To celebrate the role of women in PR, Cision asked nine rising stars under 30 to discuss what drew them to the industry, their biggest achievements and the lessons they’ve learned so far, who their biggest inspiration is, what they see as the biggest obstacles to women in PR and finally what their dream role would be.
Katie Watts, senior press officer at MoneySavingExpert.com
I’d love to say I always dreamed of a career in PR, but the reality is, with a degree and brief spell in film production behind me, I fell into it by accident. I now can’t imagine doing anything else and can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner!
My godmother was a newsreader, and I was lucky to spend time growing up around TV production crew. So it’s no surprise my biggest passion in PR is broadcast; helping talented experts share their knowledge in a language the general public understands.
When you put an expert on TV, they are at their most vulnerable. In my three years at MSE, I’ve thrived on growing our roster of spokespeople, and I’m proud to say, we have an even gender split.
I’ve nurtured these relationships more than any, so they have complete trust that I am not going to send them into an interview under-prepared. It’s my most important achievement and definitely a priority for our press office.
A big challenge for our team right now is working around representation quotas for TV and radio. I fully endorse equal representation on air, and currently, quotas are the most effective solution. But the philosophy of our press office is to put the right expert up for the interview.
Increasingly, we see our male spokespeople dropped simply for their gender, which is a real shame. Press offices need to take the time to find passionate and knowledgeable female-identifying staff and develop them to represent brands on-air, so the media has more voices of all genders to choose from, and quotas aren’t as necessary.
I am inspired daily by my talented team – media and campaigns – whose job every day is to fight for the rights of the consumer. My colleagues have audiences with those at the centre of power and their work really does spark change.
PR plays an incredibly powerful role in that – it exists to put pressure on decision-makers and, equally, make sure consumers who don’t read MSE gets access to the same independent money-saving information.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned in my early career is that self-doubt can be a huge drain on those around you. It’s especially hard for women to change this mindset because we tend to be more ‘humble’ about our work than our male co-workers. It’s important to recognise your level of experience, be self-assured and always have a desire to learn from your peers.
The unpredictable and demanding nature of news and current affairs is a real barrier to women in PR. MSE, like many other companies, has adopted a flexible working policy, which is vital for our industry for everyone – but particularly to support women and men who have parental or caring responsibilities.
When I think of women I admire at the top of the PR game, too often, I see many who’ve had to adopt what others can perceive as ‘masculine’ traits to progress to the most senior positions. I think we could all do better to help women with other personality types climb the ladder in our industry. You can be ‘feminine’ – at least in the outdated sense of the word – and a total boss.
Harriet Robinson, communications and engagement manager at Waverley Borough Council
I find humans fascinating. I’ve always wanted to work with people and for people, while being able to use both creative and analytical skills. The PR industry allows me to do just that, while keeping me on my toes with lots of opportunities to develop new skills and take on new challenges.
I didn’t know that working in communications in the public sector was even a career option until I was part-way through my journalism degree. I always thought it was more of a private sector function. After a stint as a journalist I decided to take a chance and try it out.
For me, my ‘move to the dark side’ turned out to be a move to the right side, as I find my work hugely rewarding and I look forward to going into work (almost) every day.
Even though councils may not have huge budgets to put behind campaigns, it’s surprising how much can be achieved through a little creative thinking and data-driven evidence.
My most memorable achievement was leading on a campaign to encourage food waste recycling in the borough. The results spoke for themselves; a 57% increase in the amount of food being recycled across the borough, as well as sustained behaviour change, with recycling levels remaining steady.
This was my first major campaign and I learnt that to achieve the best results, you need to invest time to do research – and to push back if anyone tells you otherwise.
Being promoted to communications and engagement manager was also a great personal achievement. At 27 and as someone who only had a few years of experience in the industry, taking on a role as the most senior communications professional in the organisation seemed a daunting step up but I pushed myself to go for it, nonetheless. I’ve learnt that I need to have more confidence in my ability, because I’m great at what I do.
I think that, generally, women do still have a way to go in adjusting our mindsets, shifting from a focus on what we can’t do to unapologetically believing in ourselves, what we can and have achieved and the value we can bring.
