Winding down or winding up a career in public relations

timeMost of the discussion around working in public relations concerns starting out in the occupation. We may sometimes look at mid-career developments and moving into management positions. But very rarely is attention given to decisions made later in a career, and what opportunities and considerations apply to public relations practitioners faced with winding down or winding up their working lives.

When Jane Crofts wrote (at BehindtheSpin) about the last few days of her official employment at the University of Lincoln, I asked her if she’d share further thoughts about her career for PR Conversations, enabling us to start a discussion about moving into, through and out of public relations.

Here are her thoughts:

Jane-CroftsA bit of background is always useful. As a child I always wanted to teach and it was my whole reason for being – apart from a short flirtation with the idea of going into catering as a young woman in the late sixties and early seventies, but I did not think of becoming a chef! Off I went to Teacher Training College to embark on a three-year Bachelor of Education programme delivered by the Council for National Academic Awards. My first experience of practical teaching did not come until my second year. Guess what? I despised it! But I persevered if only to end with a degree I could use in some other way (main subject ceramics…hmm!).

I knew I wanted to live in Cambridge, so searched for positions in that vicinity, ending up as a road Safety Officer. This job was concerned with education, training and publicity, but was previously the preserve of retired army majors and police officers – a male-dominated world where you did as you were told. People who know me will be raising an eyebrow at this point.

Regardless, the focus of my position was to ‘professionalise’ the role, which was located within the highways departments of local councils. This was where I discovered a talent for public relations (although at the time I didn’t appreciate that was what the role might be called, let alone appreciate what it involved).

Rather than the press-office style of PR that seemed to dominate at that time, I focused on objectives such as:

  • getting other people involved in cyclist and motor cycle training
  • working with local petrolheads to beef up their events as a platform for getting out the road safety message
  • sparking a bit of controversy with campaign themes
  • linking into green transport issues to get people off the roads
  • calling people who did not use seatbelts for their kids the acceptable face of child abuse
  • working with maternity units to introduce infant car seats; and
  • harnessing the enthusiasm of paediatricians to promote cycle helmets

These days such programs may be called ‘community engagement’ – and involved developing new concepts to make road safety, if not sexy, at least interesting.

From this department I moved into the health service (locally and nationally), addressing more difficult agendas of service provision and change. It was within this area that I also began to do more of a formal media relations role.

Yet I always resisted churning out news releases by the dozen. Releases were written and issued only when I felt there was something of value to share with the public and media. Consequently, I enjoyed a decent return on effort.

The job was much more about strategy and direction, reputation management and helping clinicians and managers in the early 1990s realise that communications was a beneficial – nay essential part – of public services. So, once again, breaking new ground and learning from some real British pioneers, such as Helen McCallum, Tracy Holmes, Peter Addison-Child and Matt Tee.

At this stage in my career, local government beguiled me to return to it. I found myself in economic development and corporate communications, which entailed managing branding of projects and partnerships with organisations. That is, until I found I had run out of patience with both kinds of politicking.

I walked away, not knowing what I might do next.

At this time I was based in Lincolnshire, where  I had visited the university both as a guest speaker on the PR course, and as an employer representative within this new programme of study. When the University heard I was leaving ‘full time’ employment I received a phone call. The rest, as they say, is history.

Returning to teaching, I discovered it wasn’t the act itself I disliked but the old-fashioned 1970s’ view that someone like me should only aspire to teach little children, that it was a career to fit in with married life and something to go back to once the kids were raised!

As my lecturing career unfolded, I appreciated and enjoyed teaching, working with young adults who have a thirst for knowledge and an interest in the subject and my experiences. It resulted in a most-fulfilling nine plus years university teaching stint.

What is interesting now is that many young people are much more driven to a career path and more clear about their future – at least they think they are when they arrive at university.

I suspect the huge fees and impending student debts they face must be a factor. They are prepared to take on work experience (unpaid at times) and volunteer to get stuff on their CVs. I guess when I was a trainee teacher that kind of thinking was built into my vocational degree.

The sad part is that today’s university students appear to only be interested in learning stuff that is relevant to their assignments; the thirst for learning for learning’s sake has been assessed out of them by successive governments.

