Trusted Advisors: Up Close and Personal with… Ralph Sutton

Many know him only as the international managing partner of our Firm and proud advocate of our profession, but he’s so much more too. He’s a dreamer, a beach bum, a sports fan and, despite currently living in the UK, his heart will always belong to the land down under. As part of our Trusted Advisors series, Ralph Sutton today shares some of his experience, insight and professional journey with NATIONAL’s web editor and content manager.

Ralph, what is the biggest misconception that clients have about your profession?

I recently heard an interesting quote by a British journalist, who said: “The first rule of PR is that everyone hates PR.” As an industry, I think that we do have a challenge. People perceive PR professionals as consultants who help clients spin bad news but the reality is that what we do is important. Our role is to educate and engage clients with their publics, and do so in an honest and increasingly transparent way. Our industry hasn’t done a good job explaining what our role is. Far from being people who spin bad stories, we act as the conscience of our clients and bring them that outside perspective to make sure that they establish an open communication with people. That’s how we provide good advice, and that’s how they get good results.

Do you think the expression “spin doctors” has harmed the profession?

The word “spin” has done a lot of damage for our industry but I also think that the term “public relations” is quite tarnished. I don’t use it often myself. Many people automatically distrust the word “PR”, but are very comfortable with the word “communications”.

As digital continues to grow exponentially, how has it changed the nature of reputation management?

I believe that there is now a much better understanding of the importance of reputation management, and a lot of that has to do with digital. With social media driving the change, there’s a greater understanding of the immediacy and very condensed timelines associated with reputation management. Ten years ago, a story in one country could reach the world the next day. Now, it happens within minutes. Social media have created a huge degree of scrutiny for organizations, who have to deal with and constantly monitor audiences they didn’t even know they had. Very few organizations are equipped to do that and many struggle to get their heads around how to manage their reputation in such an environment. The way they first respond on social media, especially during a crisis, has never been so important.

So knowing how and when to react can be just as important as knowing when not to react.

Absolutely. It’s not enough for us to help our clients when a situation arises. We really need to focus on training and equipping them so that their natural instincts are aligned with any type of situation they could face. There’s no time to learn when they’re in the middle of the crisis. And with the immediacy and scrutiny that social media put clients under, crisis preparedness has never been more important.

Why do organizations need us? What added value do we bring them?

As I said earlier, we need to give our clients clear, honest advice. Many agencies don’t really give advice, they take orders. They find out what the client wants them to do and they execute it. And that’s ok for some, but it’s not ok for an agency like ours. We need to be advisors to our clients. It’s not enough for us to understand what our clients are doing, we need to understand why they are doing it. I think that what we can bring our clients is an independent perspective and a conscience to make sure that what they are doing is the right thing. That’s where we really add value.

Our clients have a core message but absolutely need help adapting and tailoring it to different audiences. That’s another area where we can add a lot of value to our clients in ways that other agencies can’t. We are much more flexible and much more nimble in the way we give advice and provide expertise.

Speaking of expertise, what would you say is our biggest strength as a Firm?

As an agency, what we’re really good at is knowing specific sectors. Our real understanding and depth of knowledge are critical to our success. We’re lucky to have such smart people within the Firm, and even though some have PhDs, MBAs or Law Degrees, that’s not what matters. What’s critical is that we have innately intelligent people who are smart about what they do. And by smart, I mean that they can analyze a situation, determine what the right thing to do is, and deliver a plan that can be executed. And that kind of “smart” has nothing to do with degrees.

What would you tell to people interested in pursuing a career in public relations?

The reason why it’s such a fascinating career is because it’s so varied and you get to do so many different things. The skills you need and the people you meet are also very diversed. Some of us work with the world’s top doctors, others work with bankers, business tycoons, consumer insight experts, etc. Whether you’re interested in marketing, corporate communications or healthcare, there are very few limits to what you can do in PR. You get to go inside the very hearts of companies. The sheer variety of the career is just fascinating.


Fun facts about Ralph

I was born in: Dublin, Ireland
Favourite food: Sushi – “Whoever said “let’s do Irish for dinner tonight?”
Favourite book: I really like Carl Hiaasen novels – crime fiction meets environmental activism
If I didn’t work in PR: I’d run a beach bar. Actually, that really is not a bad idea…
If I could be on a reality TV show, it would be: Please let that never be the case!
If money didn’t matter: See above answer about running a beach bar. It would just be a very upmarket one!
Number one travel destination: My wife and I lived in Sydney for six years and our children we born there, so I’m very attached to the place. But the beach bar will probably be on a beach we love located about three hours south of Sydney, with the whitest sand in the world and a resident pod of dolphins.
Most memorable vacation: Our trip to Costa Rica, our first adventurous holiday as a family. There are so many things to do there, and as a bird watcher, it’s paradise!
If I could be a celebrity: I’d be the guy on the Irish rugby team who scores the points to win the Rugby World Cup final (fingers crossed).
Favourite past time: Walking – either with my dog or proper hiking.
The person I most admire: There are many, some of whom have had a direct impact on my life. But one person I admire from afar is Dave Brailsford, head coach of Team Sky and Team GB, for his incredible focus and work ethic to create two world-beating cycling teams.
First concert I went to: It was either AC/DC or Simon & Garfunkel. My musical taste was all over the place!
Favourite music group/musician: U2
Guilty pleasure: Potato chips