Futurecomms15: PR’s Stockdale Paradox

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Anyone that knows me, knows I love a good argument. At times this indulgence really frustrates my wife but those that have worked with me closely over the years have come to see that healthy debate stimulates and creates progress and change. Well last week I had the pleasure of chairing Mynewsdesk’s Futurecomms15 in London and the outcome was a good argument. I am tired of events that are just filled 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 am 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 but more importantly between key individuals in the UK PR industry in the networking breaks.

Despite the “Death of…” titles in many of the presentations 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… it is in safe hands.

However what was really interesting to me was seeing the different ways this talent was 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 identified 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.”


“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

What is so exciting to me is that all the talented individuals that 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.

Other coverage of Futurecomms15

What did Futurecomms15 mean for this year’s graduating students? – by Laura Richards

Futurecomms15: You can’t handle the truth – Paul Sutton

7 insights on the future of PR from Future Comms 15 – Stephen Waddington

PESO: Please Evolve Soon OK? – John Brown

Paid: A Must not a Maybe for PR – Danny Whatmough

A tetchy Future Comms moves on from the past – eventually – Rob Smith’

Conclusions from FutureComms – Sarah Pinch

FutureComms15 felt like dipping in to a bag of allsorts – Alissia Knight


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