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It Ain’t Over Til The Fat Lady Sings

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Jane Atkinson

April 2012

CEO “Can you come to New York?”
Me “How long do you need me there?”
CEO “About the next two months.”
Me “????!!!!*****” (expletive deleted)

And so began the four most extraordinary years of my communications career. To say it has been interesting and varied would be an understatement. I started work in PR in the 80s when you could still make the leap from secretary. Consumer PR was where I earned my stripes, with brands like Pyrex, Hallmark Cards, Pears Toiletries. I followed this with a move to corporate and B2B.

In a career spanning nearly forty years I gained a lot of experience across a lot of clients. I worked in large and small consultancies, founded consultancies, closed consultancies down, was made redundant and picked up again, worked in-house and did a brief spell from January to August 1996 as media advisor to Diana, Princess of Wales.

In 2012, aged 64, I decided to retire. I was working freelance and, frankly, getting a bit fed up with it all. I felt like I had done pretty much everything and was not inspired by very much. The communications industry was rapidly changing to meet the demands of a more connected digital world, and although I truly believe that the basic reputation management disciplines remain the same, delivery is so much more complex.

I had some non-exec advisory positions. One was for the Global Poverty Project (GPP), a not-for-profit organisation that started life in Australia, migrated to London and then to New York. It was led by a team of young Aussie entrepreneurs who had dedicated themselves to ending extreme poverty.

This blog-spot doesn’t allow me enough room to explain their model but I believed in them and who can argue about the need to improve maternal health, healthcare systems, education for all, equality for girls and women, sanitation and access to clean drinking water and enough food.

As an advisor I was attending a strategy think-tank in London when the CEO asked me to join them as Director of Global Communications. I said ‘no’ of course, but six weeks later found myself on a flight to New York and the start of a rollercoaster four years.

GPP and its founders think big and do not allow small setbacks to get in their way. Despite their age and inexperience, they operated on a world stage. They needed to develop a high profile in one of the most challenging communications markets in the world. America is obsessed with celebrity, so the organization engaged influencers to work with them and endorse the mission. New York loves big noisy extravagant gestures, so we planned the Global Citizen Festival the first of its kind, in Central Park. New York loves entrepreneurs and charisma, and our CEO Hugh Evans, a celebrated humanitarian, was a great front man. New York loves new and exciting ideas, and we founded Global Citizen, an online movement of advocates and activists coming together to fight the injustice of extreme poverty.

It was a heady mix of energy, ideas, young vibrant people, drive, the UN, the World Bank, Hugh Jackman and no money. It was an unstoppable force. All I had to do was to manage their reputation, manage their profile and help them to become well-known. Does that sound like a familiar brief – and all too often without the material to do it. But not this time.

I hired a New York based agency, Sunshine Sachs. I worked closely and advised the senior team. I zig-zagged the Atlantic for four years, and let me tell you that for a not-for-profit you travel at the back of the plane and you don’t stay in cool hotels. Fortunately, I have had my share of first class flights and accommodation but it was hard.

And now, four years later, Global Citizen is poised to be the largest on-line movement in the world – with over 7million users and growing by more than 100,000 new users each week. We have staged four Festivals. I have overseen the script and the run-of-show for all of these. Neil Young with Crazy Horse headlined in 2012, with the Foo Fighters. Stevie Wonder in 2013. In 2014 we had JayZee, and in 2015 Beyoncé, Coldplay, Pearl Jam and Ed Sheeran. On our stage presenters such as First Lady Michelle Obama, the United Nations Secretary General, The President of the World Bank Jim Kim, Prime Minister Modi of India, and many more, have pledged support to the world’s poorest people, (and so many viral celebrity moments have happened that I would just be showing off to share them). In 2015 alone, the audience attending the Festival took actions that will affect the lives of over 98 million people around the world in the areas of health, education and sanitation. I cannot believe that I have had the great fortune, at the end of my career, to have been instrumental in bringing such an amazing project to life. It was a gift and a challenge.

I left GPP in December 2015 and have finally retired!! For the last year I had been Chief of Staff, which had been another interesting departure. The role is very similar to comms because you find yourself liaising with all departments and the senior executive team, as well as running the office of the CEO. It is more internal than external, and involves a lot of strategy and input into management.

Do I have a message? A base in communications can lead to the most interesting projects. It can lead to fame and fortune, to helping the world, or just to having good fun. And you aren’t retired until the fat lady stops singing!!