Guest Interview: “Super” In-House Communications

It’s a great interview this week on the “Local Profiles” series…

Kate Ferguson is the Communications Manager at Musgrave Retail Partners NI, one of our most well-known companies covering more than 250 independent retail partners across the SuperValu, Centra and Mace brands. Kate has a wealth of experience from both agency and in-house life, marketing and communications and she has kindly taken the time to give a real insight into her experiences which I know you’ll find interesting and useful!

Kate at the Ulster Grocer awards 2014 where they won best CSR initiative for their work with Action Cancer.

How did you get where you are today?

I hold an honours degree in English Literature from Durham University and a CIM Diploma in Marketing. However rather than qualifications, I believe hard work and ambition got me to where I am today.

I started gaining experience in communications and marketing whilst at University, working with Virgin as a brand ambassador during my degree.

I then gained valuable experience in London of the marketing mix working for a global healthcare agency. I soon realised that it was communications, rather than the marketing, I wanted to specialise in and after two years, moved back home to work with PR agencies in Belfast.

I started by PR career at DCL, now Stakeholder Communications, before moving to Smarts which gave me a solid grounding in the basics of PR, working with both big corporates such as Diageo, Bank of Ireland and Yellow Pages and charities including the Northern Ireland Hospice and Marie Curie.

After almost four years I moved onto Duffy Rafferty Communications (DRC) as an Account Manager where I stayed for just under five years. I ensured that I only moved agencies when I felt I had gained sufficient experience and progressed as much as I could. With DRC I gained fantastic experience of travel and tourism PR working for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Stena Line and Hastings Hotels and food and drink with brands such as Brennans Bread and Molson Coors. I developed a strong network of media contacts whilst progressing to the position of Account Director.

When I heard about an in-house opportunity to manage the communications of Musgrave Retail Partners, I wasn’t actively looking to change roles but felt it was a ‘now or never’ chance to move in-house. After over a decade of advising clients on their communications and PR, I felt it was time I sat on the other side of the desk! It was also a chance to develop in an entirely new area of internal communications and move from a small agency to a company that employs over 150 staff centrally in Belfast and tens of thousands across the UK, Ireland and Spain!

The fast-paced world of grocery retail has certainly proven to be challenging but also an extremely interesting and rewarding role. From directing five or six clients I now manage the communications for more than 250 independent retail partners across the SuperValu, Centra and Mace brands as well as our corporate, consumer, internal PR and CSR.

What three tips would you offer someone just starting out in the industry?

  1. Gain experience and make the most of it – any chance you get hands-on experience of PR, snap it up with enthusiasm! Even if it’s just two weeks unpaid, ask as many questions as possible and be willing to get stuck in, whether it’s making the tea or picking up the jobs no-one wants to do. If you can do all of the so-called menial jobs with enthusiasm, people will notice and remember you. It will also be obvious in interview that you’re willing to ‘get your hands dirty’ and not looking for instant progression.
  2. Build up your contacts – with more reliance on advertising, it is difficult to get space for stories amongst the press and offer them something new. It really helps to know who to talk to in the media and how to talk to them and my advice is to get out to as many events as possible when you’re starting out in PR to make those vital contacts that should stand you in good stead for most of your career.
  3. Be honest – if you don’t have experience in a particular area that someone has asked you to look after, or if you don’t understand what you’re being asked to do, don’t just try to muddle through it alone. There’s nothing worse than asking an employee to look after a task and then finding two days later that they haven’t started it, or have taken the completely wrong approach as they were too scared to ask.

What’s a typical week like in your role?

The best thing about working in communications in the world of grocery retail is that you can only plan so much but also have to deal with the unexpected and last-minute requests - it’s not a job for someone who doesn’t like a challenge. I am a planner by nature but I’m also at my sharpest when an unexpected media or retailer enquiry comes in at the last minute which requires you to think and act on your feet.

I’m responsible for all internal and external communications for Musgrave Retail Partners so during a typical week I will have a number of meetings with various departments, stakeholders and media. I report into the Managing Director so it’s important for me to keep him up to date with everything that’s happening both internally and externally in regard to communications.

