Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, the biggest ad/PR conglomerate, has emerged as PR’s No. 1 spokesperson, a role that has been abdicated by leaders and staff of what should be PR’s most visible booster—PR Society of America.
The Sorrell style—regularly engaging in free-wheeling banter with the press—is the opposite of that of PRS elected leaders and president Bill Murray who don’t even present themselves to rank-and-file members for questioning and who are currently enforcing a PR trade press boycott.
PRS’s last press conference was in 1993.
WPP has a special duty to take a close look at PRS because Mickey Nall, the head of its Atlanta office, is 2012 chair-elect and WPP PR units have at least 95 members of PRS including 43 at Hill & Knowlton. This gives WPP “clout” with the Society.
H&K PRS members include executive VPs Claire Koeneman and Hope Boonshaft, executive managing director Harold Costello, and five senior VPs—James Cox, Jennifer Lee Eidson, Heather McNamara, Jennifer Temple and Phyllis Tucker.
Burson-Marsteller has 19 members including chair Harold Burson; U.S. PA practice chair Michael Lake, and directors Michael Bleiberg, Jeffrey Krakoff, David Rosen, Susannah Wesley, Mary Ritti and Jenifer Sarver.
Ogilvy has 13 PRS members; Cohn & Wolfe, 11, and Public Strategies, 9.
Sorrell: Future of PR “Bright”
Sorrell, who released a statement Dec. 1 that “The future of PR and PA is bright and different and better than at any time in the past,” in that same statement championed the value of “third party endorsement,” words that almost never appear in U.S. PR literature.
“If we can get someone to write or say something good in editorial content, particularly in a trusted newspaper or magazine or on a respected TV channel, this will be more effective than placing a paid-for ad next to the content,” said the Sorrell statement.
He’s dubious about the value of “social media,” a topic that is the subject of endless webinars/seminars in the U.S.
“There are questions,” he wrote, “about whether social networks are effective in delivering commercial messages. Do friends or fans appreciate commercial intrusion when they are effectively writing modern-form letters to their friends or fans?”
Credibility Is PR’s Problem
Another problem with PR and SM is that PR has virtually no credibility among consumers.
That was established by the “Credibility Index” study published in 1999 after three years of planning and two years of field work among 2,500 members of the public. About 5,000 pages of materials were created. Professors from Harvard and Columbia Universities were key players and head of the study was Ronald Hinckley, Ph.D., formerly with the National Security Council. The PRS and Rockefeller Foundations donated $150,000 to fund the study that found “PR specialist” ranked 43rd on a list of 45 believable information sources.
In hindsight, it’s a study that never should have been made. PR pros had long before positioned themselves as “advocates” and anything from an advocate is going to be taken with a grain of salt.
Advertising people did not rate at all in the study, as one PR pro pointed out.
PR can bring attention to a subject but today’s consumer will prowl the web looking for what all sorts of experts say. Wikipedia and other sources will be explored. Whatever people are saying to each other on social media will be no match for expert opinions found on the web. Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., often serve as tip sheets for knowledgeable articles.
Study Devastated PRS; PR Staff Lacking
Leaders and staff of PRS, instead of mounting a campaign to show that PR can be responsive to the press and public, lapsed into shock.
No Society publication ever printed the table of 45 nor were PR Newswire or Businesswire used to announce the results.
The 1999 board, headed by Sam Waltz, announced a month before the study was released (just before the July 4 break) that O’Dwyer reporters were taking up too much staff time with questions and leaders and staff would no longer answer them.
There was only one PR person on the staff of 40+—PR director Richard George. Patrick Jackson, 1980 president who led the revolt against New York dominance, had decreed that staff should be almost 100% association professionals. His press policy (“duck ‘em and screw ‘em”) also continues to be followed.
Betsy Kovacs, XVP from 1980-94, only employed one experienced PR pro during her term, Donna Peltier, who worked from 1984-94. It took Kovacs four years to appoint Peltier. She was not allowed to lunch with reporters without Kovacs present. We had three such lunches in the ten years.
PRS: Hospital without Doctors
PRS, hung out to dry by its own study, had virtually no one to counteract it. Waltz headed a small PR firm.
In addition to the Credibility study, George was hit with three other major negatives about which he could do little or nothing.
The College of Fellows published in August 1999 a two-year study of 16 PR executive recruiters that found that APR had virtually no impact in the job market and was even “a negative,” had “no relevance,” or was “a sign of naivete.”
