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Friday Interview | Sarah Waddington on future proofing the PR industry

We caught up with Sarah to find out how she has remained at the forefront of an industry which has changed almost unrecognisably since she set up her business 12 years ago...

Written by High Life North
Published 13.03.2020

By Laura Kingston

From a PR background myself, I’ve really been looking forward to this interview. First of all, can you tell us about how you got into PR initially?

I was very lucky that I found what I loved to do at a really early age. I studied Media Relations with French at Trinity & All Saints in Leeds and really enjoyed it. As part of the course we got to do various work placements. My first was a PR agency in Leeds and the second was at Tyne Tees in its Regional Affairs department. I loved both so when I came back to the North East after university I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I moved around a bit from agency to agency and completed an MA in Marketing to develop those skills. After that I was headhunted a few times until eventually I was running three offices for what was the largest independent marketing agency at the time. Then the recession hit. 

In the director role that I had, I wasn’t working with clients as much, it was more about managing the office and staff. Clients were looking at their budgets in the recession and asking if I would consider setting up on my own. One of the things that the recession created was a new approach from professional services who were putting staff back to home working. As a result, it became much more acceptable for a PR practitioner working from home to be taken seriously. I set up Sarah Hall PR in 2009 and haven’t looked back since. 

I got married again last year and we had been talking about rebranding for a long time as the business has grown so much. It’s less about me as an individual now, we have a much bigger team. So I changed my name to Sarah Waddington and we rebranded the business to Astute.Work. It reflects our growth into offering management consultancy as well as PR and marketing. Our management consultancy arm helps businesses to articulate their purpose, manage change and build capacity, whilst our PR and marketing division offers strategic insight and tactical support to ensure the organisation achieves its objectives. It’s a unique offering and I’m really proud of what we have created. 

I’m a huge advocate of the value of a PR specialist at board level in an organisation. What are your thoughts on that? 

It was basically my mission when I decided to stand as CIPR President. I could see that we had a massive disconnect with what people thought public relations was, and even what people thought a PR practitioner’s skill set should be. I decided that I wanted to close that gap and thankfully there were a lot of people in the industry who got behind that and are helping to make that change a reality.

PR is often mistaken for media relations – which is getting stories into the press – or event management. In reality there are a raft of different aspects to the job, from lobbying to internal comms. Ultimately, a good strategic PR practitioner’s role is to work with the board and the management team to understand what organisational purpose they have, what they are looking to achieve and to be the eyes, ears and conscious of the organisation. When we’re in boom times, it doesn’t matter for brands if they aren’t considering that, but in times of austerity – which we’ve been in for five to 10 years now – consumers are in a different place. They are looking at where their money is going and in most cases, they care about what brands they are spending with so it is about making their lives better in some way, shape or form.

There can also be some confusion between PR and marketing. They are very much entwined but marketing is often a lot of budget spend, on advertising for example, whilst PR is all about building advocacy, loyalty and a lifetime of customer purchases. They work in a very complementary fashion but to my mind, PR has a much higher purpose. I’ve always said that because PR help the board to set the strategy, they should be the ones that marketing and advertising report in to.

Banging the drum for PR as a strategic management function is something that I have always done, inherently believe in, am passionate about and will never stop doing.

How have you seen the PR industry change since you set up your business and how have you kept up with those changes?

It’s almost unrecognisable to what it was 10-12 years ago. The onset of digital and social media platforms means that everyone can now be a broadcaster and publisher. Any layman can have a view or voice an opinion, which means that brands can do that too. Instead of having to use traditional media outlets, if they are savvy, brands can go straight to their potential customers. 

At Astute.Work, a big change for us was helping brands to become publishers in their own right. We moved from a media relations first approach and now use a framework called PESO. It’s not in order of importance but essentially is: 

Earned – media relations, press coverage

Shared – influencers, who is important, becoming an advocate

Owned – website, social channels 

Paid – advertising

It’s all about engaging with the target audience and the key word there is engage. Listen to conversations and listen to what your customers are saying. Cascade that information which is massively valuable and often free if you are using social media to change operations within the business. That’s adding value. 

I’ve been very active in the industry for years which has been an important way to not only keep up-to-date with the industry but also, perhaps more importantly, to help shape its future. Paul Dobbie from Persuasion PR introduced me to CIPR NE (the professional body for PR practitioners) in an admin role initially. I moved around various roles, helping with events before becoming the North East Chair. After a few years I was invited by a past President to get involved at board and council level which is very much about agreeing the governance, setting policy and looking at how we influence the future of the industry. I did that for 10 years before deciding to stand for President. I became President of CIPR in 2018, was Vice-President last year and I’ve just stepped down. It’s been a busy decade…

What is your advice for people wanting to get into a career in PR? 

Industry data is showing that PR is becoming a bit of a closed shop unless you have networks and money behind you. Widening the gateway is something we need to address. Through our professional industry bodies and my own community #FuturePRoof, we are working to break down those social mobility barriers so that anybody, irrespective of colour, race, age or background is welcome in our PR community. It’s hugely important for businesses because how can you represent publics if you don’t have people representing different parts of society in your team? 

I’m from a single parent family. I got a Council grant to go to university and I’ve worked really hard since then to build a nice lifestyle but I always remember that not everyone has it easy or starts off with the same opportunities. With #FuturePRoof, I created an on-demand book to help share best practice and learnings from the industry which people could access online for free. There are now four books in the series and a thriving community and I’m very grateful to everyone who has contributed for sharing their expertise.

My advice to anyone looking to get into the industry?

It’s all about attitude and being smart. Understand business. Business management and leadership skills should be front of your mind from the outset because if you have those skills alongside PR and marketing experience, you’ll be an asset to whichever industry and organisation you go to because those skills are transferable. 

Be bold and network. There are a number of different networking groups that you can get involved with in the North East and there is not always a cost to attend. There is often a good speaker so you are expanding your network and expanding your knowledge at the same time.

Finally, what are your North East favourites? 

Well, we have a blended family of five kids so we try to get out and about at the weekend. We love to go to Seaton Sluice beach with our dog. She loves it there and the boys do sand dune jumping.

We’re quite time poor as my husband Stephen works in London Monday to Thursday, so to eat we often go to The Pavilion nearby – you can often find us in there! 

We also love Tynemouth Markets and North Shields Fish Quay

If we want to venture a bit further, High Force waterfall is a great walk.

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