Cornelius Alexander on the joy of PR

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This is an interview by Jazz Chappell

Cornelius Alexander is media relations manager at London Probation Trust, who work with offenders aged 18 and over that are serving the remainder of their sentences in the community. By first carrying out assessments and working with the offenders in prisons and continuing this when they leave prison,t hey contribute to crime prevention and public safety by reducing the re-offending risk.

He is also Chair of the CIPR diversity working group. They are part of the professional body, recognising diversity as an all-encompassing term referring to gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, religion and age. They are aiming to tackle issues across the profession and embedding diversity into the CIPR itself.

He very kindly agreed to an interview to share his career journey, current CIPR work and to offer his advice to aspiring PR professionals.

Growing up in London’s East End in Isle of Dogs, Poplar and Limehouse, creative writing was always something he enjoyed whilst at secondary school as well as having a desire to travel.

Careers for working class kids

‘The only career which I imagined would give a working class kid the opportunity to do both was journalism’

After spending five years working as a journalist with newspapers he made the switch over into media relations and PR. He says his background in journalism helped him immensely.

‘I had a really good relationship with the local Fire Brigade PR in North West London so I had a very good insight into PR because of her. This extended to a colleague at the LFB in central London too so I knew roughly what the job entailed.’

‘Being able to anticipate the type of questions a journalist might aske and by extension the angle of his/her story was a useful skill from journalism to bring to media relations, as was an understanding of news deadlines.’

Equally, knowing how to write tight copy and in plain English is a skill, which has become more useful over time, especially in media relations. Having to ‘translate’ the jargon-filled text of colleagues is a challenge that he enjoys.

His previous roles at New Scotland Yard, the office of the Mayor of London, Vancouver Coastal Health (whilst living in Canada) and now his role at London Probation Trust have all been in the public sector. Helping to make a difference is clearly an important aspect of the job to him as they all involve working with people who are making a constructive contribution to society.

On experience and specialisation

He says ‘I am merely supporting those who make that contribution; the bottom-line with regards to my work is that the public have a better understanding of the work being carried out by that service.’

His advice on choosing whether or not to specialise in a sector is to ‘Get a working knowledge of different disciplines before settling on any one sector. The joy of PR is being able to move across different sectors; the key is having transferable skills and experience.’

Speaking of the challenges of working at the Probation Trust due to lack of knowledge and awareness he says: ‘Probation suffers from a double whammy. It is not part of the public consciousness because of the lack of coverage either though drama or factual shows which some areas of public life have achieved.’

‘Everyone understands police work, hospital life, fire brigade or the military because of dramas or factual programmes. Last year’s drama ‘Public Enemies’ and February’s factual ‘Out of jail and on the streets’ were the first programmes since the 1990s which had looked at probation’.

He says that as a lot of the work the London Probation Trust carry out is not visual in the way that a police raid or major fire would be, there is often nothing visual to cover.

‘Selling a story about probation takes time because the average person has little understanding of the work. Much like an airline which only becomes news when the plane crashes whereas the 999 safe landings are not mentioned, probation is only in the spotlight when something goes wrong but it is a very effective but invisible service the rest of the time.’

‘Twitter has been a godsend’
With social media being a newer driving force of the industry for both PR pros and journalists he talks of Twitter, saying that is has been a godsend. The Trusts have embraced it as a way to get news, opinions and facts out in the open and to the public with no media middleman’.

‘As Twitter is designed for dialogue rather than broadcast it is important that journalists take the time to speak to probation press teams to get the full context behind a tweet. After all, there is a century of experience which 140 characters can’t encapsulate.’

When comparing the traditional skills of PR to the newer social media related ones he says that although ‘PRs are often early adopters of technology and communication advancements, I would still prioritise the traditional skills as I don’t think they will go away.’

‘Social media, like other advancements which will have at its roots those traditional PR skills if you text, write a press release, for the web or for print. It’s all about precise copy. Getting to the point and backing it with facts and evidence.’

He states that being well-rounded with regards to having a working knowledge of the disciplines within PR will be a real help to your career.

Diversity matters

The CIPR Diversity Networking Group, which he chairs, is carrying out some great research and initiatives to tackle the lack of diversity in the industry.

A recent ‘Future Perspectives’ report by the group indentified that black and minority ethnic (BME) students are more interested in PR as a career than non-BME students. He says the issue is that this doesn’t translate into those students actually pursuing that preferred career and becoming PR practitioners.

‘Our recommendations looks at how to remedy this – and targeting students and their parents is important. Parents of BME students are a strong influence on career choices, with many wanting their children to pursue a career in the more established professions.’

He also says that he believes there are highly-placed women and BME practitioners in PR who are either not being profiled or seek not to push themselves forward as role models.

‘As important as it is for young practitioners to know they have a long, fulfilling and successful career in PR it is equally important for potential employees not to think that hiring a BME candidate is a gamble especially for senior roles when there are already successful practitioners from a BME background in such positions already.’

With the recent launch of industry association PRCA’s diversity network, both of the industry’s organisations, along with some agencies, are actively aiming to improve diversity in the industry. He says:

‘There is a real need to have a unified approach, an alliance, as it were so that all bodies, agencies of all sizes are talking to each other giving each other either support or swapping ideas. If everybody is looking after their patch then the changes will take much longer to take effect but change is coming.’

How to stand out

His three top qualities to look for in new recruits are enthusiasm, ideas & curiosity and a willingness to learn from mistakes and take constructive criticism.

When asked about how us students can stand out in the competitive industry of PR he advises us to get involved with extra-curricular activities to get a better understanding of the media, though local community newspapers or hospital radios.

Volunteering with local PR groups and becoming a part of the national bodies are also beneficial and finally entering student competitions or student awards will all give that extra ‘wow’ factor to potential employees.

And as final advice we should be willing to learn from constructive comments, ignore negative ones, and have a mentor or two.