All change: on jobs and careers

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

St Pancras Station (photo Thomas Nugent,
St Pancras Station (photo Thomas Nugent,

I have a gold watch given by the directors of the Butterley Company to my great-grandfather to mark 52 years ‘of faithful service’ to the same Derbyshire manufacturing firm.

That was in 1937. The firm, founded in 1790, is most famous for providing the steel beams that support the spectacular roof at St Pancras station in London.

But it no longer exists today and its former headquarters building is now owned by Derbyshire Constabulary.

So my ancestor, a school leaver who progressed to become a surveyor had a job for life in a company that lasted for two centuries.

Job for life?  52 years of service? Today’s 21 year-old graduate would be into their 70s if they worked that long.

The Butterley Company belonged to the industrial age.

When I look back on the various information age public relations roles I held in the 1990s – as an employee and as a consultant – I can’t find a single firm that still exists independently just 20 years on. WordPerfect, Novell, Compaq, Lotus Development: these were big technology names back then, but they mean nothing to my students today.

I wasn’t unlucky, or particularly unambitious, and I have never been sacked or made redundant. In some ways being absorbed into a larger firm is a successful outcome for owners and directors.

My former boss Mike Copland, who retired at the start of last year, held a series of senior posts at ever larger consultancy firms from A Plus Group to Brodeur Worldwide, Pleon UK and Ketchum. This was without ever leaving: he rode the waves of acquisitions from one business to another for over 25 years.

In my experience, public relations is most needed in times of change. But with change comes uncertainty and risk.

The risks may be greater in the private sector where competition and new technology can transform fortunes. The Butterley Company lasted for over two hundred years. The National Health Service is 70 next year. Much loved and much needed (remember the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony?), it is hard to see it surviving unchanged for another 100.

Change happens, and for those of us in public relations and communication roles it means important work to be done. Bad news to some is good news for us.

Only you will know how much risk you are willing to accept. Only you can judge when to leave and seek new challenges.

What you should be trying to do is to make each trip into a coherent journey – your career direction.

During that same decade I’d been a consultant, a contractor, an in-house manager, a trainer and a university lecturer – but all within the same field of public relations. Before that I’d been a teacher, a typesetter, a publisher and a journalist – all very useful for my future work.

Jobs bring other tangible and intangible benefits. Each role brings a network and I have often found myself working with former colleagues again in different circumstances. Some call that social capital.

Then there’s the professional capital from having gained the experience of working with inspiring colleagues on challenging projects, and from the training and development you received.

Finally, there’s the financial capital of being well rewarded for your work, or from having accrued some pension benefits long after the firm ceased to exist.

Besides, who uses watches anymore, let alone gold watches on a chain?