After studying History and Professional writing Ally moved into corporate finance before transferring his skills across into communications roles in the public sector.
After building up a variety of marketing, communications and PR experience Ally progressed into a senior role as Corporate PR Manager with Sheffield Hallam University.
What attracted you to a career in PR?
When I was at college and at university I wanted to be a journalist. I’ve always been interested in stories and writing, and I’ve always taken an active interest in news and current affairs, particularly politics. I studied a degree in history with professional writing, and that gave me a basic understanding of the PR and media industry, which I became more attracted to as I neared the end of my studies. I also wrote features and edited entertainment listings for the student newspaper.
The problem was that I lacked any proper on-the-job experience so when I graduated I found it hard to get a foot into the industry. After some freelance journalism work that wasn’t really paying the bills I took a job in financial services. I found the work pretty dull, but it gave me a really solid grounding in understanding how big organisations operate, workplace politics, how to negotiate and influence, and ways to implement change. It was actually quite a valuable experience. I did quite well whilst there, I was promoted a couple of times, and got to spend some time working in India. But the desire to move into communications/PR never went away, and after three or four years I managed to make the move into a communications role at Sheffield City Council.
Tell us about your route in PR?
It took me a few years after graduating to finally get a job in the industry. I think it’s important to be patient while you wait for the right opportunity. I almost gave up, but I persisted in looking out for roles that I thought I could do.
I moved into communications when I took up a role as information and communications officer at Sheffield City Council in 2004/2005. This was an internal communications role, and despite not having the experience of working in a similar role, I was able to draw on experience of working on projects, managing change, and leading teams. I did that for two years before I took on my first proper PR and marketing role for South Yorkshire’s 101 non-emergency pilot scheme in 2006. I gambled a bit, because it was a fixed term (18 months) position, but I knew I wanted it and a colleague at the time, in whom I am still extremely grateful, strongly advised me to go for it.
I learned so much in my time in that role. I was pretty much a one-man-operation and it was a great generalist role in terms of being responsible for the full marketing and communications mix and managing budgets. There was a lot of regional PR too, so I developed some good relationships with local journalists.
Needing the security of a permanent role, I applied and was successful for the role of Marketing and PR Officer at an organisation called Skills for Justice – a publicly funded organisation that helps to improve the skills of people working in prisons, probation and the police. After a year or so I got the opportunity to step up and manage the team, which was an excellent opportunity. This gave me experience of strategy development, working with senior colleagues on change programmes, web development, trade PR etc. It was a great role, but I was really keen to do more PR work, less marketing! I moved on to Sheffield Hallam University after 3 years there, and I’ve been here for almost four years now
How did you make the move into Management?
Whilst working in financial services I was promoted to a role where I line managed a team of about 7 or 8 people. I learned a lot about personality traits and behaviour which was really beneficial when the opportunity came to move into managerial roles in PR and marketing, because I already had the transferable skills of managing and developing people and teams. Many people in marketing or PR officer/executive roles struggle to move up to that next level because they don’t have experience of managing people. At Sheffield City Council I managed a couple of people and at Skills for Justice I had a team of three. Now I have four and am hoping to expand further to have some dedicated resource in social media and public affairs.
Briefly talk us through a typical day as PR Manager?
My day consists of scanning the news headlines and having a brief PR planning meeting each morning (or at least several times per week) with my team. Here, we’ll talk about the big national stories of the day and whether we have any academic experts that might be able to provide comment. We also plan our social media activities for the day – talking through the content that we can tweet, post on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Instagram. The team have account management responsibilities for departments and faculties, so they will each be proactively pitching stories and releasing news about our research or student successes.
As an organisation of 35,000 students and more than 4,000 staff, unfortunately we do sometimes have crises and issues to manage. It’s my job to manage and lead on external communications for this and yes, sometimes I do have to spike a story here and there! I also evaluate media coverage, reporting to senior staff on where we’ve hit the headlines. Some of the day will also be spent advising colleagues from other areas on communications activities, and how we can integrate PR and communications into our wider marketing campaign efforts.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced throughout your career and how have you overcome them?
I’ve been lucky in that my career (so far at least) has taken an upward move with each new role, so I haven’t been in a position that lots of people have, where they’ve had to take a step down or even spend time out of work. In terms of challenges on the job, the biggest challenge is change – accepting that it is a constant, and that you have to continue to adapt in order to thrive.
The biggest challenges in the last few years have been the continued need to measure and evaluate PR activities to prove to senior colleagues that you add value; and in keeping up to speed with the changes in the sector due to the massive impact of social media. The digital age has completely turned the world on its head in terms of how we absorb information and news, so PR teams need to change, adapt, and work out the best ways to be relevant. In a few years, we probably won’t even use the world ‘digital’ – it will just be the norm.
What would you describe as the personal strengths and assets that have ensured success in your career?
A positive, inquisitive, can-do attitude is really important, as is an openness to change. In marketing and PR roles you will always have clients, and taking the time to understand what they really want from you is very important. In a managerial role, a strong level of diplomacy is important. I try to create a nurturing and supportive environment, where people are given the space and the time to be innovative and occasionally make mistakes without fear of being berated. You get more good work from people when they feel they are respected and encouraged. No-one wants to work where there is a blame culture and the boss always flips his lid.
If you could give a single piece of advice to someone looking to get into their own marketing career what would it be?
It’s too hard to say just one thing. I’m going to have to go for two!
Patience is important. Not everyone goes straight from college, university or an internship into their dream job. It’s actually pretty rare. It took me several years and a manager who took a chance on me before I got into PR/communications.
The second point is DO IT. While you patiently wait for the right opportunity, you can do voluntary work to get experience, build contacts, and make sure you reflect this on your CV. Don’t under-sell yourself, it’s surprising how many people do.