In PR we talk about reaching out and cutting through. We craft messaging that will engage that poised and docile mob we call ‘the public’. In 2016 –a year of Trump and Brexit, outrage and division- this pursuit has never seemed harder. The year will be remembered as one where the mighty fell, the great passed on and the rest of us were left scratching our heads in disbelief.
In a time when pollsters are discredited and experts derided, anyone flaunting their future-gazing creds should be treated like a purveyor of quack medicine. Last year, when sensing that 2016 would see the public turn away from experts, I wrote that “our obsession with data has blinded us to intuition and imaginative thinking”- this was the case long before Michael Gove and his Brexiteer comrades dismissed elite opinion. If a lifetime in PR teaches you anything it’s that the direction of the future is almost always found in yesterday’s barely remembered headlines.
No such thing as bad PR
2016 proved remarkably good for those forced to air their dirty laundry. In ‘normal times’ a vicious stand-off between a parliamentary select committee and a louche businessman would have PR disaster written all over it. Not so for 2016 which saw two beasts of industry hurled across burning coals. Yet Mike Ashley and Philip Green have emerged on the other side relatively unscathed. Green still has his knighthood and Ashley finishes the year with an extra £112m in his pocket after selling off Dunlop while also consolidating his hold over Sports Direct.
Bad PR is hardly as toxic as it used to be- both Green and Ashley understood that in the maelstrom of events scandals will blow over. Take the year’s great piece of investigative journalism, the exposure of massive tax avoidance strategies deployed by Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca which brought down a European head of state, implicated the family of the then UK PM and discredited global efforts to address widespread abuses of power by the rich. By the end of the year the story and its aftermath seems to have receded in the fog of news- both fake and real. Even little Panama has moved on, bringing in Bellwether Strategies, the firm that gave us the acceptable face of China for Beijing ’08, to rebrand the country as less about Dickie Roepers swigging their Crème de menthes on their untaxed island getaways and more about their high levels of literacy and eclectic cuisine.
The right to be forgotten –a great source of contention a few years ago when the EU forced Google to comply with the wishes of certain folk with searchable embarrassments- seems esoteric by the end of 2016. Why bother with a high profile and very public battle with a major tech company when you can just populate the internet with rival truths? None of this is new, of course. The stock in trade of tabloids –and their ancestors the Penny Dreadful and the yellow sheets- has been to stretch events to the point of breaking. PR has been a constant collaborator in this mass deception, going back to the days of the great hoaxes of Harry Reichenbach and the early Hollywood publicists (read here for more on that).
The story has always mattered more than the facts. Facts tell you that you are ugly, that you will die, that your pension will be worth less than a Happy Meal. Story, on the other hand, opens up the possibility for something hopeful, for change, for dreaming. If there are any useful takeaways from the post-truth blob that has seemingly gobbled up all intelligent thought it’s that it would be mistaken to simply sneer at those who buy into outlandish and factually-freewheeling stories. Facts are not goods in and of themselves- it’s up to a new generation of thinkers and politician to provide big ideas that will inspire as well as inform. Put this at the top of your 2017 wishlist.
If bad PR isn’t as toxic as it once was, good PR has never been more difficult to maintain in our siloed and congested media ecosystem. Pokemon Go –the augmented reality game that captured half the world- has long receded into a distant memory, underlining just how short-lived the fad spike has become. Meteoric popularity followed by equally dramatic trailing off is nothing new. Numerous studies show that digital living has accelerated the spread and decline of fads- Pokemon is only the most current example of this phenomenon of extreme fleetingness. The miserable decline in our ability to think and reflect has been in the works for decades and was underlined by an alarming stat that our attention spans online are now less than that of a goldfish.
Underlining the fickleness is a hardened cynicism- about our brands, about our politics, about our celebs. All seek our favour by demonstrating their virtues, but few are really worthy of it. What the depressing roll call of famous deaths this year has highlighted is the relative paucity of actual stars in our current glitterati.
In conclusion: buy a bunker
We have an American president who can barely be trusted with a twitter account let alone the nuclear button. The past year has put much into perspective, most of all serving to remind us how inconsequential much of what we fuss about actually is. If PR is to survive in this scary new world we will have to do a lot more than simply massaging client egos with fawning coverage (not that there will ever be a shortage in demand for this). PRs need to be experts in managing images online as well as off- which means a greater understanding of cyber security and knowing who to call in emergencies. PR has to sell itself as a reputation bunker- we need to redefine what it means to manage a brand and personal image in a set of precarious and highly complex environments. To not do this -to sit back like the Ashleys and Greens of the world and hope things blow over- is to let these environments continue to define you.