that is less so.  Yes – that is great from a democratising perspective.  And yes – there still remains a role for good counsel/advice from the best practitioners in the business.  But for the most part, I can only reflect that it has also meant a huge pressure for those on these platforms (that’s beyond PR) to be saying SOMETHING and generating CONTENT, regardless of the quality – and unbelievably, listening less (even though the platforms could enable them to do this more).  There is more noise than ever out there, and the incentive for it be binary, to be aggressive, and not to adhere to many of those aspects of quality practice built over years of experience – whether journalism, or PR – and some of these themes chimed for me on the central storyline in ‘Lanny’ too.

In the just the last couple of days, two example illustrated this perfectly.  The first was one of the only major ‘televised’ debates of the European Election campaign, broadcast via The Daily Telegraph Twitter page.  While I know Nigel Farage has been showered with milkshake, the level of ‘filth’ in terms of ageist comments that I witnessed about Vince Cable truly shocked me.  Comment, after comment (a torrent) about his physical appearance, his sanitary habits, possible disabilities, the likely onset of dementia – if this is what social media has made possible, or encouraged for our politics, it hurts.  Secondly, we had a police helicopter hover over our street for an hour or so in the middle of the night, which, it transpires, enabled officers to successfully conclude an operation.  All that a local Facebook community group site encouraged local people do was to pile in with hundreds of ill-informed comments, and criticism for the noise the Police made, and how it kept them awake.  I really began to question whether I was living in the same world as some of these people. What was the point?

As Callum McAllister notes in the review of ‘Lanny‘ on ‘The Millions’, writing about the nature of childhood and humanity pointed to in the book, “At one point, Jolie [Lanny’s mother] sees this ‘and she realises their life at home, his time at school, what she thought of as his real existence, was only a place he visited.’  It’s a line that could only have been written by a parent: that realization that something you thought of as entirely yours is an independent being.  That your children exist when you are not there.  That they have a life beyond you.  That for them, as for everyone, they are the absolute centre of their own existence.”

“Porter extends this idea to the village at large but conveys it in the exact opposite way.  He presents it to us, in Dead Papa Toothwort’s all-hearing, typographically experimental prose, as ‘A tapestry of small abuses, fights and littering, lake-loads of unready chemicals piped into my water bed, green and decline, preaching teaching crying dying and walking the fucking dogs, breeding and needing and working.”

“By giving us this stream of unfiltered human self-involvement, Porter shows us the nature of a village as a microcosm of human society, and he shows how difficult it is for people to live with one another.  The existence of characters – such as Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwort – who seem more attuned to the world, suggests that there may be a way out.  Lanny’s character in particular implies that while self-centeredness is intrinsically human, it’s not an inescapable part of the human condition – maybe something learned rather than innate.  Early in the novel, Mad Pete gestures towards it: ‘Maybe it’s just Lanny taking things from whenever he’s been listening, soaking up the sounds of this world and spinning out threads of another.”

“Max Porter’s Lanny is an attempt to capture a village, entirely in language, and it does so by trying to represent the village’s breadth of narrative voices.  It’s an ultimately empathetic, even humanist project.  But its representation isn’t always positive.  People are human.  They’re unsympathetic, rude, racist, ungenerous, speculative.  They beat up pensioners and make false accusations and invite hysteria and sensationalism.  They can be judgemental neighbours or maybe self aggrandising, polluters or gardeners.  But in the act of reading, we’re made a mute witness to them.  Like Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwort, or Porter himself, we are made active, careful listeners.  In doing so, we give them space to speak.  We can’t live each other’s experience.  But we can start by listening to them.” (Callum McAllister , “The Choir of Man: Max Porter’s Lanny Wants You To Listen” – The Millions, 25/03/19)

Listen – the sequoia tree at St. Mary’s Church, Eversley, Hampshire.

We have forgotten what it means to be human.  It does not mean rejecting technology, but it does mean using it in a more savvy fashion – and using it in tandem with the physical and human infrastructure around us – people and places.  Not only will it improve the nature and effectiveness of our everyday discourse, it might also ensure we save ourselves from systems failure.  It certainly means we start listening to each other much more, rather than shouting at each other, or talking about each other in an ill-informed fashion for no particular reason other than to show-off or to entertain.

As Harris notes in her review, “Porter is telling stories that link the immediate crises of individual lives with ancient, ageless currents of feeling and experience.”  As I was focusing, reading the book, this was certainly something I was feeling.

