ITL #448   Careers without tears: tips from some titans of PR

1 year, 2 months ago


Dreaming of success in PR? Here’s some helpful career management advice from illustrious communicators. By James Thellusson.

Don’t do what I did. I managed my career like a blind man on a tightrope. I followed my gut or the siren calls of trusted friends when choosing my next career moves.


The others here are worth listening to, though. They’ve held senior roles inside blue chip organisations or PR networks. Giants of the game, their top tips for careers without tears could be your path to success and self-fulfilment.


Or something close to it.  


Rule 1: Be true to yourself

Chris Sorek, who worked as head of communications at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, put his personal values at the heart of his career decision making from the get-go.


“I wanted to do something useful with my career, not just make money. But when I started agencies weren’t interested in social change or charitable work. So, I was proactive and cajoled my boss to take on projects in areas I cared about. That way I got the experience to help build my career long term.”


According to Stephen Hoursch, who co-founded German agency Klenk & Hoursch, how much you “love your job and how well you do it are the two key factors which determine your career.”


If you forget who you are you’ll end up getting lost. Choose to work with people and cultures you respect. And which respect you. For Hoursch that meant starting his own firm “with a commitment to strong values like empathy, fairness, respect and responsibility.”


“When we set the agency up, we wrote a constitution which carved our values in stone. We still live by it 20 years later and it is a clear signal to staff and clients about who we are and how we work.”


Rule 2: Have a vision

Dee Cayhill, a specialist in corporate communications recruitment, says “Don’t take the ‘Lazy River’ approach. Have a career plan. You can always change it later.”


Nowadays many PR starters have a career plan. Not having one could be a disadvantage, especially as your career progresses. But it isn’t necessarily the end of the world.  


Hoursch, for example, didn’t have a plan. But he did have something arguably better.


“I had no plan, but I did have a clear vision of where I wanted to be. I always wanted to run my own business, probably because I admired my father for being an entrepreneur.”


Hoursch’s distinction between a plan and a vision is worth bearing in mind. A vision is an aspirational destination, a plan is just a roadmap. A vision is more than a list of the salary, benefits and titles you aspire to. Frankly, a plan without a vision is as useless as a brand without values.  


Rule 3: Find good mentors

Tim Sutton went into PR to pay off the credit card bills he racked up after leaving Oxford.


“For the first few years, I went with the flow. I enjoyed the buzz of the agency, having money in my pocket and working with my clients. Then, one day, my boss said to me: ‘You’ve got talent. But you need to focus. If you don’t, you’ll go nowhere’.”


Sutton didn’t like the implied criticism. But this ‘tough love’ from a respected boss was a Damascene moment which turbo-charged his career.


John Dodds, who held senior communications positions with Hutchison Telecom and Air Products, says, “Try and build up a relationship with your boss so that you get honest appraisal along the way, so you don’t get surprised. Never get surprised. Because if you’re surprised one of two things has happened. Either you haven’t been honest with yourself, or your boss hasn’t been honest with you.”


Bosses are not the same as mentors, though. Jane Atkin, who worked for Barclays Bank, advises corporations on how to design their comms functions. She thinks the best mentors can sometimes be from outside the function.  


“It can be really beneficial to have a mentor from outside the Comms department. They have a different perspective that can be very valuable. They can help you navigate the complexities of the organisation, and they can support you in building internal networks.” 


Some people use recruiters as surrogate mentors. Recruiters should know what the market is looking for. They can advise you on the mix of skills and experience you will need as your career progresses.


The consensus was to assemble a portfolio of mentors and guides, just like a top tennis player has a variety of specialist coaches, to help you get the best out of your career.


Rule 4: Avoid promiscuity

Some people run their careers like footloose footballers, changing clubs every couple of years to chase the money or to flee the chickens they know are coming home to roost. But job promiscuity is not a good strategy.


“Everyone takes the wrong turn in their careers once or twice. People will see through that and forgive it, especially if it happens at the start of your career. But there comes a point where changing companies too frequently raises questions about you and whether you’re any good,” says Tim Sutton.


So, when should you move jobs?


Dee Cayhill, whose website has research on hiring trends and requirements, says “There’s no simple answer to when you should move on and there’s no perfect length of time to stay in a given role. But, when you stop learning or when you feel that you’re not being challenged, it’s probably a good time to start looking.”


And what should you look for?


“Choose the companies you work for carefully. Think about what each new job will offer you and what value it will add to your CV. Each new role needs to be a stepping-stone to the next.” 


Rule 5: Network like there’s no tomorrow

One outstanding client relationship manager I spoke to prided himself on his networking. It wasn’t good enough to have a great relationship with his direct client. He wired himself into every part of his client’s HQ, “like the electricity cables”. His secret?


“I used to turn up to the opening of a crisp packet,” he said, only half-jokingly.


Clarke believes networks are probably the most critical factor in your career and should be cultivated constantly.


“If my team were sitting at their desk at lunchtime, I would say to them ‘you’re wasting your time. You should be out meeting people: journalists, clients, politicians, influencers’.”


Network like there’s no tomorrow. With peers, clients, third party advisers (lawyers, journalists etc). Your career will depend on those you know as well as what you know.


Rule 6 Know your client’s business 

Dodds says understanding your client’s business is the key to succeeding with clients. His top tip?


“Be insanely curious. Keep asking the questions even if sometimes that may feel like you’re naïve.”


Knowing your client’s business is about digging deep to understand how the business or brand creates value. It is not the same thing as being good at finances. But, like it or not, if you want to get to a senior leadership role in agency land you will need to understand finance.


“Whether you want to run your own business or manage an agency business, if you get money you will succeed,” says David Brain. “I would recommend you learn how to understand the agency P&L, then go on to understand the balance sheet and then company valuations.”


The same advice applies to those taking on in-house roles. Know your business. Know your brands. Know where you want to go next.


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The Author

James Thellusson

James Thellusson was UK & EU MD at Cohn & Wolfe (now BCW) and Edelman UK before founding Glasshouse Partnership, which he sold to Next 15 in 2010. He now freelances as a communications consultant and writes. His first book is out in 2022.

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