Interview with Andrew Smith, Director at escherman

This week for my Interview Series, we have Andrew Smith, Director at escherman, talk about his career path, current role, changes he’s seen in the PR industry over the years and his thoughts on the future of PR.

andrew-111. Before working in PR, you spent a couple of years working as a Deputy News Editor at a weekly UK publishing trade title. Can you talk about your experience working there and why you decided to enter the PR industry afterwards?

I started life as an editorial assistant on the Retail Newsagent Tobacconist and Confectioner in September 1985. In spite of appearances, this was an excellent training ground in journalism. One of my former predecessors in this role at the magazine – Mark Haysom – went on to become Chief Executive of Trinity Group Newspapers  and one of the most powerful people in British newspaper publishing.

Even while I was there, the magazine was suddenly at the forefront of mainstream news developments. You have to remember this was when Rupert Murdoch was revolutionising the newspaper industry in Britain – moving distribution from rail to road, taking on the print unions, Wapping, etc – we were reporting on the same things as national print and broadcast media. I was going to press conferences and working alongside top national newspaper journalists. For example, Raymond Snoddy, the then hugely influential Media Correspondent for the Financial Times would ring me to check on particular aspects of news trade distribution (though as a rookie journalist I confess to being in complete awe of such a titan of journalism).

This was also a time which saw the first new UK national newspapers launched in decades. I covered the launch of Eddy Shah’s Today newspaper and interviewed Andreas Whittam-Smith, the founder of the Independent. I also interviewed Robert Maxwell for the launch of the ill fated London Daily News.

So where did PR enter the frame? When I started as a journalist, I had no idea about public relations (as far I knew, PR stood for proportional representation).

Or rather, I had no idea a whole industry existed to try and provide me as a journalist with material to write about. In those days, we’d get a massive mail sack at the office basically full of paper-based press releases. One of the most useful tools I had was a massive metal spike on which 99pc of press releases would be unceremoniously terminated. I’d get calls from breathless PR people asking me if I’d got their client’s press release and would I be writing about them?

I’ll be honest. My early view of PR from a journalist perspective was not good. But over time, I came to realise that there were good PRs. These were the ones that would provide good information and knew how to pitch me a story.  I also realised that PR people seemed to get paid quite a bit more than journalists. Surely I could do that? So in 1988, I decided to give PR a go. I told myself that if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to journalism.

I started life as a PR executive with a small PR agency. Before I started the job, I had the stereotypical journalist view that my day would consist of writing press releases and taking journalists to lunch. How wrong could I be. Suddenly I had to deal with things like client management, budgeting, campaign planning, negotiation and a whole host of other things that journalists never see. I admit that in the early days, I did question whether I had made the right decision. However, I decided that if I was to stay in PR, I should work for a PR firm that specialised in something I really enjoyed. Hence my move in 1989 to join tech PR firm Keene Communications where I ended up running one of the iconic tech PR accounts of the era: Borland – the rest is history.

2. As Director at escherman, can you give us an overview of your role and the sort of projects you work on?

My role is partly to define what services we should offer clients and to then determine how best we can deliver them. The kinds of projects we mostly get involved with today largely revolve around helping clients best understand how to marry to together PR, social media and SEO into a coherent mix, while also using advanced analytics techniques to measure and evaluate programmes. As a by-product of this, we are increasingly asked to provide training in all of these areas – so this is a growing aspect of the business.

3. What’s a typical day for you like?

I guess the cliche answer would be to say there is no such thing as a typical day ;)

But certainly a lot of my time is spent delivering training workshops, attending client meetings, planning campaigns and keeping up to speed with latest developments in all aspects of digital.

And it goes without saying that I spend time every day using a variety of social and SEO tools to keep on top of everything. Personal favourites included Hootsuite, Nimble, Lissted and MajesticSEO.