And as Harris concludes, “The novel, though short, is optimistically intent on evoking forms of growth that capaciously accommodate all manner of personal trials and English emergencies, cumulatively making a kind of peace.”

Despite all the darkness and noise out there, and the twists and turns of the book, reading “Lanny” gave me a sense of hope.

 

 

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Campaign: Keeping the Sainsbury’s bus

I wanted to document what we have done so far to successfully campaign to maintain an important community resource. Having been a public relations practitioner, I felt it important to reflect on the steps we had taken. Taking a wider view, I was just so thoroughly depressed on what was happening on the Westminster stage with our European relations, it felt appropriate to concentrate on real issues, which effect real people locally.

Each day of the week, Sainsbury’s provide a free community (shopper’s) bus, serving a different destination on each day, taking residents to and from their Watchmoor Park superstore, on the Blackwater Valley trunk road. It is in the borough of Surrey Heath, but is right on the border with Hampshire and Berkshire. The service is contracted to Stagecoach.

Many of the group on the Thursday bus, on what we thought was our last trip!

The service is amazing. It serves areas like (I think) Mytchett, Ash Vale, North Camp and Frimley Green (Mondays); Church Crookham and Fleet (Tuesdays); Sandhurst, Owlsmoor, Old Dean and Heatherside (Wednesdays); Yateley, Darby Green, Frogmore, Blackwater, plus Frimley Road and Yorktown (Thursday); and Hawley Lane, Cove and Southwood (Fridays). One of the only problems with the service is that it is not promoted. There are no details anywhere either at at the store, or on noticeboards, and nothing on the internet.  When you rang up for details, Sainsbury’s refer you to Stagecoach, and Stagecoach refer you to Sainsbury’s. It’s as if the service is Sainsbury’s ‘dirty little secret’.  So much so, that a couple of years ago, as a group of passengers, we produced our own flyer to promote the service in Yateley, which to their credit, Stagecoach paid for printing, and Yateley Town Council put on all their noticeboards.

In mid-October 2018, the driver told us the service was ending in the week beginning 5th November. The sense of distress was palpable. The group of twenty or so people who use the service on a Thursday from the towns of Yateley, Frogmore, Darby Green and Blackwater are totally reliant on the service. Many do not live on other bus routes, some are disabled and most are not on the internet. Many live alone, and otherwise would be isolated without the service, which takes customers back to their doors with their shopping where possible.

Anger was not enough. It was important to get to the heart of the issue, and where power lay. Word went round the bus that someone remembered back in the midsts of time that they thought Sainsbury’s were obligated to provide the service as a condition of obtaining the original planning permission for the store.

Rather than letting emotion get the better of us, I wanted to find out how I would discover if this was true.  I looked at the various planning decisions connected with the store, listed on the council website.  There was not enough information there – an indication that the store were required to produce a ‘travel plan’, not when the store was originally conceived in 1987, or built in 1992, but much more recently in 2004, when it received planning permission for a store extension.

Meeting the county councillor for Yateley East & Blackwater, Adrian Collett (left). Not sure why I look so stoney faced!

As it was a transport issue, I sought advice and counsel from my own local county councillor over the bridge in Hampshire, Adrian Collett.  He gave me the confidence to approach Surrey Heath, who were very happy to allow me access to all the planning documents in the archive, associated with the planning decision (Ref. 02/1126) – hundreds of pages of them!

As the paperwork demonstrated – and the officers who I followed it up with confirmed, there was indeed a planning condition on the development in the form of a Section 106 Agreement, which meant the store could only open, if it would continue to provide, and extend a free bus service to shoppers in the surrounding local community. One of the central issues was that the store cannot be reached by public transport, and local planning policy is actually to reduce reliance on private cars (even though you might not think it!

Once this was established, it was important to see if there was any chance of a change of heart on Sainsbury’s part.  While Surrey Heath Borough Council looked into the enforceability of the planning condition on a legal basis, they also engaged with Sainsbury’s. I made sure that information was also communicated back about the situation via the Stagecoach drivers, and on a personal level, sent an email to the local Sainsbury’s manager, asking him to suspend the axing of the service, since the enquiries about the enforceability of this planning condition were now going ahead.

It was also important to keep our community informed, but not be loud for the sake of it.  Posts were made regularly via the over 17,500 strong ‘Yateley CommunityFacebook group, which included photos of the regulars on the bus.  This helped mobilise strong community support, and word-of-mouth solidarity throughout the town.

The woeful late leaflet.

