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 Roger Christie, Head of Digital at Sefiani Communications

For this week’s addition to the Interview Series, we have PR professional Roger Christie discussing his transition from journalism to public relations, his role as Head of Digital at Sefiani Communications, internships, job hunting via social networks and his collaborative venture PRINKS.

Q1. First thing’s first, tell us a bit about yourself. What was your career path like?

I left school wanting to become a journalist as I had a real passion for writing.  After two-and-a-half years of my course, I suddenly realised that I wasn’t so sure and decided to give PR a go instead.  The appeal of working alongside businesses to advise on their communications needs appealed to me and gave me that corporate edge that I was after.

I did my first internship at Edelman working with their Health team, before moving to Five Star PR in Manly – a two-person team.  Having exposure at both ends of the spectrum gave me an early look at agency life and where I saw myself working best in the future.  As I finished my degree, an opportunity came through at Sefiani and I jumped at the chance, as a friend had recommended the firm.  Almost five years on, I’m still here.

Q2. You’re the Head of Digital at Sefiani Communications, which sounds like a pretty cool role. What’s a typical day like?

The PR digital space is fascinating.  We’re at a point where our profession is rapidly coming to grips with a changing dynamic from proactively seeking to build client profiles to actively and reactively managing their reputation in a vocal online environment.

As such, my day can change in an instant should a conversation suddenly flare up online and we need to advise a client on managing that issue.  That’s the great thing about working in the digital environment though – you enjoy a much more fluid, real-time relationship with stakeholders and can see immediately whether people are responding to your ideas and approach.  And, if you’re wrong, they’ll tell you!

Q3. Aside from working at Sefiani Communications, you also co-founded an organisation – PRINKS – which is described as a “social group for communications professionals and students that provides an opportunity to meet with fellow industry and colleagues and share ideas each month.”

How did this come about and where do you see the group headed in the future?

Just on two years ago I met a fellow young PR practitioner (Gemma Crowley) for a drink with a former colleague of mine who was a mutual friend.  It was very informal and we talked about various things – work and leisure – but what we realised after our chat was that it was great talking to someone who understood the industry and the challenges of working in comms.

Then and there the PRINKS idea was born as we wanted to give all people working or looking for an opportunity in communications to learn from one another and understand how each individual discipline operates.  Not in a networking environment, but one that is relaxed and informal – that’s where you make your best connections.  I’m extremely grateful we took the plunge and gave it a go as I’ve met some wonderful folk and made some good friends over those two years.

We’ve since also established the PRINKS Facebook Page and Blog as two useful resources to discuss interesting ideas, campaigns or concepts relevant to those in the industry.  This includes our job board which provides us with a way to give back to the community – each job post requires a donation to the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation – which is an area we’d like to explore further.

Our ultimate aim is to hopefully provide better working relationships between PR folk, journalists, marketers and the like – by understanding what the other goes through in their jobs, we can work together more effectively to help everyone be the best in their profession.  What exactly that looks like I’m not quite sure, but we’re always open to ideas.

Q4. What were your internships like?

I didn’t really know what to expect when I first started at Edelman.  I’d been set on journalism, so the idea of PR hadn’t quite developed for me at that stage.  I quickly discovered that internships are a fantastic opportunity to learn what the ‘real world’ will be like, and even the mundane tasks have real benefits for your future career.

Sitting in meetings and just absorbing the discussion, or seeing a campaign through in its entirety – even though I wasn’t always actively involved, understanding the process helped me see how the job worked.  I’m also extremely grateful that I tried very different roles as it’s amazing the differences, good and bad, you experience when spending time in a global agency and a two-person agency.

Q5. How important were social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn in your job hunt?

Funnily enough, social networks didn’t really ‘exist’ when I was finishing uni.  I was on Facebook but more from a personal perspective than professional.  When I was starting out, I used to email and cold call agencies, or see what opportunities came up on the uni noticeboard.  It’s also important to lean on your personal networks and don’t be afraid to ask for help or an introduction which is how I ended up at both Edelman and, ultimately, Sefiani.

What social networks have done today is simply provide new tools to do the same things for job seekers.  Your networks are now enhanced online, and cold calls are now ‘cold tweets’ – finding the right people is so much easier and faster.  LinkedIn is a little trickier for students as you don’t have a professional profile behind you, but make contact on Twitter and then give LinkedIn a go.  It’s almost becoming the norm now, and students these days should be harnessing those avenues available as it only takes a quick search on Twitter to find agencies in your city to start a dialogue – tools I wish I had when I was graduating!

Q6. And lastly, what’s your top advice for PR students on a job hunt?

Be proactive.  Hearing from someone who’s read a blog post of yours or is following you on Twitter immediately puts them above anyone replying to a job ad.  I subscribe to the theory that if you want something enough, go out and make it happen, and this certainly applies to finding a job.  Why compete with the other 35 CVs that come through to the grad manager’s inbox about an ad they’ve just posted when you can contact them out of the blue for a coffee?  They may not be hiring just yet, but by putting yourself under their nose and forging that connection, when a role does come up, you’re in a much stronger position.

***To contact Roger, get in touch via Twitter @rogerchristie or check out his thoughts on the communications industry at PRINKS***