The saying goes: you either live to work or work to live. I have always been the former. From the moment I got my first Saturday job, I loved the comradery of my fellow colleagues and the independence I had from my parents. Knowing this about myself meant that, when the time for university approached, it was really important to me that the degree I chose would get me into a job I loved. An additional factor – being the youngest in my family by at least 10 years – was the impact of watching my older cousins struggle to find work when their job prospects shrank as the recession of the 80s took hold. Was I going to suffer a similar fate?
The 90s may have brought Girl Power (sans hashtag in those days), but careers advice could be truly terrible: ask any state-educated woman in their mid-30s and older and they’re sure to have some amusing anecdotes. My favourite so far was the recommendation to one acquaintance that she become a sheep farmer in New Zealand, after a computer quiz ignored her numerous answers about her love of writing and reading and homed in on the fact she liked animals and travel.
Fortuitously, like a fairy godmother, one of my unemployed cousins became a university careers advisor and as a result of her guidance (along with the idea of living by the sea) I chose to do a PR degree at Bournemouth. My industry placements at Barclays and oil and gas company ARCO British Ltd were amazing and I loved it – taking a TV crew and a poet over to a platform in the North Sea on National Poetry Day is something I will never forget, although unsurprisingly we could only air one of the poems written by the riggers, as the others were deemed unsuitable for broadcast.
Almost 18 years on, I am still in PR. Have I lived to work that entire time? Sadly not.
There was a point in my career when I fell completely out of love with PR. Calling myself a hater is a bit strong; indifferent-er is perhaps a better, if made up, term. But three years ago that’s how I felt. Uninspired and disempowered. After nine years in the public sector – albeit for the most part brilliant and career defining – I was in a rut and had no idea where to take my career next.
But the great news is, PR and I are now in a good place. What rekindled the passion? As a new member of the Women in PR (WIPR) Committee it might appear utterly sycophantic to suggest it ‘played Cupid’ but it is true. A panel session held in 2014 hosted by WIPR and Women in Boards, coupled with entering the PR Week Mentoring Scheme in 2015, completely changed my career direction. I only met my mentor face-to-face twice, which sounds like we didn’t hit it off. But Lauren Branston told me to leave my job (AND lots of other useful stuff) and that’s all I needed to hear.
Since my career was given the kick start it needed, it has gone from strength to strength. I would never have imagined three years ago that I would have been allowed to launch Sponsor a Child Trafficker. It’s a campaign that my team and I are immensely proud of: for its brave creative concept, high production value and its direct appeal to what has always been known as a ‘hard to reach’ audience. To date, 75% of the 500k views so far have been 13-17 year olds.
Choosing the right board to sit on was actually more challenging than choosing to leave public sector communications. Getting board-level experience is essential to progress; however, as many will know, volunteering happens in your free-time (weekends as well as evenings), so I had to make sure that I was happy to swap sofa time for it. Having been a carer myself, joining Sutton Carers Centre was a no-brainer. It is an issue that I am passionate about and has helped me connect with my local area as well as giving me strategic board experience.
Most people reading this blog will already know the value of passion, networking and CPD. However, as much as I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it, this blog isn’t really for you. It’s for my fellow haters, cynics and ‘indifferent-ers’. You don’t have to join WIPR (although if you’re a woman, mid-level in your PR career, then you’re crazy not to). But you might feel like, for whatever reason, you have had your career progression blocked, or perhaps like me you have just fallen out of love with PR and want to recapture the magic of those early days. If so, then, I would urge you to reach out to industry colleagues, groups and networks around you. Because one inspiring comment, one lightbulb moment – just might change your life. For the better.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Sarah Samee, Head of Communications, Cifas, UK’s Fraud Prevention Service