Mark Westaby
Jul 2, 2020

If we're to make Sorrell eat his words, the PR industry needs to evolve

The furious response from PRs to Sir Martin Sorrell’s comments, branding PR as ‘press releases’, ‘gin-soaked lunches’, ‘analogue’ and not fit for his growing empire, is understandable.

It's tragic that PR should be dismissed as irrelevant by someone with Sorrell's clout, writes Mark Westaby
It's tragic that PR should be dismissed as irrelevant by someone with Sorrell's clout, writes Mark Westaby

I liken Sorrell's comments to someone coming into your home – in this case, PRWeek – and punching you in the face.

At a time when the divide between disciplines has never been more blurred, his comments seem absurd.

Yet, love or loathe him, it is tragic that PR should be dismissed as irrelevant to the comms mix by someone with his clout.

PR elevates advertising into purposeful campaigns; it produces sustenance for social media where PR-led news stories are shared.

It is an integral part of comms, a lynchpin, managing reputations and issues – but then, I am preaching to the converted.

In the sanctity of this space, I ponder rather than wholeheartedly rebut Sorrell’s damning verdict – would it serve us better as an industry to reflect on the motivation behind his words?

After all, he is a canny businessman; and even if you question his relevance in comms today, you must ask yourself whether there is a grain of truth in his comments.

Sorrell is driven by money and, sadly, PR still struggles to demonstrate how it contributes to business outcomes, and specifically sales when part of an integrated campaign.

How can PR show – in terms that senior business people understand – the value of effective crisis comms, the shift in brand value as it adopts a purposeful approach, or the contribution PR makes towards a customer’s journey to purchase by driving search through trusted media content?

Over the past few years Google’s search ranking has tilted considerably in favour of quality editorial content, for the very reason that Google knows consumers trust and rely on it.

Never mind the power of SEO – the source of much of that quality and compelling editorial is PR.

There are some who think PR is just about media relations and they want to know how a piece of coverage will lead to increased sales.

They have no patience for the nuance of PR skills, but simply demand, as literally as Rod Tidwell in the film Jerry Maguire: ‘Show me the money.’

But they do have a point. PR has to demonstrate business value, especially as budgets become even tighter.

Sorrell has no doubt stirred up some commotion in the PR scene, raising his company profile before ducking out and onto the next issue.

Over the past week alone, he has offered an opinion on everything and anything, from bashing internal comms and wading into Facebook’s ‘unethical platform’ debate to discussing China and US trade wars.

Someone in Sorrell’s position is well-placed to comment on these issues. But given his outdated thoughts on our industry, I would humbly suggest he consider PR support to build a rather more coherent thought-leadership programme.

At the same time, the PR industry still has a lot of work to do to prove he needs it.

If we are to make Sorrell eat his words, we need to evolve.

Mark Westaby is director of Metricomm


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