Trust is not a message, it’s an outcome: the lesson for leaders from a defector from PR

By Martin Vogel

Trust is an outcome.

In Trust Me, PR is Dead, Robert Phillips has ostensibly written a book on the bankruptcy of public relations. It’s more interesting, though, as an insider’s guide to the bankruptcy of much corporate leadership – and, more importantly, a cogent call to arms for leadership that can inspire trust. I say “call to arms” since this is not a manual for leaders of the kind that sells at airport bookstands. It’s more a citizens’ manifesto – stirring us from neoliberal slumber so that we may realise our distributed leadership and haul conventional corporate leaders into the service of a fairer form of capitalism. It’s a foretaste of how leadership must surely evolve to meet the challenges of our more transparent, networked society and the expectations of the Millennial generation who will soon inherit the workforce.

This would be an interesting argument by any standards. It’s all the more remarkable when one considers that the author is the former Europe, Middle East and Africa CEO of the world’s largest PR agency, Edelman. He quit his job following a Damascene appreciation of the futility of trying to spin positive messages out of poor corporate practice. His thesis stands as a challenge to the identikit values statements of glib corporations who proclaim their trustworthiness while variously: bringing down the economy through sub-prime mortgage dealing; hacking people’s phones in the pursuit of competitive advantage in the newspaper market; or causing the deaths of hospital patients for whom they are supposed to be caring. Trust, Phillips tells us, is not a value that leaders can simply invoke. It is an attribute that is earned through sustained corporate citizenship. Or, more succinctly, “Trust is not a message. It is an outcome.”

Let me declare an interest: I am one of the crowd-funders of this book. When we were founding Vogel Wakefield, we were introduced to Robert Phillips as someone who shared our interest in public value and we have compared notes ever since. In his book, he builds on the notion of public value to develop the concept of public leadership: the kind of leadership which ensures organisations deliver value to society – alongside whatever profits they create. He counter-poses it to the kind of hierarchical, top-down leadership that has for the past thirty years been focussed solely on shareholder value:

“This new model is activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first. It is social, because it is of and among real people, and democratic, because it gives voice to all. At its most fundamental level, Public Leadership returns “purpose” to the core of business. And “purpose” has a clear moral and ethical dimension.”

Like many a writer before him who has proposed a modest adjustment to the workings of capitalism, he anticipates the objections of market fundamentalists and feels the need to declare his comfort with the profit motive:

“Profit is compatible with a trusted and ethical organisation. Profit is not a dirty word, but sustainable profit optimisation is better than profit maximisation. It’s about being fair and proportionate.”

His argument is borne of a careful reading of public sentiment since the financial crash – the well-rehearsed collapse in trust in business which Edelman has tracked. This – combined with the radical holding to account of organisations by social media activists and whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden – leads Phillips to conclude that the game is up for traditional corporate leadership:

“People will not allow institutions to return to bad old ways once the crisis is over. We should not fear more regulation but think instead about a popular uprising against those who are not prepared to change their models.”

This is an analysis I mostly share, though not as strongly as I used to. Certainly, the uprisings will come. But where they have surfaced, they have been suppressed – sometimes brutally. Look, for example, at Greece, where the democratic mandate for an alternative to austerity collapsed before Germany’s conflicting mandate for a limit on bailouts. The institutions are powerful and create powerful incentives for their leaders to hold to “bad old ways”. So powerful are these incentives, that Britain’s Labour movement is literally unable to conceive a modest social democratic recasting of policy. In its leadership election, it was thus riven between those who can espouse only accommodation with the orthodoxy of the last decades and those, now in the ascendant, who dwell in the radical oppositionalism of the sectional left. Phillips, writing ahead of these events, makes concessions to my ambivalence:

“The problem is that idealism has been crushed by a society that prefers wants to needs and opts for selfishness over generosity. This collective disembowelment of idealism is closely linked to a failure to win the case for social democracy in the past 40 years – creating an intellectual vacuum that has been filled by a posse of market fundamentalists and libertarians.”

Here Phillips arrives at a political analysis which – this being a book about PR – is beyond the scope of his text to develop. But the market fundamentalism to which he refers is central to this discussion because it shapes the leadership ethos that pervades our organisations. However necessary the correction towards a more market oriented economics might have been in the 1970s, it has now proceeded to the point where unfettered corporate power has become as a much threat to society as was the trade union power that preceded it. As my friend, Dick Pountain, has described, social democracy’s role historically was to create an armistice between these competing interests – which makes its revival more than a matter of passing political interest:

It’s indispensable for the survival of the human species. The alternative of state socialism was tested to total destruction by history (and let’s waste no more time on all that sectarian bullshit about “actually existing socialism” versus “deformed state capitalism” and the rest). The alternative of totally free markets is about to be tested to destruction right now, but this time the destruction will affect most lifeforms on the planet through increasing ecological catastrophes, through mass migrations, through financial meltdown and universal impoverishment. Social democracy on a world scale is the only imaginable way that the necessary regulation can be applied to steer capitalism back toward sustainable progress, and reverse the defection of a tiny super-rich minority at everyone else’s expense. Social democracy really is just an armistice, and the result of breaking it won’t be some kind of benign anarchistic cooperation but rather an epidemic of terrible new forms of authoritarianism and mayhem. If there’s any role left for social-democratic parties in this changed world, it can only be as honest referees of the armistice.”

If the odds seem stacked against a fairer capitalism, what makes Robert Phillips discernment of a new leadership ethos compelling is his argument that, however powerful are the institutions of the old status quo, their leaders are no longer really in control. The complicated but ordered world of the late 20th Century has given way in the 21st to one characterised by a complexity that defies control. The technological drive towards radical transparency that Phillips describes underwrites what he calls “a mega-trend of individual empowerment” that in turn creates activists of us all. Critically, the Millennial generation who have grown up in this environment, are not willing to play the old corporate game:

“Millennials want to be engaged, not lead. This presents an explicit challenge to organisational leaders. This challenge will become more acute as the number of baby boomers decreases and the relative proportion of millennials grows. This inexorable shift in power and prevailing social attitudes will drive a concomitant shift in the nature of work itself as we see the established pillars of authority, hierarchy and leadership giving way to democracy, networked activity and self organisation… Traditional theories of leadership are simply not appropriate in this complex and chaotic context. We are seeing a dying breed of charismatic leaders being replaced by the new generation of ‘horizontal’ leaders, who understand that participation and freedom is more important than control.”

One of the refreshing things in this book is that the examples Phillips offers of commercially successful companies working with the grain of change are not those normally encountered in the roll call of next-stage organisations. He refers to Tata of India and Novo and Handelsbanken of Scandinavia. Also, he advises those companies that can’t align their behaviour behind the good life to “Accept that you are in fact an asshole brand. Stop promising one thing and doing another.”

And there, in its simplicity, is his lesson for leaders today. Wake up and get with the agenda for change – which will surely hit you eventually, either peaceably or otherwise – or acknowledge that you are part of the old world and quit trying to prettify the ugly. The change is already upon us; it just isn’t fully formed. We are in an interregnum, a struggle for power. Unless leaders themselves start acting in ways that demonstrate that they get Millennial aspirations, things will get more unpleasant for everyone before they get better. One thing is sure though: the settlement of the last thirty years has now failed. When things fail they eventually get swept aside. What follows will be either more authoritarian or more social democratic. Every leader has a part to play in shaping how that choice turns out.

Trust Me, PR is Dead, by Robert Phillips. Available from Amazon.

Image courtesy US Geological Survey.