Varnish: this is what Sir Martin Sorrell thinks of Public Relations. Great news..really great news..

At WPP, we have never seen responsible corporate behaviour as a coat of public relations varnish

From Sir Martin Sorrell’s opening letter of the 2005 WPP Corporate Social Responsibility Report

So, the CEO of world’s largest communication conglomerate, which incorporates ‘la crème de la crème’ of public relations consultancies around the world, describes his opinion of our profession: varnish.

No words….
Maybe it would be useful if the CEO’s of the many H&K’s and B-M’s which form the roster of the conglomerate’s pr firms and contribute to his personal well-being, demanded a public apology. After all, if even the Pope was induced to apologise to the Islamics , why shouldn’t Sorrell apologise to the 3 million pr professionals around the world????


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8 Replies to “Varnish: this is what Sir Martin Sorrell thinks of Public Relations. Great news..really great news..

  1. Friends,
    at this point I really begin to wonder.
    Sylvia makes a point when she says that the wording is ‘disarming’ and indicates a (more than acceptable, otherwise welcome..) critical view of the profession.
    I tend to agree with this point of view…only I ask myself if ‘disarming’ is a term which best describes what instead Joao, having taken a critical look at the text of the report indicates simply as ‘bad ghost writing’.
    Don’t really know and, at this point, don’t really care that much either…
    Maybe I did ‘jump the gun’ as Jean writes; maybe I did ‘misinterpret’ as Adrian says…at the end it still surprises me that the head of the world’s largest communication group and owner of many of the world’s largest public relations consultancies would leave such a possibility of misunderstanding so widely open…

  2. Toni,

    Trying to better understand the content of the Report, I went on to read it. It is indeed a very interesting document, but this message from the president is probably the weakest part of the report. So even if, as some have said, the statement you comment is not that clear, the truth is that the text has some mistakes. (even if, as I do hope, this is just an unfortunate case of not so good ghost-writing)

    For example, the text relates the rise of CSR with corporations’ growth “in size and influence” and with the massive “recognition of our planet’s huge and fast impending issues”. According to the text, these two developments are recent (“Today, two great developments have made change inevitable”) but I’m sure you can remember many episodes from Public Relations history which we have helped corporations to include other ends besides profit for shareholders and to incorporate broader preoccupations with many different publics.

    On the other hand, the text leaves it very clear that the official position is that multinational companies are as strong as many states of the countries in which they operate. However, the idea is not that companies should use this enormous power with great responsibility, but that “If our planet’s problems are to be contained (…) (these companies) will need to play a great and growing part.” And, quoting the British Insurers Association, it also emphasises that the question in CSR is not about what companies do with their money, but how they do their money. (Isn’t this a contradition? Companies like WPP claim a public power in solving the world’s problems, but then they don’t seem to want to be bothered by public scrutiny regarding how they spend their money…)

    And when it mentions PR, the text stresses that CSR is a business imperative because stakeholders (the public, comentators, the media and governments) expectations have turned CSR from a “voluntary and often reluctant add-on to a central prerequisite for market sucess”. So, it clearly assumes that CSR is no longer a voluntary and willingful initiative from companies but an obligation imposed by the market. I don’t know if you agree, but I think that’s a very bad image for a CSR report from a group such as the WPP…

  3. I doubt very much that the opening letter wasn’t carefully crafted; quite the opposite I imagine.

    I was intrigued by his choice of words and certainly wasn’t offended. I also didn’t consider his statement ambiguous in any way. Instead I was impressed with the frank approach which I thought was rather disarming.

    By referring to a “coat of public relations varnish” he leaves me with the impression that he’s not beyond critically examining his own industry. I for one applaud him for not beating around the bush.

    Best regards

  4. Toni, I think you jumped the gun on this one! I do not see his choice of words as denigrating the profession.

  5. I wonder how is it possibile that someone who’s profession is communication and that uses words as the basis of his work do not use them in a proper and not ambiguous way 🙂
    A freudian lapsus… i guess 🙂
    By the way, there is something true: many times communication (advertisign, public relations or wathever you want) is only varnish used to hide unaccettable realities.
    And… Toni… I do not think that someone should apologize for his opinion…

  6. You could well be right Adrian, and if this is so, it is I who will apologise….
    I have met Martin Sorrell in various occasions and discussed public relations with him, and was therefore shocked and surprised by the words I read under his name in the WPP CSR report.
    What you define as \’slightly ambiguous syntax\’, in these days of pr bashing from all directions, may also be interpreted by many as \’here, you see, even your industry mogul views public relations as a quick fix cover up…so why complain about me?….\’.
    Can we just settle for…bad public relations and a maldester faux pas by whom you define as \’head and shoulders above that of his rivals in the communication industry\’?
    thank you for your attention …

    for those who do not know Adrian was, until some time ago, the head of GCI Europe, a major international pr company and is now a freelance consultant. 

  7. No apology needed – you have misunderstood the syntax, which could – admittedly – have been less ambiguous.

    Sir M is using ‘varnish’ as the term of opprobrium, with ‘public relations’ as its qualifier. He might equally have used ‘hokum’ as the term, with ‘advertising’ as its qualifier. That would not mean – either – that WPP thinks advertising is hokum.

    It’s absurd to suggest that WPP thinks that PR is superficial. The opposite is the case, as WPP’s acquisitions demonstrate.

    You are also attacking someone whose grasp of public relations, whatever you think of his firm, is head and shoulders above that of his rivals in the communications industry.

    I do not work for WPP or anyone else apart from myself.

    Best wishes,

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