Interview with Laura Skelley, Group Managing Director of Max Australia

For the latest addition to my Interview Series, we have Laura Skelley, Group Managing Director of Max Australia, discussing her career path, the differences between corporate, government and agency work, keeping up-to-date in the PR industry and much more.

1. So you’ve been in the PR industry for over 13 years now, can you tell us a little about your career path.

I began my career on the other side of the fence.  I initially interned at a radio station and a local TV station in the US during my undergraduate degree and then did a six month internship at CNN in Washington DC just before I finished uni during Bill Clinton’s first election for the presidency.

I was hooked!

Once I graduated I went to work for CNN in DC for several years, before moving to CBS in New York. After three years in New York producing for their affiliate service I decided to make the switch to PR in order to fulfil my desire to work in a more creative environment.

I began with a stint at Shandwick in DC working on a media relations team within their public affairs division.  After a holiday in Australia I decided it was time to try living overseas and applied to obtain my Master’s Degree at UNSW.  I then spent some time in Shandwick’s Seattle office working on technology accounts in the lead up to my move to Australia.

When I arrived in Sydney I did some freelance PR work while I completed my Master’s Degree in International Relations.  I then took the role of Senior Account Manager for a consumer agency, Beyond the Square where I worked on a range of consumer and FMCG accounts.  From there I went to 2iC as an Account Director heading up the B2B team for several years.

Finally, I was recruited to lead up Max Australia in 2007 and became Group Managing Director of Max Australia and its sister agency, Spectrum Communications, in 2010.

Both agencies specialise in technology PR and it was almost preordained that a girl from Seattle would find her home focusing on technology.

2. What’s your current role as Group Managing Director at Max Australia and Spectrum Communications like?

No two days are the same but every day is extremely busy!  No one ever tells you about all of the non-PR work that goes into running a successful agency.

From strategic development to crisis management, budget management to recruitment, providing senior council to our clients through to new business, and then creating and maintaining a positive, supportive culture on top of all that.  I keep a lot of information in my head at any one time.

For example, in the past month I have managed an office move, pitched a variety of new business, recruited new staff members, developed and launched a new staff review, mentoring and training programs and attended a variety of industry events, on top of day to day client work and the management of both businesses.

3. Your experience spans a wide range of sectors; developing corporate strategies, political speechwriting, working with not-for-profit organisations and now managing two agencies. What did you like / dislike about each sector?

One of the things I love the most about PR is the variety; constantly learning about new clients, monitoring changes in our industry and the media landscape and the fact that my day to day work is so diverse.

I have always loved writing and with my background covering politics, speech writing comes naturally to me.  I made the move to PR in order to become more creative so the process of brainstorming and developing new ideas and strategies for clients is always a highlight for me.

I also love problem solving so thinking of new ways to approach an issue or rapidly developing a response to a crisis are also areas of the job I enjoy.  If you would have asked me 10 years ago if I would like developing financial reports or managing HR process I would have told you absolutely not – but it turns out that I have an aptitude for both and actually really enjoy those parts of my job as well.

4. As the communication industry evolves and becomes increasingly digital, what do you have do to stay successful as a PR professional?

As with anything, I read a lot!  Case studies of successful digital or social campaigns, thought leadership on the evolution of our industry, pretty much anything I can get my hands on.  I also attend a lot of industry events.

AIMIA is a client and I also actively attend as many of their educational events as possible.  I am a member of the PRIA and receive a lot of useful information from this network, as well as from a range of colleagues both in Australia and overseas.  I also use digital channels, such as a range of groups on LinkedIn and people I follow on Twitter to share information and keep up to date.

Spectrum Communications and Max Australia are IPMG companies which provides us with access to industry leading digital agencies and a range of extremely talented digital specialists.   We share best practice and knowledge across the group and call on each other’s expertise to provide added value to all of our clients.

5. How will this impact PR agencies of the future?

I think that we are already seeing an impact.

PR agencies need to work more closely with other types of agencies, as we do with the other IPMG Digital companies, in order to ensure that PR has a say in social media campaigns being driven by digital marketing or creative agencies.  PR is responsible for managing brand reputation and should always have a seat at the table, regardless of which agency actually executes the campaign.

I am not a great believer in siloed social media experts within a PR agency, as social media campaigns should always be integrated into the wider PR strategy and therefore are the responsibility of an entire account team.  That said, there will always be people who have more of an affinity within this area who will act as the leads on any social media activation.

6. You have a background in journalism, how do you think it’s helped you in your PR career? Do you think people working in PR should also have practical experience working in a newsroom?

I have definitely benefited from my background in news, but don’t think that it is essential creating a successful PR career.

I think that every PR practitioner needs to understand how a newsroom works, the elements that make up a compelling story, how to write in a way that will capture the attention of a journalist and what the day in the life of a journalist is actually like.

This can all be garnered from spending time with journalists, talking to them about what interests them, how they work and the pressures they may face.  I encourage all of our staff to meet with journalists on a regular basis to continually build relationships and further their understanding of the media landscape.

