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Futurecomms15: PR’s Stockdale Paradox

Blog post   •   Jun 23, 2015 10:48 BST

Over the years I've come to see that healthy debate stimulates progress and change. On Thursday 18th June, I had the pleasure of chairing Mynewsdesk’s FutureComms15 at The Crystal, London.  

I've grown so tired of events that are full of corporate case studies and self congratulatory awards. I guess there is a place for those type of events but this was certainly not one of them...

I'm not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of the event, too many good ones have already been written (see below) but what I wanted to write about was the two differing points of view that emerged from conversations on the twitter hashtag #FC15, and perhaps more importantly between key individuals in the UK PR industry during the networking breaks.

Despite the many “Death of…” titles, everyone, in my opinion, agreed that the PR industry is evolving and going through a period of exciting change. A PESO envisioned future where collaboration and learning across marketing and digital disciplines is necessary for this change to evolve was my main take-away of the day. It was really encouraging to see what forward thinking talent the industry has. Trust me, it's in safe hands.

What was really interesting to me, however, was seeing the different ways this talent is approaching this exciting opportunity and change. Here I believe we should look towards the work of management and leadership guru Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. One of the elements he identifies in all great organisations and their leaders was the ability to “confront the brutal facts” whilst still retaining faith that they would prevail in the end. This was labelled the Stockdale paradox, after Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking US army officer to inhabit and survive the Hanoi Hilton at the height of the Vietnam war. Imprisoned over 8 years (1965-1973) and tortured over 20 times Stockdale survived whilst many of his peers perished. When asked who didn’t survive his response was simple, “… oh those were the optimists.”

What is so exciting to me is that all the talented individuals I know in the PR industry are aware and are addressing the brutal facts without obsessing over them. The challenges such as talent, the blurring of disciplines, technology drivers, diversity and the data measurement opportunity of outcomes over outputs are all being addressed by the communications professionals who will survive and thrive going forward.

However, with an industry whose fee income has grown by 25% over the last three years, whose employee numbers have swelled by 33% and where in the US a public relations professional earns on average four times that of a journalist it is challenging sometimes for some individuals to address the brutal facts. Also a key takeaway from the event was a much needed dose of humility in an industry full of - let’s just say - confident egos.

I accept that the ability to see reality and take an optimistic view are not mutually exclusive but I hope more in the industry do not fall into the simplistic “optimists” group. Just be aware of the challenges and produce great work. The future of communications for me has and always will be based on creativity, relationships and achieving demonstrable ROI against business objectives.