The O’Dwyer Co. reported in detail charges of the Exterior Insulation Finishing Systems industry (EIFS) that the firm of PRS treasurer Lee Duffey was engaged in a negative campaign bankrolled by the brick industry that employed a front group called the Stucco Home Owners Coalition.
Such charges had enough documentation that the nominating committee of PRS decided not to nominate Duffey as chair-elect although the six previous treasurers had automatically moved up to that post.
With normal succession thrown into a tizzy, PRS then took the unprecedented step of nominating two members who were not even on the board—Kathy Lewton as chair-elect and Michael McDermott as treasurer. Lewton defeated Duffey who opposed her on the Assembly floor and Joann Killeen defeated McDermott by two votes.
The parliamentarian at first said it was an invalid vote because the totals did not add up to a majority and ruled another vote should be taken since several votes were missing. [Four delegates were either not in the room or neglected to vote in the 15 seconds allotted.] This was the first year electronic voting devices were used and they may not have been used properly. However, PRS lawyer Arthur Abelman over-ruled the parliamentarian, saying only a majority of those voting was needed, and Killeen was deemed elected.
George Quits Suddenly
George, facing four negative issues by himself and unable to deal with the O’Dwyer Co. which was covering them in detail, quit in October 1999 just before the national conference.
His predecessor, Steve Erickson, had done the same thing in October 1996. He had only joined PRS in June 1995 but became exasperated with the board’s anti-press policies. He left after a shouting match between him and COO Ray Gaulke and 1996 president Louis Morales witnessed by several members.
Sorrell’s Dec. 1 statement says that “what we call PR and public affairs” totals $1.3 billion or almost 10% of WPP’s $16 billion in revenues.
WPP has a lot of ponies in this horse race and should not stand idle while certain slow horses block the track.
The firm should assign one of its 153,000 employees to visit our offices and explore the history of PRS and its current impact on the field.
At a minimum, PRS should be forced to start employing a large group of PR professionals at h.q. who will have the time to mount a PR for PR campaign.
PRS could have done a lot in 1999 to offset the results of the survey. It could have confessed that the industry had veered too close to being just advertising and other one-way messaging.
It could have opened a midtown New York “PR Information Center” that took questions from the press and public. The Center could serve as a library for use by the public and business people, helping needy businesses to find the right PR firm.
Instead, the Society collapsed into itself, wiping out its Ethics Code in 1999 and creating a new Code with no enforcement capability. The cost was $93,229 in 1999 and $104,018 in 2000, or a total of $197,247. That sum should have gone towards a PR for PR program.
Rosanna Fiske, 2011 chair, has made talking about ethics and diversity the cornerstones of her administration. But these are two of the weakest links in the PRS chain since the Society (90 FTC 324; 1977 FTC LEXIS 49) from its earliest years acted as a “conspiracy” to deprive clients of “free and open competition” in the sale of PR services (barring members from pitching each other’s accounts and forbidding contingency fees) and only two African-Americans have served on its board in 65 years.
Better would be promoting the marketing know-how PR firms have developed in a dozen major specialties (healthcare, tech, etc.) as documented by the O’Dwyer Co.
Reporters Get “Duffed” by Sorrell
The WPP CEO is referred to in the U.K. press as a “straight talker” who does not hesitate to “duff” (rough-up) any reporter who gets too aggressive.
For instance, mediamonkeyblog reported Oct. 28 that Sorrell, “known for his unique style of hijacking interviews by duffing up hacks who may or may not have a valid question,” told a BBC News reporter, “With all due respect, you are talking to your navel” (after the reporters asked whether a recession was imminent).
Reporters have thick skins and can take it. They much prefer being “duffed” to being snubbed.
If Sorrell can engage in repartee with reporters, than so should U.S. PR pros and executives.
Sorrell himself well understands how politics can undermine PR. He spoke eloquently to the Institute of PR in 2008 about the “turf wars” that occur in client companies, saying “You could argue that most of the communication we coordinate for our clients is aimed at internal audiences rather than external ones. To express it a little more brutally, probably the biggest block to progress for our clients is internal politics.”
A glance at PRS reveals that accredited members, many from the South, seized control in the mid-1970s and won’t let anyone else serve on the board or hold office.
Their policies are blatantly anti-press (current boycott), anti-New York (New York chapter ousted from h.q. in 1992 and only one New York annual conference in 23 years), and anti-communications (dissident members allowed little or no space in PRS media; Assembly transcripts withheld since 2005; teleconferences in “listen-only” mode; leaders and staff hiding from members (Murray addressing only two of 110 chapter memberships in five years and 2011 chair Rosanna Fiske addressing only two this year), etc., etc.