7. And lastly, what do you think are the top 5 most common characteristics of a great PR professional?

  • Creative problem solving
  • Curiosity and a desire to continuously learn
  • The ability to multi-task & manage time efficiently
  • Empathy – this is very important in successful account management
  • The ability to remain calm and think rationally in any situation
***To contact Laura, get in touch via @maxaustraliapr or visit www.maxaustralia.com.au***

Interview with Jessica Ben-Ari, Account Manager at Bite Communications

For the latest addition to the Interview Series, we have Jessica Ben-Ari, an Account Manager from Bite Communications, joining us to talk about her career path, making the transition from journalism to PR, what it’s like working for an agency and the top 3 most important traits all PR pros should have.

Q1. As someone who’s originally from New York, how do you think the PR industry there differs from the one in Sydney? I’d imagine things move a lot quicker?

PR is fast paced no matter what corner of the globe you’re on.  I’d say the major difference is the fact that the US tends to be pretty US-centric – when I was working in New York, I only worked with brands and teams based in the US.  Being in Australia is exciting because of the diverse cultural exposure the proximity to Asia affords us.  I have clients based in Singapore and New Zealand, for example. The opportunity has certainly improved my time zone juggling skills!

Q2. What was your career path like?

I’ve been on the agency side my entire full time career.  It suits me – I love the fast pace, the client diversity and the unpredictability of what’s coming up next.  Though I mainly work with a tech clientele at Bite Communications, my background is rooted in the consumer sector.  I’ve worked with clients from a range of industries including fashion, beauty, food, spirits, travel, personal finance, pet food, housewares, health and more. Told you I thrive on diversity!

Q2. You studied journalism back when you were in college but made the transition to public relations. Any particular reason for that?

Writing is a must-have core skill for every PR professional, and it’s always been one of my favourite parts of the job, which is one of the reasons I wanted to study journalism in college. Journalism demands certain disciplines that serve you well in PR, too – timeliness, the ability to craft a story, attention to detail are chief among them.

I actually never intended to go into PR. I graduated at 21 with a CV full of journalism internships, and while I was primed for an editorial career, it was more important to me at that young age to graduate school and find an office I liked to be in everyday.  When you’re used to being a student, the biggest job within your first job is making the transition to a 9-5 mentality, and my priority was finding a company that I liked spending so much time with, and a team which would help me transition from student to professional.  For me, that first full time job happened to be with a boutique PR agency, and the rest is history!

Q3.What sort of journalistic skills do you think would greatly benefit PR professionals?

As I said, writing is key.  These days, it’s common for the first contact with a client, international colleague or journalist to be through email.  Nothing makes me cringe like a poorly written email!  Aside from writing ability, tact and diplomacy are key.  Whether having a tough conversation with a client or negotiating costs with a vendor, you’ve got to know how to walk the fine line between assertive and stubborn or rude.  Finally, sense of humour.  PR is a fun profession, so let’s not forget it, even during the high stress times.  I once had a boss who had to remind me, “it’s PR, not ER.” Even when things get super stressful, I try to remember that!

Q4. Craig Pearce, an Australian communications professional, wrote two great blog posts comparing agency roles versus in-house roles. As someone whose worked in PR agencies their whole career, what would you describe as the pros and cons of agency life?

For me, the opportunity to work with a variety of brands on any given day makes coming to work exciting.  There’s not much of a chance of getting bored at a busy PR agency, which is a major pro for me.

Agency life makes you a well rounded professional and keeps you on your toes.  I’ve also made many personal friendships dealing with the media so frequently, so I appreciate the social aspect of agency life.  And another thing – agencies tend to be hot beds of expertise.  On any given day, I’ve got exposure to digital experts, video gurus, extraordinary event planners and creative geniuses, all sitting within a few meters of my desk.  How lucky am I?

Cons…hmm.  Finding and maintaining balance in your day can certainly be a challenge.  You might be out all day with one client only to find that another has a sudden deadline and needs your input.  One day we’ll find a way to clone PR people, I’m sure of it!

Q5. What would you say are the top 3 most important traits of a great PR pro?

  1. Attentiveness to news and events: always be on the lookout for opportunities to tell your clients’ stories.
  2. Think and act quickly: whether it’s a journalist on a deadline or a client request, PR people need to be able to grab the ball and run with it to maximise results.
  3. Master the basics: it might seem obvious, but deserves to be said again and again. Written and verbal skills are still the cornerstones of success in PR, whether you’re writing a proposal or a 140 character Tweet.

Q6. And lastly, any advice for the PR students out there looking for their first internship / job?

You’ve got a long career ahead, so follow your heart and focus on finding a company that you love, where you feel you’ll be able to develop as a professional.  You may think you know exactly what you want to do (I certainly thought I had it all figured out at 21!) but give yourself the permission to dabble in all sorts of industries.  Ah, and another thing – don’t Tweet or Facebook anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read – chances are you wouldn’t want your first boss to read it, either!

***To contact Jessica, get in touch via Jessica.ben-ari@bitecommunications.com***