I’m fortunate to be interviewing Alex Cole, who answers #4PRQs (Four PR Questions) this week. Alex is the Chief Brand & Corporate Affairs Officer for Bupa — health and care company. She sits on Bupa’s global executive team reporting to the CEO, and is responsible for marketing and customer experience, as well as PR, government affairs, internal communications and corporate responsibility. “Demonstrating your knack for and love of storytelling through writing, photography, video and storytelling will help you stand out from the crowd and hone your skills,” points out Alex.
MK: What was your way into the industry?
AC: I began my career in politics working for the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP as a researcher. It was a tiny team of three including his PA, and so I did a bit of everything – policy formulation, speechwriting, PR, internal papers and communications. Back then, I hadn’t realised the profession of corporate affairs existed and that each of these things was an expertise in its own right. I was simply motivated by the power of ideas, and of causing and campaigning for change. Most of how I approach things remains true to those early years.
After the 1997 General Election I joined a start up public affairs agency – it was a great entrepreneurial environment and really threw me in the deep end from a commercial point of view. Later I moved in-house to work for Cadbury, one of my favourite clients, spending 10 years there in various roles: first in public affairs and CSR; then branching right out into marketing, innovation and strategy; before returning to corporate affairs as the overall global Director. I absolutely loved it.
I left after Cadbury was taken over by Kraft, and went to work at Freuds, a PR agency, managing the Corporate division. It was fun, but I missed in-house life, and went to Sainsbury’s as Director of Corporate Affairs. Sainsbury’s CEO, Justin King, had a real knack for seeing everything through the eyes of customers, and bringing that approach into every bit of communication.
So I’ve meandered a lot: across corporate affairs disciplines and into other functions; been in house and in agency; and between the public and private sector. I think that’s been integral to my development as a corporate affairs professional and equipped me to sit on the executive team of a business like Bupa.
What piece of advice, regarding career, would you give your 20-year-old-self?
I think that meandering is the right approach and not to worry too much about being totally qualified for every job. There were times when l feared that I’d bitten off more than I could chew! But a fresh pair of eyes and willingness to learn, an ability to spot and surface problems, a commitment to improving things – these are qualities that will get you through. So be less worried about whether you ‘know’ the answers and have all the right experience, be curious and courageous and willing to have a go.
A fresh pair of eyes and willingness to learn, an ability to spot and surface problems, a commitment to improving things – these are qualities that will get you through.
How can PR graduates take advantage of the social and digital platforms, in order to gain attention of the agencies and other potential employers?
Use it! It’s a free and easy way for you to get your own experience. There are lots of people who say they are interested in PR but demonstrating your knack for and love of storytelling through writing, photography, video and storytelling will help you stand out from the crowd and hone your skills. In today’s PR world you should be able to film and edit and spot a good picture op, as well as write.
And it’s not just content creation and channel management; it’s also understanding and differentiating online metrics with a degree of sophistication, and appreciating the interplay with traditional media and marketing.
You’re expected to be digitally savvy. I wouldn’t employ someone who said they don’t read a newspaper or understand relevant broadcast and magazines – why would I employ someone who doesn’t engage digitally and socially?
In today’s PR world you should be able to film and edit and spot a good picture op, as well as write.
What is the most undiscovered area in the industry that could be used as a dissertation topic?
The interplay between external and internal communications is changing and up for radical reinvention. The lines between these traditionally distinct communication arenas is being blurred, particularly by social and digital. Your own people are customers too, and they should make the best and most credible brand advocates if harnessed to share stories that are interesting and salient to your customers. The ‘media’ is now inside – as well as outside – your company.
#4PRQs (or Four PR Questions) is a weekly series on the blog. I am on the mission to help PR graduates (including myself) make right decisions about their future careers, by asking industry leaders for an advice.
Would you like to give me a feedback or feature in the series? Drop me a line to kl.marcel [at] gmail.com or tweet me @marcelkl. Thanks for stopping by, have a splendid day!