‘Dare to be noticed’: Interview with Ketchum’s David Gallagher

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This is an interview by Jazz Chappell.   

David Gallagher is Senior Partner and CEO of Ketchum Europe and is based in London. Ketchum is a global communications consultancy specialising in marketing and corporate communications, issues and crisis management, corporate and social responsibility and public affairs.

In 2011, it was named as ‘International Consultancy of the year’ at the PRWeek Awards, PR News has named it as one of the ‘Best places to work in PR’ for three years running and most recently it has been named as ‘Agency of the Year’ at the 2012 PRWeek US Awards.

Growing up outside Austin, Texas David began his career studying the rather unusual (and fascinating I’m sure) subject of Astronomy. He speaks of his swift change of heart “it quickly overwhelmed my underwhelming mathematical abilities. After brief forays into advertising and organisational communications, I found my way into journalism with a special cluster of courses on PR”.

Having a grandfather and two uncles in the publishing business must’ve been a great inspiration too; they published a weekly newspaper in rural Oklahoma. Speaking of his decision to pursue a career in the industry he says “There may have been a little ink in my DNA but I don’t recall an ‘aha’ moment or road-to-Damascus conversion. I do remember finding the problem solving aspect of PR appealing.”

He was more comfortable writing than adding or working with numbers, this would serve him well as he successfully gained his degree in journalism.

His first job at the US National Mental Health Association as a writer and editor actually gave him an insight into what life as a PR would be like. “NMHA had a small staff, I helped the media specialist answer queries from the press and one of my jobs was answering the post (this was before email was widely available, and you can imagine the kinds of letters a mental health advocacy organisation would draw), which gave me a first-hand view into how the ‘public’ saw mental health issues and the importance of communications.”

He then naturally progressed to a PR manager role at the American Diabetes Association. “My time at ADA was hugely instructive for me in terms of seeing the connections between media relations, public policy advocacy and community / public engagement. But most importantly it brought me into contact with a PR agency.”

“We were a Hill & Knowlton client and it was astonishing to me that entire businesses could be built around the PR function. I mean, I knew about agencies but had little real contact with them until meeting the H&K team from Washington and New York, and seeing them in action really opened my eyes about what was possible in public relations.”

After working for a small PR agency in Washington, he became Senior Vice President of Healthcare for Ketchum Washington DC. I asked him about In-House Vs Agency life and if it was easy to adjust: “It was a trade off, I loved being something of an expert in diabetes and could speak with some confidence on the topic, but the idea of applying what I knew about communicating to a virtually infinite number of issues or ideas was even more attractive.”

He then became Managing Director of European Healthcare and in 2011 was promoted to Chief Executive Officer of Ketchum Europe, is also Board Chairman for London and is now based in the city.

On students and social media

I asked for his thoughts about students being at an advantage by being immersed in social media from a young age or if it could be detrimental to more traditional PR tactics that are still just as important: “Those entering our talent pool today generally are very fluent in social media, and as you say, quite naturally so. It’s not a ‘communications channel’ but simply the way we live, play, shop and work today. In many ways they have a great advantage over colleagues who still haven’t and won’t accept the reality of a socially connected world and workplace.”

“But you’re right – these skills can’t replace the fundamentals, like writing, analysis and interpersonal communications. These are not ‘traditional’ methods – kind of sounds like artisanal weaving or folk singing – but core capabilities. One interesting thing about social media is how it changes the dynamics within an agency or workplace – the usual hierarchies and top-down channels are increasingly altered and disrupted by connections and exchanges that a few years ago might have been impossible, or at least rare.”

As Gallagher began his career within the healthcare sector, one that can be seen as having a more positive benefit to society, I wondered if he thought it best to specialise in something early on in your career.

“I started in healthcare and it’s possible that may have shaped my views, but you don’t have to work there or in any other ‘worthy’ sector to offer a positive benefit to society. My view is that communications – helping organisations understand and be understood by the publics they serve, connect or confront – is a positive benefit to society in itself.”

Rather than encouraging people to specialise early or play the field more his advice is to find something in a setting, organisation or field that you love, and apply what you’ve learned in communications vigorously to its success.

London is ‘the most influential city in the world today’

As Gallagher has lived in England for sometime now, and even holds dual citizenship to the US and UK, I was curious to find out the industry differences between the two and if the UK had any particular ‘star qualities’. David said that he gets asked this a lot and that they both have far more in common than not. As the businesses evolved on similar paths over similar timelines with a lot of crossover, so most differences are minor.

“I will say that the UK is obviously a much more compact market, with truly national media outlets driven largely by a single market – London. And London happens to be the centre of business, government and entertainment for the country (with respect to the other parts of the UK!). The US is obviously much less centralised and local media markets are arguably more powerful, and it’s interesting to me that in the US, New York tends to be the centre of business communications, LA the heart of entertainment and Washington the place where politics happens – but even that is a gross oversimplification. I do love the UK and London. In fact, and probably to the dismay of my American colleagues, I might even say that overall, London is the most influential city in the world today (bracing for email onslaught).”

Ketchum has a longstanding social responsibility programme which is great as it encourages employees to give back to the community and environment. I asked about the importance of companies implementing these initiatives not for their own benefit and reputation, but to simply ‘do good’.

“Thanks! And you’re right. Our CSR programme evolved from feedback from employees who thought we were not always practicing what we preached in terms of corporate citizenship. As a result, we’ve built something that is shaped and overseen by a group of colleagues from around the world at all levels – this is not a senior management initiative – and that is designed to engage employees and build connections with our various stakeholders, not publicise the agency.”

And finally employability: PR graduates face tough competition securing jobs and even internships after graduation, with David’s expertise I asked for some advice.

As many students aspire to working abroad after graduation (including myself) I asked if it would be something David was impressed to see on a CV “I think any demonstration of personal commitment, independence and self-managment is a positive thing, whether it’s done at home or abroad.”

His three top qualities to look for in recruits (at all levels) are a spirit of generosity, strong emotional intelligence and empathy and a great work ethic. He adds that great punning skills help, too!

When asked what students can be doing to stand out in the industry: “Dare to be noticed. Engage the community you want to be a part of”.

And some final advice:

“Hang in there. I know what it’s like to emerge into the work world during a tough economy. You may have to make some compromises as to the kind of work you take and the way in which you work, but if you keep at it you’ll find a step on the ladder and be on your way!”