50over50: Sarena Clarke

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication, change management and project communication. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

Sarena Clarke wasn’t a typical candidate for the CIPR Professional PR Diploma, not because she is in her 50s, but because her 30-year career has been in graphic design. However, her reasons for embarking on the course will resonate with many PR practitioners.

“I wanted to understand what colleagues on the other side of the room were doing” she explains. What Sarena means by this is understanding the context of the campaigns that land on her desk, thereby enabling her to contribute at a more strategic level.

As happens to many working in PR and comms, the solution is sometimes provided to us by others in the business rather than seeking our advice on the best approach.

Sarena wanted to really understand strategic PR and communication to enable her to ask the right questions and come up with the most effective campaign.

She wanted to be seen as more than a designer. “I didn’t want to be pigeon holed,” she says and was thrilled when her achievement was acknowledged in a work meeting together with a huge amount of support on social media.

Taking on a Master’s level qualification such as this later in your career is challenging but Sarena was really motivated and says it was actually something on her bucket list. “My friend’s mum did a Master’s in her 50s and I thought if she can do, so can I!”  For Sarena it was also a time when the kids were older giving her a bit more ‘me’ time.

“The last time I had studied was about 30 years ago when I did a post-grad qualification in advertising and marketing,” she explains.

Sarena spent some of her early career on the Belfast Telegraph in the Art Studio designing advertisements. It was a very full-on role – back then the paper had six editions a day! Its quite extraordinary to think now that so many regional print media are struggling that at one time there was enough revenue to support so many editions.

When the department eventually closed Sarena moved into the public sector and has been with her present housing organisation for 16 years.

So, what did her grown-up children think of her taking on study, while they themselves were off to university. “They thought I had gone mad!” she says. “I constantly had my nose in a book. But I wanted to show them that’s its never too late to learn. I think a lot of young people are under pressure to achieve things by a particular time in their lives and if they haven’t, its too late.

I wanted to show that it really is never too late to learn or change or develop your career.

Plus, I don’t think they really understood what I did for a living and now they do.

“I think they were shocked but also very proud.”

Sarena clearly enjoys learning but she admits that doing the PR Diploma was challenging. “As you go through the menopause it can be harder to remember things – I live my life by Post-it notes!

“Part way through I did have a crisis of confidence but my course leader Chris encouraged me to keep going. I think its important too, to be honest about failing. I didn’t pass everything first time and it’s like with your driving test – everyone likes to say they passed first time. But there is absolutely no shame – it’s part of the learning and if the course wasn’t challenging it wouldn’t have any value.

“I was studying online and I did find that hard sometimes. But I sought out another student who lived in Northern Ireland and we were able to support each other – in fact we’ve become good friends even doing a Park Run together. I’ve felt really welcomed into the PR and comms community.”

At this point I should just add that Sarena also learned how to run later in life doing Couch to 5k with her local running club at 48. She set herself an objective of running a 10k which she smashed. “I’ve always been good at setting personal objectives,” says Sarena. “Now through the PR Diploma I realise the importance of setting them in PR and comms campaigns too!”

Sarena says that she would encourage anyone over 50 to study. “Fear of failing can put you off, you don’t want to lose face and worry that people will judge you, but actually they don’t.”

Now with the qualification under her belt she feels that people will see her in a different light. She can contribute at more strategic level and think in more depth about the campaigns they are running.

“I’ve still got plenty in the tank” she laughs!