4. I read that you were the second PR professional in the UK to begin sending press releases via e-mail in 1991, which is amazing. Having seen so many changes to the PR industry over the years, I’m interested to know whether you think there are some things that have stayed the same? 

I’ve dined out for years on the email press release story. I got exposed to email in 1989 through my work at Keene with Borland.  I joined one of the UK’s first online bulletin boards (CIX) around the same time. It was here I discovered that there were journalists using the service to have online conversations and – gasp – email each other. I think the first press release I emailed went to about 5 journalists. One of them was the then Technology Editor of The Guardian newspaper, Jack Schofield. It was Jack that suggested that Frank O’Mahoney (then UK PR Manager at Apple) and myself were the first UK PRs do to this (although the honour of being first went to Frank).

The point of mentioning all of this is that one of the key things that has stayed the same is the importance of relationships. Looking back at my early use of email, the key thing was that it only worked if you had already established a relationship with someone and taken the time to properly understand their needs. PR has always been about relationships. And always will be. In spite of the huge changes in technology and society over the last 30 years, the fundamental need for building and maintaining relationships with people is more important than ever.

5. With the rise of social media and shrinking of traditional newsrooms, what are your thoughts on the future of the PR industry? What sort of skills do you see becoming increasingly valuable?

I am quite optimistic about the future of the PR industry. At least for those PR professionals who accept the reality of the world we are in and can adapt and change quickly enough.

I’ve been banging on for some time about research that Google did last year which showed that 90pc of all media consumption today is done via a screen – TV, PC, laptop, mobile or tablet. Print represents a tiny proportion of media consumption. And yet much of the PR sector is still mainly focussed on print coverage. And yet Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP basically came out last week and confirmed Google’s research – namely, that there is massive disconnect between expenditure on print PR, advertising and marketing and where consumers spend their time.

Traditional PR skills of creating great editorial style content and relationship building should play well in the screen-driven mobile/social world we are living in. The key additional skill that PRs everywhere must develop is in analytics, measurement and evaluation.  The old excuses that PR measurement was too difficult or too expensive won’t wash anymore. There are techniques available to all PRs that can prove a much more robust connection between activity and measurable impact. For example, Google Analytics is a free tool that can show both the direct and indirect impact of PR and social media against defined goals.  For those PR professionals who are prepared to invest time and energy in these areas, then I’d say the future is very bright indeed.

***To get in touch with Andrew or read more from him, check out blog.escherman.com***

Interview with Jamie Garantziotis, PR Manager of Regional / Corporate Social Media at Southern Cross Austereo

This week for my Interview Series, we have Jamie Garantziotis who is currently working as the PR Manager of Regional / Corporate Social Media at Southern Cross Austereo. Jamie discusses his career path, internships, keeping up with the PR industry and provides some insight into New York’s PR scene.

1. You graduated with a BA (Media & Communications) in 2007 and went on to complete a Master of Communication in 2009. Were there any particular reasons this? Did you find that it benefitted during job hunting?

I didn’t have a straight path into the study of PR. When I finished school I realized that I really enjoyed the world of media and communications but didn’t know where within that broad field I wanted to focus my studies – hence the reason I chose to study Media & Communications  at The University of Melbourne.

I remember that it was during my third year study at Melbourne that I knew I wanted to move in the direction of PR and Corporate Communications. Given that my education to date had been highly theoretical, I wanted to gain practical PR experience, so I headed to Queensland to undertake my Masters study at Bond University. Looking back, the practical training and experience most certainly helped me develop as a professional and to find a job post study.

2. Can you tell us a little about your career path?

During my Masters, I had two internships in PR agencies, working across clients in a range of sectors.

At the same time, I worked part time in Communications for the University’s Executive Education program. After finishing, I returned to Melbourne. The first thing I did was to connect with industry professionals and the local IABC chapter to begin volunteering.