What’s more, we are seeing societal expectations shifting: what have previously and typically been seen as softer, feminine skills are now being sought after by organisations who rightly recognise people’s desire to be engaged and feel relationships should to be nurtured, rather than relying on traditional authoritative marketing styles of being told what to do, think or buy.
More emphasis is also being placed on these attributes in senior leadership roles. Though anyone can possess these ‘softer’ skills, us women need to feel confident that we tend to naturally excel in these areas and sell how we can use these skills to change things for the better.
For me, as corny as it sounds, knowing that I’ve made a difference is really, flipping inspiring. Nothing beats the feeling of making a positive impact, whether it’s behaviour change or increased income generation.
But the only way to really demonstrate that we are making a difference and should be taken seriously, is to make sure we’re doing thorough evaluations of our work and measuring our success – and making sure our bosses know about it. That’s something I think we can all improve on.
Up until this point, I haven’t noticed any obstacles personally (maybe I’m a lucky one?). But I haven’t yet made my mind up about when I want children – I suspect this will be when I will have to make more difficult choices, as I watch my male counterparts continue to progress without needing a break midway through their career.
What I have noticed is that we need to see more diversity in our communications teams, particularly representation from different ethnic backgrounds. We should broadly represent the people and communities we are there to support and reach; I think there needs to be more awareness that this is an industry which is open to all.
I don’t know what my ‘dream role’ is. I’m happy to keep trying out new things as long as I am learning, developing and making an impact.
Danielle Cheney, marketing communications manager at James Villas
Good stories attracted me to PR. People are truly fascinating, and PR is all about people.
The travel industry is a famously small world, and you come across the same faces often. The common theme is that everyone loves it. It is a fun, ever-changing industry with tons of talented people.
Holidays are people’s time to relax and reconnect with those who are important in their lives, so offering customers great experiences and memories that last is an absolute pleasure.
I started out wanting to head up communications for a political party. With the current climate I now can’t think of anything worse! PR for a charity like Shelter or an organisation such as The Fawcett Society that makes a real difference would be a dream. But, the travel industry has a way of always drawing you back in!
When it comes to role models, my mum did her master’s degree in sciences while juggling two young daughters and a hectic nursing job. She has never been someone to sit back in the shadows, but she maintains this lovely warm and approachable way about her.
I took a very different career route but she’s taught me a lot about doing what you love, managing a team and also how to handle pressure. Anyone working in the NHS knows a thing or two about pressure!
James Villas is a hub of female talent, so there are many women across the business who I look up to. And Beyoncé, obviously.
There are still obstacles for women – in PR and in most industries. At a press event a few years ago I was waiting outside and a number of attendees stopped and asked me if I was there to take their names. I was the only woman at that meeting, so naturally they thought I was the receptionist… until I took my seat around the table alongside them, ready to talk about our PR campaign and lobbying work.
Speaking up and putting yourself out there still feels really uncomfortable and unnatural for so many women in the workplace. Finding allies who understand how you feel can help build you up. Eventually it gets easier and you become that person helping other women.
Companies now have to be more transparent about their gender pay gap, so the next step is to actively tackle it. The PR industry and others have a long way to go achieve equal pay and better representation for women at all levels, all the way the top.
Bringing PR in-house and the team running with it has been fantastic to be a part of – the sense of achievement when we secure coverage never gets old. The British Travel Awards at the end of 2018 was a real highlight – James Villas won five awards including Best Villa Holiday Company and Best LGBT Holiday Company. As it’s voted for by customers it feels particularly special.
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that my opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s in the room.
Jessica Harriott-Kerr, trade PR manager at The Telegraph
I studied politics at university and thought that I wanted to be a journalist. In the pursuit of this, I did a few work experience placements and internships at different newspapers and broadcasters, where I discovered communications and PR.
I was instantly fascinated by these people who were helping to shape what we read and saw in the news and the more I learnt about them, the more it seemed like the right option for myself.
I was so excited the first time something I had written and pitched was placed into a national newspaper. It was amazing to think that I had been able to identify a story that others felt was of interest to such a wide audience. It might be something that happens daily now, but I still get a thrill from it.
I’ve encountered a great number of incredible PR women in my career so far and I’ve tried to take something from each of them. I’m inspired by those who do not change themselves or sacrifice their identity to succeed and I try to use my own unique characteristics to my advantage in my career too.
