The Local Profile series of in-house Communicators culminates (in my opinion) with one of the best - Susie Brown, who heads up Communications and Outreach for our big “house on the hill” - the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Susie invited me there a while back and gave me such an insight into the work of her team, the variety of the roles they do and it left me feeling pride for the industry and inspired for my own career, with people like Susie doing such important work for the people of the country. And she’s so much fun too, she has no free time that I can see (unless she has managed to clone herself) and yet she makes time for anyone who asks for her help.
Yet again, she has taken so much time to produce an in-depth look at her career and her current work and I’m chuffed to be able to share it with you all…
How did you get where you are today?
My degree is in English and Philosophy from UUJ and then I did a Postgraduate Diploma in Information Management. I then went on to do the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Advanced Certificate – it’s at that stage that I knew I wanted to pursue a career in PR.
My first PR job was at the National Lottery Charities Board. It was my role to raise awareness of the charities and voluntary organisations that had benefited from lottery money. It was a great insight into the sometimes unsung heroes of our community and voluntary sector. One of my most vivid memories of that job was attending an event with our then Chair, John Simpson, who asked me to say a few words to the people who had gathered to hear the announcement of who was to receive lottery funding. I had no expectation of speaking, I had no notes and no idea what I would say. John simply said to me – “sink or swim” and the rest is history. John is still a valued colleague today – he doesn’t remember that occasion, but I certainly do.
I then spent nearly four years in London as a Press Officer for the British Safety Council – a health and safety organisation. My role there was to raise awareness of our awards scheme for employers and writing a feature for our monthly magazine, Safety Management. London was quite a culture shock for me but I really enjoyed my time there, made some great friends and gained superb experience. I was always destined to come home and that was my next move – to the Consumer Council – safe to say, that’s where I earned my PR stripes.
My six years at the Consumer Council were career and character forming. We were the epitome of a team – right from the Chair, Chief Executive and all the staff. My Chief Executive was Eleanor Gill – a human dynamo, who trained, encouraged and mentored me into thinking in a completely different way. It was hard work and long hours – mostly spent in the green rooms of BBC and UTV but I loved it and Eleanor is still my trusted friend and mentor today.
What three tips would you offer someone just starting out in the industry?
I don’t think you can beat someone with enthusiasm and a good work ethic. Sharp writing skills are great but they can be learnt. Being a great people person and a touch of humility are priceless. I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself and I expect my team to do the same.
What’s a typical week like in your role?
I bet I’m not the only PR (or other) person to say there’s no such thing, but there really isn’t. My responsibilities span managing the Assembly’s press office, website and social media output, I manage our Broadcasting and Print and Publishing Contracts as well as Community, Business and Parliamentary outreach programmes, VIP visits, our joint Bursary Scheme with QUB and corporate events.
Let’s take this week for example. Mondays and Tuesdays are days when the Assembly sits in Plenary so I am always in Parliament Buildings.
Monday – making sure the team are ready to deliver the weekly media briefing and responding to media enquiries efficiently; meeting an organisation about a giant waterslide down the hill at Stormont (I kid you not); meeting with Cinemagic - -we are doing a joint project with them to encourage more women into political life; all at a time when we’ve got the builders in to fix the roof; a meeting with my web and IT team about the fact that our website kept falling over and what we were going to do about it; I’m knee deep in writing papers about our broadcast contract and a public consultation on the new Engagement Strategy that I’ve just finished writing; finish the day with a Board meeting on business engagement.
Tuesday – hanging around the Great Hall catching up with people coming and going and (attempting) to keep order with the media pack; a photo call with the Speaker about a project we are doing with Belfast City Council and Cinemagic; a briefing for Business Trust members with two Ministers during which the division bell went and the Ministers and all the Politicians had to leave - Awkward. Time to think on your feet!
Wednesday – best part of the week as I do one to one reading with P5s at Gilnahirk PS as part of the Time to Read Volunteer programme; a wash up meeting – ( a meeting to go over actions and notes from a previous meeting or iniatives); a meeting about the Spotlight programmes on expenses; and then overseeing a photo call
Thursday – A meeting about budgets and staffing – I don’t have enough of either!; a meeting about equality; my weekly meeting with my managers to see what’s coming at us next week; a meeting about a Committee report that’s coming out at the end of the month and prepping for a speaking engagement.
Friday – a wonderful speaking engagement at UUJ giving some hints and tips to young people wanting to be part of the wonderful career we have; paperwork; getting my nails done at 4.30 and then down to the BBC for a Children in Need reception.
Last week I was in Cardiff talking to my counterparts from Wales, Scotland and England about communications and engagement and next week – I was to be in Brussels last week but had to stay in Belfast to prepare and deal with some issues arising out of the BBC NI Spotlight programme on MLA expenses. Story of my life – meant to be somewhere and end up somewhere else – it’s all part of the job.
What has changed in for the better and worse since you started in the industry?
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen even in my five years at the Assembly is the falling numbers of political correspondents and journalists in general – especially those based in Parliament Buildings. That makes the challenge of working with the media to help people understand what we do here all the more difficult.
Social Media has been a major change in how people consume news and information and that’s a positive development but it needs to come with responsibility - Everyone is now a broadcaster and a journalist but without accountability – that has its challenges.
If you were hiring for an entry-level position, what would make a candidate stand out?
I’m a big believer in chemistry and gut instinct and I’ve learned to always trust it. I like positivity and people who are willing to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in.
What is your proudest moment to date?
Some of the events my team and I organised at the Consumer Council really stand out – the launch of Eco-World was just so creative, new and innovative. I am incredibly proud of being named twice in the PR Power Book which is a list of the 100 most influential PR practitioners in the UK. I was one of only five people from here to be named and one of only two women. I still get a kick out of that!
Working at the Assembly is challenge and intoxicating in equal measure but it’s a huge privilege to be part of where Northern Ireland is as a society.
When you switch off (if you switch off!) what do you do with your own time?
I don’t really switch off – my radar and antennae are always on high alert. I hate the thought of something happening and a) me not knowing about it and b) letting people know about it. I just love spending time with family and friends. My niece and nephew - Sam and Nicola are my pride and joy and the angels on my shoulder. I am so proud of being part of the Time to Read voluntary programme where I take an hour out and read with P5s – that’s a great touch of reality in a busy working week and I love going back to school to be with them. l play golf, tolerate the gym and just love being at home and chilling out and catching up with my one true love – TV!
You should follow Susie on Twitter (@Brownturf) and whether you live in Northern Ireland or you’re visiting, you should try the free tours of our very own Parliament Buildings.