Curiosity and a willingness to take risks, trying stuff that’s not been done before is the key to a successful career (in communications), as opposed to following some well-trodden path. My success, and enjoyment, came when I realised I did not have to follow the route marked out by society’s expectations of me.

Mid-career is the tough one of course. By then you may well have other responsibilities than just yourself – a spouse, a family, a mortgage added to your university debts. You may have staff who depend on you for leadership. It comes back to Maslow: You can only take the risks that work for your needs.

In the middle of my career, I had embarked on an MBA – studying part time alongside working full time and childrearing. This allowed me to get my head round some of the management issues I was starting to face in my job. It also gave me a chance to look at theories around my own discipline of marketing communications (still no sign of the PR tag). It gave me an opportunity to reflect, re-tune and reinvigorate.

I don’t suggest everyone should pursue an MBA, but everyone should be committed to continuing professional development of some sort – meet people outside your immediate work circle to challenge and maybe confirm what you do.

The world of PR, communication, marcomm – whatever it is we engage in has changed dramatically over my years as a practitioner. New channels of communication have opened up, the speed with which messages are delivered has increased, and the ability to control messaging has receded.

What hasn’t changed is the need to be authentic and specific. Your audience is still one person and that one person has to feel like they are the only person you care about. I never felt comfortable with spin and I am glad it is dying, if not already dead.

Finally, me and my younger self might actually get on I think. I am able in retirement to be more true to myself as the shackles of family responsibilities and mortgage are gone. I am able to go back to be being the carefree leftie, hippy of my youth. The wisdom of years allows me to see through stuff but I maintain my naivety of hope and belief in the decency of most people. I am still angry at the same things.

My younger self might rightly ask why I let some things grind me down and take stuff too personally. Today my reply would be that to be passionate about what you do means it has to be personal. You are – I am – that one person.

The opportunistic entry into PR that Jane reports is something that I have come across repeatedly in my own PhD studies of career strategies in the occupation. Even those I’ve interviewed who opted for PR degrees, commonly did so by chance more than design. I’ve also heard many stories of changes of direction and opportunities to employ the transferrable competencies gained in public relations to take advantage of the changing world of work.

It is increasingly common that rather than a ‘sharp’ retirement break, individuals shift to part-time work, become independent PR practitioners, take up appointments as non-executive directors or employ their talents for causes they care about. Or like Jane, move into education or other ancillary careers.

Financial and other pressures may see more and more PR practitioners needing to work for longer and longer. This raises questions around self-management throughout a career and being more strategic and mindful rather than opportunistic in making moves. It also highlights the tendency for PR consultancies in particular to hire and fire according to economic pressures, or to refresh the pool of interns and young recruits, at the expense of investing in longer term career development (something again that I’ve found in my research).

We’ve heard many times about the importance of diversity within the occupation, particular pragmatic arguments about the relevance for engaging with a diverse population. This should include recognition that modern society is an ageing one, and the expertise and wisdom of older practitioners could be valued further. In terms of issues from ageism and health issues to disabilities, workplace design and financial planning, alongside historical socio-cultural perspectives and insight into technological changes, there is a lot that can be gained from a wider and more inclusive workforce within public relations.

Maybe we need to hear from more older practitioners like Jane, as well as those who have left the industry as a result of ageism or just being worn out by a career in public relations.

There is an extensive body of research and theory concerning older workers and an ageing population – but how much is really understood by PR practitioners, let alone from within the demographic segment?

Jane Crofts can be found via Twitter: @jane63c

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2 Replies to “Winding down or winding up a career in public relations

  1. This is a wonderful column from a person at a later stage in her career; a group that we often don’t hear from enough.

    Given all the changes we’ve witnessed in technology, society and the field of PR in general over the past two or three decades, I think dialogue between the veterans and the new members of the profession are more valuable and timely now than ever.

    I also made the move from a PR agency to academe precisely because I want to be a part of that dialogue. Four years in, I have no regrets and plenty of confidence in the future of our profession.

  2. Well, this post is an enjoyable romp. It should give young people a glimpse of what a great creative and varied career can be had in our PR ranks. I call that giving back.

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