It’s certainly interesting that so many women are in PR, but when it comes to those top positions, you are much more likely to see a man. I’d also add that in addition to the barriers for women, there can also still be obstacles for people who identify as BAME when looking to pursue a career in PR.
We know that the reasons behind this are plentiful and complicated, but the good news is that as a society we are more aware of these inequalities than ever before and that marks the early steps towards making a permanent change.
I’ve been thinking about what my dream role would look like a lot recently and with a career like communications and PR you have to be open to all the potential opportunities which might come your way. Having said that, it would be amazing to one day lead the communications strategy for an election campaign or a political movement.
Danielle Morris, communications manager at Livewell Southwest
I studied journalism at university and began my career in journalism but I always had an interest in working in communications and PR. I liked the fact that similar to journalism, there seemed to be a lot of variety in the industry and a chance to work on something different or new each week, using different platforms and tools.
I always said if I went into a communications/PR role I would want it be somewhere where I could make a difference and use my skills to promote the work of others. So beginning my journey in the NHS was really special and I’m now working at an independent, award winning social enterprise which provides integrated health and social care services – it’s fantastic.
There are two achievements which really stick out for me where I was able to promote some fantastic work and where I felt I had used my journalism training to good use. The first was successfully commissioning a piece of filming for a regional news outlet on a global research study our trust was taking part in and leading on.
It involved bariatric patients so had the potential to be quite a sensitive piece but we managed to film a patient undergoing surgery and the positive impact taking part in the research had made on his life. It was quite a long day of filming but the theatres team were fantastic and it made for a really great piece of coverage that we successfully followed up later in the year.
The second was hosting our local BBC radio station at one of our community hospitals where they did a live broadcast for their mid-morning show. I had to put the show together and, as well as pitching it to their teams, I had to pitch it to our staff and get them on board to highlight the fantastic work they were doing.
It was a really great day and we had some lovely stories both from staff and patients. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to go with your gut feeling particularly if you have an idea that you really want to run with. Always try to be confident when you pitch it so you can inspire and encourage others to be a part of it.
The social media team who run the Give Blood Twitter account have been a huge inspiration to me over the past couple of years. I think their content and the way they engage with people is fantastic. They’ve really pushed the boundaries in interacting with people and in their campaigns and it’s also generated some really great results for them.
From what I have seen and experienced personally I don’t feel there are obstacles for women. I would say PR is one of the industries where women really do have opportunities to pursue and create the careers they want.
I feel it’s also somewhere where women have really shined – there are a lot of great role models even here in the south west who have inspired a new generation and carved out opportunities for women to have a successful career. But I do feel there is always more that can be done.
A dream job? I think the inner child in me would love to work in the PR team for Disney!
Ahalya Moxon, account director, brand, Ketchum London
I completely fell into PR like many of us have, having been offered an internship opportunity after university at a time when I really wanted to be a journalist. I had little expectation or understanding of PR, but once I got into it, I never looked back.
What has kept me in PR is the sheer variety, the opportunities to learn and to be creative. One day you’re working with influencers, the next you’re producing a film, the third you’re setting up a media generating stunt! For someone who’s curious and a bit of a chameleon, PR can be an exciting profession.
In terms of achievements, last year our team had to help a client respond urgently to a crisis by creating a short consumer-facing digital film that addressed the issue. We found the right talent, scripted, managed and produced the film in two and a half weeks and it performed so well with consumers that it replaced the brand’s ad on TV. It was one of the most gruelling but rewarding experiences of my career.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is something I’m still working on: to have confidence in your own ideas, opinions and skills and stand up for them. It’s a cliché, but when you believe in yourself, everyone else starts to.
My biggest inspirations are the everyday women around me, balancing their careers and family lives. I’m in awe of them. It’s so important for young professionals to have positive examples of this around, because it expands our ambitions and idea of what may be possible in our own lives: “If she can do it, maybe I can too”.
There are still obstacles in our industry, like lack of flexible working policies, prohibitive maternity and paternity schemes, lack of diversity, and pay gaps, particularly at senior levels. I’m grateful to work in a consultancy like Ketchum that’s leading the way in tangibly addressing these obstacles and creating a space that allows women to flourish, but this should be the norm, not an exception.