I will also meet with managers and directors across the company, including marketing, trading and business development to plan ahead and keep up to date with what’s happening in the overall business.  Retail is extremely fast-paced and things can change very quickly so I need to ensure I’m on top of all of our projects and campaigns with each of the SuperValu, Centra and Mace brands.

Musgrave partners 250 independent retailers across the brands so there are always stories out there and it’s up to my department to develop those into both internal and external news.

I’ll catch up on a Monday morning with the Communications Assistant and we’ll plan any press releases, photocalls, features or events for the week ahead and where necessary for extra support, brief in the freelancers we work with.

We have two major sponsorships – Action Cancer and Ulster Rugby. At Musgrave we take our CSR role very seriously and one of the company’s values is long-term, stable relationships. We’ve partnered Action Cancer for 13 years and along with our independent retailers we have raised more than £2 million through SuperValu’s sponsorship of the Big Bus mobile and Centra’s sponsorship of the Health Action programme for schools.  These initiatives are very rewarding to work on and my role is to communicate them not only to the media through a variety of PR campaigns, real-life stories and awards events but also to work with our retailers to ensure they are engaged.

There are a number of events we organise for our retailers throughout the year with the main one being our Store of the Year Gala Ball March. This is a very exciting if somewhat challenging event to organise as it caters for more than 300 retailers and internal staff with a variety of tastes.  We reward our top performing stores over the years but ensure everyone has a great night and are entertained from start to finish.

For anyone who may think in-house communications is more staid and structured than agency, it is definitely more planned as this is necessary for a successful business, however there is an amazing variety within the work. It also offers a real depth of experience as projects are created and managed from start to finish and the buck stops with you!

What has changed for the better and worse since you started in the industry?

I think social media has been both a blessing and a curse for communications. It means there is a much broader range of platforms to reach the media, customers and stakeholders but it does require much more time and budgets to ensure you are constantly able to respond.

It has also meant falling readership for our newspapers and in turn cutting staff which has been sad to see. Thankfully many of the press are combating this with online versions and social media sites, although for me there is still nothing like seeing a major story in print in the newspaper!

None of us have the budgets that we used to, but I think it’s an opportunity to be more creative with PR and to look at other ways of gaining coverage without spend, such as partnerships and sponsorships.

If you were hiring for an entry-level position, what would make a candidate stand out?

An enthusiastic attitude and willingness to learn are essential qualities. I often see entry level candidates who have a high level of confidence but aren’t willing to start from scratch and believe that a degree automatically guarantees instant progression. Confidence can be built over time if you have the right attitude.

What is your proudest moment to date?

For the last 10 months I’ve been working on a major consumer campaign for our SuperValu brand called SuperMums. We developed this to reward and recognise Mums across Northern Ireland for their everyday bravery and strength and just last month we held the final at Parliament Buildings.

It was very inspirational and it’s always great in the sometimes fickle world of PR to be able to develop a campaign which recognises real people, part of the essence of the SuperValu brand. The competition rewarded a Mum for each of the 37 SuperValu stores across Northern Ireland and we had an amazing amount of entries from our customers, with incredible stories to tell.

Working with media partners Sunday Life and U105 and sponsors P&G and, it was a very inspiring campaign from start to finish and it was very humbling to meet so many strong and independent mums who are taking life’s challenges, opportunities and issues in their stride.

When you switch off (if you switch off!) what do you do with your own time?

Working in communications can be 24/7, particularly now with social media so you need to take time out to relax when possible. I live beside the coast so there’s nothing like a run by the sea or taking our dog Marley for a long walk along the beach for relaxation. When we get the chance, my husband and I love to travel and I’ve been lucky enough to have enjoyed a number of fantastic experiences from trekking the Inca Trail in Peru, to a road trip across the USA, backpacking across Europe and Asia and a skydive in Australia!

My ‘own time’ may not be that for much longer as we’re looking forward to not one but two new arrivals to the household next year, with twins on the way!

You can follow Kate on Twitter @KateRFerg and I know you’ll join me in wishing her luck for her double-bundle-of-joy arrivals!