Welcome to this week’s ‘The Monday Interview’.
I’m really looking forward to this one today - it’s jam-packed with useful information and covers a very popular career choice area.
Back in March, I featured a brilliant interview with an Account Manager at a PR Agency. And we are returning to PR today, albeit looking at it from a different angle, as this week’s contribution is from an in-house PR Manager. I think it’s always valuable to be able to compare and contrast just how a different employment situation can change the priorities and dynamic of the job itself, as no two jobs are ever the same. It’s an important question that any budding PR should be asking themselves - would I prefer to work in-house or for an agency?
Gilly’s career path has been interesting. Through a twist of fate, she started her career in local newspaper journalism before crossing to PR at a later stage. Her journey shows us just how important work experience is to get your initial foothold in a competitive industry and she gives us a fascinating break down of the skills she feels is needed to succeed in PR.
Thank you so much Gilly. You can always tell an interview by someone whose work involves writing as they are so engaging. Yours is no exception :-)
So, briefly, what is your job?
“I’m the Corporate Public Relations Manager for a not-for-profit public sector organisation which is funded by UK governments. My role covers a multitude of activities - from handling calls from the national print and broadcast media, to meeting and speech writing for the Chief Executive, through to organising events, liaising with government departments and writing press releases and web page material.”
How did you get into it?
“I wanted to be a journalist while I was still at school. I managed to get work placements at a local newspaper in all my school holidays from the age of about 14 which gave a real feel for the role. I even got paid (a very small amount!).
I did start a college course (with 2 A levels) but because of a local authority error, my grant never came through, and I ended up back on the newspaper (the editor took pity on me!). I took on whatever they asked of me - I learned the switchboard, took dictation for the managing director, learned how to take and calculate display adverts and run the accounts at the end of each work. I franked the post, cycled on errands for the photographers and filed back copies of the paper. Then joy! A senior reporter left for a new job and the editor offered me a role as a reporter on the team.
After a few years learning the ropes (but without doing any of the official training a newbie trainee journalist was supposed to do), I moved to a magazine as news editor and features writer. It was very badly paid and after the bank asked me to return my cheque card, I realised I needed to get a job that actually paid something worth having. So I found a job in PR, as a communications officer, for a multinational electronics company.
Since then I’ve been really lucky and worked for a number of major blue chip companies, looking after employee communications, staff newspapers and videos, annual reports, media relations, crisis management, customer complaints … all sorts! I’ve also run a successful freelance PR consultancy (a great experience except for having to work out my tax and VAT returns ….)
I’ve been made redundant on more than one occasion but have always managed to find something else (eventually). I found my current role after being out of work for six months, with the help of a specialist recruitment consultancy.”
Describe a typical day.
“What is a typical day? I don’t think I know what one of those is! When I arrive at my desk (if I’m in the office) I’ll spend the first 10 or so minutes checking my emails, then surf my work-related Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts to see what’s happening and if there’s anything I need to respond to. I need to know what stories of note are in the print and broadcast media, so I visit the BBC news site, look at our press cuttings service and other sites where breaking news is monitored.
If the phone rings it’s likely to be a journalist - perhaps from the BBC current affairs planning desk, Newsround or Radio 5 Live, wanting information on our work, or perhaps asking if we can put forward an interview candidate. I’ll assess if it’s something we can / should help with and if we decide the answer’s yes, I’ll make all the arrangements.
Meanwhile I might work on a draft for a blog from one of our senior executives, update some website copy on the home page or draw up a communications plan for a company announcement. It’s likely I’ll make/take a regular call to some of my communications team colleagues around the UK to share news and updates, offer support and give advice.
Or I might call the press office in one of the organisations with whom we work, including government departments. If it’s the latter, I might find myself writing a brief for the Secretary of State providing an overview of the issues relating to a particular subject.
There are always meetings in my diary - today, for example I have two one-to-one sessions with a couple of my team (poor them, I’m their manager!) and one ad hoc session with another of my staff who has a problem he needs help in resolving. I also had a meeting to discuss how we work with different government departments and how we can find better ways of sharing information. And a meeting with my manager to keep him in the picture on some of the projects I’m responsible for.
Meanwhile, there’s the annual conference to plan, a series of interviews with key journalists to set up, a media handling plan for the Olympics to deliver and a progress on a Private Members Bill in the House of Commons to be monitored ….”
What do you enjoy most about your job?
“I love the flexibility and the variety; the never knowing what each day is going to hold and who might be on the end of the phone when it rings. It means I’m always learning new things, being challenged to think about issues and recommend the course of action we should take - there’s no chance of getting stale or simply repeating the same thing, day in, day out.”
And the least?
“I hate the paperwork and admin that comes with managing a team - I’d rather be ‘doing it’ rather than talking about doing it. And time to plan and think would be useful as I never seem to get any ….”
What are the common misconceptions that people have about the work you do?
“I don’t think quite so many people these days think PR is all about champagne breakfasts, celebrity launches or expense account dinners (although the phone hacking scandal and related activity may not have done the profession any favours …) I do think it’s still often confused with marketing and / or customer relations.”
What are the main skills you need to work as a PR Manager?
“If I were looking to recruit a PR manager, I’d want someone who was flexible and versatile, who could write well, was able to communicate with all kinds of people at all levels, who was clear headed and cool thinking under pressure, able to cope in a crisis, could explain complex or technical subjects in a clear, understandable way, persuasive and able to present strong, clearly-reasoned, authoritative arguments, could spot a strong news story at 20 paces and could deal with journalists, no matter how stroppy they got!”
Tell us a little about the benefits that come with the job.
“There’s a monthly pay packet (handy) and decent pension arrangements (not something you always think about when you’re starting out your working life but it is important, whatever age you are). There are places where I’d earn more but I really enjoy the work and as long as I can pay the bills and have a little left over, then I’m happy.”
What advice would you give someone wanting to break into this career?
“It’s difficult for me to know the right answer(s) to this as I’ve been working in PR now for more than 20 years and what worked for me back then may not work - or may just not be possible - today.
If I was looking at hiring someone at entry level, I’d be looking for someone who’d shown an interest in writing, for example, maybe a school publication, a fanzine, or blogs. And getting some work experience if you can is great - as it (a) demonstrates that you’ve got the tenacity to go an secure something, and I don’t mean a statutory week arranged by the school.. and (b)gives you the chance to discover where your passions lie.”
Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
“Planning for my retirement! And continuing to learn new things and get my mind around new challenges.”
AND JUST FOR FUN…
First in the office or last to leave?
“Usually I’m the first to arrive and one of the last to leave. How sad is that!”
Tea or coffee?
“Coffee in the morning, tea, or peppermint tea later. And a Diet Coke break somewhere along the way, too.”
Staff canteen or packed lunch?
“Definitely a packed lunch. We don’t have a canteen!”
The lift or the stairs?
“Lift? What lift?!”
Out after work or straight home to bed?
“Out after work or straight home to bed? Out after work … with the dogs for their evening stretch.”
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