After four months of searching and applying unsuccessfully, I was visiting my brother on the Gold Coast and after re-connecting with a Bond University professor received an email about a PR/Communications role with my current employer – Southern Cross Austereo (then Southern Cross Media). Having been recommended for the role, I stayed on the coast for an interview and within two weeks had been offered the position and jumped back on a plane to Queensland.

After the business merged with Austereo earlier this year, I’ve since moved to work within the Marketing & Communications team back in Melbourne as the Regional PR Manager.

3. What were your internships like? Did you find that they gave you a better idea of which areas of PR you liked / disliked?

My internships were all incredibly different but a lot of fun and excellent learning experiences. No two agencies are exactly alike, and I found that working within different teams and across different sectors did give me a good mix of experience and a better of idea of the industries and practices I enjoyed more than others.

That said; I was only able to find this out by giving everything a go. If I was asked to assist on a fashion account, I would. If I was asked to assist on a legal services client, I would. If I could give current students one piece of advice, it would be to undertake as many internships and gain as much experience as possible.

4. With the online and digital world moving so quickly, how do you find yourself keeping up-to-date with the communications industry?

Seth Godin wrote a great blog post a few weeks ago about the fact that with so many great minds publishing so much content so quickly, we seem to have de-valued this data and information given that it is in such huge supply.

I like to mix up the types of content I consume – most commonly blogs and podcasts. I have a Bloglines account that feeds through all the blogs I subscribe to, and also subscribe to my favourites via email so I can go through them daily and pick the top articles to read. I try to make at least 30-45 minutes each weeknight to read through these, and also have at least an hour or two on weekends to read them.

5. What would be the top 5 blogs that you read?

Okay, the five blogs that I read the most are:

1. Seth Godin

2. Brian Solis

3. Spin Sucks

4. PR Breakfast Club

5. Waxing UnLyrical

6. I read on your blog that you visited New York and subsequently learnt a great deal about their PR and communication scene. Any insights you’d like to share with us?

Ah New York! Yes, I travelled there in May of this year for a holiday / exploration of the communications scene. My friend Harrison Kratz that I work on Engage TV with was based in Philadelphia at the time, and we decided to catch up, head to blog world New York and spend some time meeting fellow PR and social media practitioners.

To be honest, I learnt so much – more than I could put in the answer to this question. In summary, the biggest lessons I learnt can be found in my blog post – What I Learnt in New York, as well as a video interview I had with my friend Des Walsh for Social Media Club Gold Coast. The big lessons / insights were:

•           Lead, don’t follow

•           Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t you’re right!

•           Connect in real life (IRL)

•           The bubble isn’t about to burst

•           The time is now!

7. And lastly, any tips for PR students trying to network themselves into an internship / first job

- Gain as much experience as possible – be pro-active in seeking experience and take the opportunity to try different areas of communications across a range of industries and practices. Even if you’ve recently finished study and are looking for a full-time job, take the chance to intern, network and add to your portfolio.

- Build a personal brand – make sure you have your professional LinkedIn profile set-up to showcase your goals, experience, education and interests. If you’re not already following new media technologies, start to get comfortable with reading blogs / forums and listen to the conversation. Once you’re more comfortable, set up a Twitter account and begin to engage with fellow practitioners. From there – the sky is the limit really. With the barriers to entry for publishing and sharing your own material and thoughts so low, there’s never been a better time to establish your unique brand and voice.

- Connect in real life – take the time to seek out professional events such as networking drinks, social media club meetings, or young professional groups. In Australia, IABC and the PRIA are good associations to follow and attend their events (disclaimer – I am a member of both, and sit on the board of IABC Victoria) – you never know who you might meet and connect with.

- Be authentic and let your passion shine through. If you love what you do (which I hope you do), let that show for all to see.

- Enjoy the journey! Yes, job hunting and networking can be hard – but during my own search I was able to meet some remarkable people that have been so generous, and continue to help me develop personally and professionally. More than that, it was a learning experience that I will never forget or regret.

Best of luck to you all as you embark on the start of your professional journey!