When no response came, it became clear that we had to reach out, so that the reputational damage threat was clear, as well as the potential legal enforcement. In what we thought was the final week of the bus, things really started to crank up.  By the Tuesday of that week, Sainsbury’s were getting the drivers of the bus to hand out the above leaflet – it was woeful. Not only was it late in the day, it was misleading. The headline said ‘Changes to your free bus service’ when actually it was AXING it. It went on to imply that there was a replacement service, when it was merely referring people to a ‘Dial-A-Ride’ service which Sainsbury’s do not fund, and to which shoppers from over the border in Hampshire and Berkshire would not be able to use. It also says that the ‘replacement’ service is for people ‘who have no access to bus routes’, when the real issue is that it is Sainsbury’s that is not on a bus route!!

Heartfelt cards from passengers on the bus.

The campaign continued to hot up. There had to be a way of people feeling involved, but there was little point of a petition at this stage. We each decided to send greetings cards to the manager of the store. It meant we were able to make the issue a real human one, and give it a personal touch.

Originally, we were going to send ‘Goodbye, We’ll Miss You‘ and ‘Sorry You’re Leaving Us…. Standing At The Bus Stop‘ cards, but the news of a 20% increase in Sainsbury’s profits on the day of what was due to be our last bus gave us an additional hook. Some also sent “Congratulations on your 20% Rise in Profits Today” cards too. All shoppers made sure we were considered as human collateral.

As well as this, I shared the story and photos of our group on the bus on Twitter. I was overwhelmed by the response. Broadcaster Nicky Campbell, and influential tweeter James Melville were amongst those who backed our cause (between them having over 231k followers alone!). The careful wording of the tweet meant that even Stagecoach ‘liked’ it, adding to its impact. We received a substantial number of Re-Tweets, helping us secure over 18,000 impressions for the post. The local Hants & Surrey Bus blogger picked up the story too. I had primed the local print newspaper to be across the story, but was being careful not to make too much noise for noise’s sake, despite obvious pressure from other passengers to approach local newspapers, and regional TV and radio.

The priority was always to get Sainsbury’s to ‘do the right thing‘ – and late in the day on Friday afternoon, I was called by one of the drivers, to say that Sainsbury’s were having a change of heart, and had made money available to continue the service until at least February. The threat of legal enforcement, and the growing clamour of damage to reputation in the local community must have been taking their toll.

Loyal customer – it’s just my neurological condition means I can’t otherwise get to the inaccesible store without a driving licence.

So, despite much skepticism (including on my part), the bus is still with us – a campaign success for the regulars on the bus.  I cannot tell you the difference it makes to the lives of the people on that bus – it is such a lifeline.  It remains to be seen if it will be permanent.

We must maintain vigilance. Hopefully, something can be resolved, and Sainsbury’s will see how it improves their standing in the community, but also ultimately, how it contributes to their bottom line (I don’t see how any assessment is made of how much we spend in the store, versus the cost of running the service) – and still, above all of this, it is a civic obligation, irrespective of the enforceability of a planning condition, which was clearly written to be enforceable for as long as people shopped at the store – unless Sainsbury’s applied through due process for the service obligation to be modified.

However, that reprieve may only be temporary. It still seems more than likely that legal advice to the Council or Sainsbury’s is that the Section 106 agreement may be unenforceable, as it did not specify a time-frame as originally drafted, even if it was intended to be for as long as the store traded! Hopefully, Sainsbury’s will follow the spirit of the legal agreement, especially if usage demonstrates community need, and to do otherwise would dent reputations – not to mention the threat of enforcement still remaining.

One improvement for now is that, in updating passengers about the situation, Stagecoach have put the timetable for the service on their website! You can find details by clicking here (still buried away a little, usually in Service Updates, but at least it is there). It also informs us that while the service continues to run “usage will be reviewed by Sainsbury’s“.  That means everyone must do all they can to ensure people know about the existence of the service, so that it can be as well used as the Yateley route on a Thursday – and hopefully the bus can continue beyond February!

There’s still some room on top for this service!  Thank you for your support.

[Postcript – throughout this period, an amazing level of service from the officers of Surrey Heath Borough Council; great relationships built with people at Stagecoach – but when it comes to the main players, Sainsbury’s, I can’t even get a reply to an extremely personal, heartfelt and diplomatic email, despite the fact that I spend £000s in their store each year. As a loyal customer for decades (and a PR practitioner), that makes me feel sad.]

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