My dream role would be one that combines and focuses on planning, strategy and creative: I love the process that takes you from getting a brief to that moment you feel you’ve really cracked it.
Chloe Staniforth, PR account manager at Hatch Communications
I often joke that PR found me as my intention was always to be a maths teacher. However, I’ve always been passionate about writing and the power of words, so when I spotted an apprenticeship where I could combine my analytical mindset with my love of writing I jumped at the opportunity.
As soon as I started agency life, I loved it. The diversity of clients and challenge of dissecting a brief continue to motivate me every day.
Personally, my biggest achievement is being named in PRWeek’s 30 under 30 in 2016. Aside from being one of the youngest, I was incredibly proud to be one of only handful to be working at an agency outside of London.
I learnt quite quickly not to take everything to heart. PR isn’t easy and trying to interpret what a client wants can go both ways. When you think you’ve written a cracking bit of copy, but the client covers it in red pen -you have to remember that it really isn’t personal, and that you can’t please everyone all the time.
Clients can be challenging, and journalists can be stubborn, and on those days where the two combine we can all feel like hiding in a corner, but learn from it, roll your sleeves up and crack on.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have a support network of strong, inspirational women who have guided me over the years. From my mum to colleagues, seeing women achieve great things, inspires me to do the same.
Although not all barriers for women have been addressed, I certainly think that now is a great time to be a woman in PR. As mentioned, I’ve been blessed to have been surrounded, and guided, by strong female leaders throughout my five years in the industry, which gives me confidence that we have turned a corner.
I’ve seen women in senior positions combine running businesses with having a healthy work and family life balance; this may seem common now, but there’s no doubt that until recently they would’ve been few and far between. So, it’s great to see a more flexible approach to employment develop.
My dream job? Any situation where I’m able to write a real variety of content, where there’s a constant opportunity to learn and develop new skills and the chance to grow and succeed both professionally and personally is the dream!
Nabiha Ahmed, student, Advertising and Public Relations, University of West London
I’m really interested in the sector because the marketing industry is so broad and consumer culture is at its peak. I am big on social causes and so for me to make a real impact and have an influence on the way the world works, I believe marketing is the perfect pathway to take.
During my course I have definitely learnt that the advertising and PR industry is so much bigger than I first thought. My internship at Cision also confirmed this for me, there was so many departments which made up the business.
My biggest inspiration at the moment is actually my course leader Kristin Brewe. I can see how passionate and keen she is for us to learn but also that it must be a fulfilling job to teach others about an industry that you have been a part of for so long. She also never forgets to mention our corporate social responsibility when we graduate and I find this very inspiring.
I think the world has progressed a lot but even during my course during group work I have found that on many occasions that a set gender has been more dominant, which is a social norm I believe people carry into the industry unfortunately. So yes, I do believe women struggle to be taken more seriously and given fewer leadership roles, but I’m sure eventually this situation will improve.
My dream role would be to become a creative director in an advertising agency. I would love to lead campaigns and be responsible for any creative output with the rest of a team.
Chloe Duhamel, student, Advertising and Public Relations, University of West London
When I initially chose to study the fields of marketing, comms, advertising and PR, I didn’t really know what it meant. My mother strongly believed that would be a great match for me, and I believed her. It turns out she was right!
What attracts me to the industry today – and every day – is the limitless amount of creativity you can demonstrates, as well as being able to work with people.
The biggest lesson I have learnt during my course is that while being purely creative is great, you have to acknowledge that there can be limits to this depending on the target audience, different countries, and varying cultures.
As part of my internship, I realised how much the industry was interconnected, how many jobs were linked to each other, and how everyone else has a huge amount of work too. Never judge a book by its cover.
My inspirations are women like my teachers, leaders – hello Hannah Hodges! – my mother, and proud feminists like Jameela Jamil and Emma Watson. These ladies are absolute rock stars in their industry, brilliant at what the do and standing up for their beliefs. They are not afraid of defining themselves and refuse to allow themselves to be defined by others.
There are of course obstacles with everything in life. The obstacle to me trying to get a nice breakfast could be that my toaster that stops working! But I would find a solution. This is what women in PR and advertising do. They choose their path, they don’t give up. They find out why the toaster is broken, they repair it, they buy another one or they eat something else!
My dream role? You will see in a few years when I’m working in it, I promise!