Public Engagement, the Decline of Advertising, and Communications Companies of the Future

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The new space we are calling Public Engagement is where Digital, Trust and Media collide. As we have seen, this is where Corporate Reputation and Brand converge. This is where, in Communications terms, Citizenship finally supplants Consumerism as we know it – and only those sympathetic to the rigorous demands of the Citizen Renaissance, the Conversation Economy and the reality of Public Engagement can legitimately deliver.

The new space we are calling Public Engagement is where Digital, Trust and Media collide.

Advertising agencies, historically, have been no good at conversation, relying instead on an ad. spot to tell and sell their story. They were outed by Al & Laura Ries in their seminal 2002 book, The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR, which argued, quite simply, that advertising lacks credibility. More recent attempts at interactivity have rarely appeared better than clumsy, while the Public Information Film is usually as close as ad. agencies will ever get to Government engagement. For the advertisers, NGOs are only ever badged or bought, not properly engaged; there is no sense of how to tie together analysts and investors, shareholders and Consumers.

Indeed, just as the ad. agencies are rooted in monologue, so they are also effectively trapped within the Sphere. They can speak but they cannot engage. It’s a paralysis of sorts. (In a recent conversation with the Campaigns Director of a leading NGO, he confirmed the shift from lobbying Governments towards lobbying the Investor community – evidence of the new Sphere of work.)

“To gain Trust, brands can no longer be shields. They have to be open and transparent and shown to care”, Matt Haig in Brand Royalty

Digital and Media Agencies and Management Consultancies fare no better. The former struggle to move beyond Channel strategies (and still look for compelling, conversational content); the latter can identify the process (and sell you many process charts at hugely inflated rates) but again have no idea where to start with content or how to build a conversation. Both also find themselves stranded within the Sphere of Public Engagement – incomplete souls forever confined to wander in brand/marketing/conversational purgatory until or unless they re-shape or add significantly to their current skill sets. Strategic insight alone is simply not enough in an age of conversation, social networks and engaged communities. “To gain Trust”, writes Matt Haig in Brand Royalty, “brands can no longer be shields. They have to be open and transparent and shown to care”. This is why PR, maybe by accident, has suddenly found itself in the ascendant. Public Relations – as it evolves into this higher form of Public Engagement – can guide and deliver this journey, whereas others simply cannot.

We would not want to suggest that PR has always got things right – and indeed many will most likely continue to view the discipline with cynicism. But, as we will show, we feel it is possible and indeed crucial that PR evolves into a new, more responsive and more responsible role.

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Citizen Renaissance was conceived by Jules Peck and Robert Phillips in the spring of 2008 – on the eve of the global economic crisis and before The Big Society had really seen the light of day. Originally published as a wiki, Citizen Renaissance explores the collision of the three seismic shifts of our time: the perfect storm surrounding Climate Change; the Wellbeing Imperative; and the axiomatic rise of Digital Democracy. At its heart lies a call for more citizen-centric thinking and behaviour and an end to the global imbalance of Wants & Needs. Citizen Renaissance continues today as a forum for thought; a platform for the exchange of ideas; and as a collaborative project that seeks to develop a Manifesto for Change.
Jules Peck was Director of David Cameron’s Quality of Life Policy Group, advising the Conservative Party on wellbeing and environment issues.
Robert Phillips is a Writer and Thinker. He was previously President & CEO, EMEA, of Edelman, the world’s largest Public Relations firm. Although a committed workaholic and Manchester United fan, Robert is still determined to change the world in his spare time.
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