From council copywriter to corporate counsellor

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Stacey Stothard
Stacey Stothard

Guest post by Stacey Stothard BA (hons) MCIPR, MPRCA Senior Corporate Communications Manager at Skipton Building Society (@StaceyStothard)

It’s now ten years since I graduated with a PR degree from Leeds Beckett University. Thinking back to my time on campus, I would never have seen myself doing – and loving – roles in the two very different professional areas that I’ve found myself in.  For one thing, finance has never been a student’s strong point. And for another, rural local government is unlikely to feature in any PR Week top ten compilations of dream jobs. Let’s face it; it has a somewhat lacklustre reputation.

My first full time role after graduating saw me return to my year-long work placement, North Lincolnshire Council. I’d kept in good contact with the communications team there thanks to basing my dissertation on my placement experience. And the Head of Communications had just been granted approval for a new role – Public Relations Copywriter – which, after a few interviews and presentations, I was delighted to accept.

Speaking from a comms perspective, local government is absolutely fascinating. My organisation was the biggest employer in the area. It had a multi-million pound budget funded predominantly by around 170,000 (rather unwilling) council tax payers.

It was accountable to absolutely everyone living within the council boundary and to the businesses based there too. And it was, and remains, politically unstable – control regularly swinging from Labour to Conservative.

As a copywriter, I carved out a role that saw me become an in-house journalist – trying to get under the skin of what the council was doing with tax-payers money and how it was making a positive difference to the lives of people living in North Lincolnshire.

My role saw me identify news content from council committee papers, external events or central government announcements, and from the hundreds of different council responsibilities – from social services through to schools, tourism to trading standards – packaging content appropriately for the press office, digital team, monthly residents’ magazine and internal comms. The comms challenge was – and no doubt remains even more so now – to be as creative, engaging and successful as you can with absolutely no money whatsoever. Literally nothing.

It’s painful at the time but it’s so incredibly valuable looking back now at just what can be achieved in-house when you really put your mind to it, and the creative free reign and confidence you get from suggesting and delivering ideas. Even today I have to stifle laughs when I hear people grumble about having to work to small budgets, while simultaneously quoting me four or five figure examples.

I spent five fulfilling years in local government and experienced countless events – large and small – that I draw upon to guide me today. Such a diverse organisation, with so many accountabilities and challenges provided me with a far reaching practical backbone that solidly built on the theoretical learnings from my time at university.

I learned about reputation management when the then local MP became one of the first to be imprisoned for the expenses scandal. I learned about the intricacies of event management when the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh visited the area as part of their Golden Jubilee. I learned about democracy, accountability and public decision making – particularly internal politics.

I experienced crisis management and the aftermath when floods took out the council head office and put our area under water. And, crucially, I learned how important strong communications and engagement are when your starting point with the public is predominantly coming from the negative – ‘I pay you over a thousand pounds in council tax a year, and all you do is empty my bin’.

Bins to buildings

After five years, I needed a new challenge, and so found myself applying for the role of PR Officer for Skipton Building Society.

At the time UK financial services was on its knees. Just eighteen months earlier Halifax, the UK’s largest mortgage lender had been rescued by Lloyds; Northern Rock had collapsed; and the Government was forced to bail out several big banks to avoid the UK banking sector failing completely.

As a building society, Skipton didn’t need bailing out and had weathered the storm, but that didn’t stop it – and other mutuals – from being tarnished with the same brush as the big bad banks. And addressing that giant chestnut was my new comms challenge.

Financial services is one of the most complicated and, now, heavily regulated sectors in the UK. I joined Skipton in January 2010 thinking I had a broad understanding of finance – we all have bank accounts, and I was particularly familiar with overdraft facilities. Diligently ahead of starting my new job, I learned the difference between banks and building societies, thoroughly researched Skipton, and explored the wider mutual sector within financial services.

The one thing I didn’t anticipate was the magnitude of the people element – stupid really when you consider what the P in PR stands for.

Contrary to my own belief prior to joining Skipton that I’d be immersed in a product-driven, corporate accountancy world role, the human element weaves intrinsically through every aspect of the business.  More so for us, as being a building society we are accountable to our membership. For 165 years Skipton has operated to ensure its long term sustainability for the benefit of its members – not to maximise profits and pay dividends to shareholders like the banks. And as a result, our members quite rightly expect us to do good by them. And they are an incredibly active stakeholder group.

When you join an organisation with a long heritage, you quickly realise that it depends on its reputation for survival and success. Customers, suppliers, employees, investors, journalists and regulators can have a powerful impact. They all have an opinion about us.

So in today’s competitive market, Skipton’s reputation is one of our biggest assets – the thing that makes us stand out from the crowd, potentially giving us a competitive edge. But it’s also our most vulnerable. And in anticipating and monitoring Skipton’s reputational risks and opportunities, I see my job as being one of the guardians of it.

That means I have the privilege of being able to touch every single area of our large business. But I have to build strong professional networks, learn fast, and not be afraid to say when I don’t understand something (there’s a lot of that).

After eight years at Skipton I now lead the corporate communications function for the UK’s fourth largest building society and our one-million members. And I love my job. I really love it.

No two days are ever the same, and there’s challenge and opportunity everywhere. The bulk of my work is overseeing the management of the Skipton Group press office. I also look after the CSR team and head up the crisis comms recovery team. And we’re now also dipping our toe into public affairs activity. I take great pleasure in working with our agencies to design creative campaigns, which perfectly positions our brand and its values, despite hefty regulatory parameters.

So, to anyone thinking of their first or next career step, my advice to you is to not discount one sector over another until you’ve tried both. You’ll be amazed with the amount of scope and opportunity for personal and professional growth there is.