#PartnersInComms: Ann Pilkington and Kevin Ruck, co-founders of PR Academy

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of our Insights, formerly PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

What’s the story behind your life partnership and your business partnership. Which came first?

Ann: We met through work. We were both doing PR-related things at BT, I was more on the external comms side, a press officer and then I worked in the brand unit. I remember the very first time I met Kevin – a long time before we were together – and being struck by how incredibly tidy his desk was!

We got married in 2002 and we started working together when we set up PR Academy back in 2007.  We were both teaching on CIPR PR courses, I was teaching the PR Certificate at a small centre within Bluewater shopping centre in north Kent. I’d actually love to hear from anyone who studied with me there and know what they are doing now.  I’d always liked the idea of teaching and had done a Further Education teaching qualification, it seemed like something different I could do but that still built on my experience and the Master’s in PR that I had done.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) wanted to put its PR Diploma online for the first time and PR Academy was set to do that. By this time, I was working in consultancy on major change programmes in central government. For the first couple of years, like many young businesses, we ran PR Academy alongside the “day job”. I remember sitting down after dinner in the evenings to do all the invoicing! 

We started PR Academy just before the financial crash in 2008; it meant we had to start lean to keep profitable and we have continued to work in that way. A fancy office can be a vanity and ETC Venues can provide a much better environment in a better location for our classes than we could! Premises are a fixed cost that you don’t need or want when times get tough.

I feel for people starting a business in the current circumstances, but it can make you very focussed on the things that really matter. 

Kevin:  I was working as a Community Partnership Manager for BT before I took up a dedicated internal communication position in BT’s Global Division. But when I left BT, I decided to do a full-time post-graduate certificate in education and did some business studies teaching at Further Education Colleges in south London which was really tough but very rewarding.

At the same time, I was teaching on the CIPR’s Diploma in London. I’ve grown to love study and after a bit of a false start doing French and Russian at university straight from school, have done most of mine with the Open University from a Bachelors degree (psychology) up to MBA and then on to do a PhD looking at internal communication and engagement at the University of Central Lancashire. 

It’s great to be able to use this learning in my teaching and the development of courses. After establishing the CIPR PR Diploma online, I went on to develop the specialist internal communication qualifications for the CIPR which I think have helped to transform practice. 

How are you adapting to life under lockdown? What are your home working arrangements, and how do you manage the life admin together?

Ann: PR Academy has actually been virtual for some time so this is business as usual for us. We had an office in Maidstone but when Shelley who works with us moved to the Lake District, we just didn’t need it. Izabella has always worked from home (she has been with us since PR Academy started). We have had a cloud based system since the start of the company – bespoke at first, but now using 365 and Teams. Our phone system is internet based and can also work on an app on our mobiles. Technology has enabled us to work in this way really easily.

Kevin and I work in different spaces at home which is important as he types really loudly and I find it very annoying (somebody told him off for typing loudly on a train once, so it isn’t just me!). Although it does get silly when we find we are emailing each other.

Kevin: I have worked from home for many years – I was one of the first people to take up the opportunity to do so at BT. Being an introvert, I am very happy working at home. 

A couple of years ago we made a huge life change.  We sold our idyllic little oast house in rural Kent and moved to a brand-new apartment on the 14th floor of an apartment block in Woolwich, south east London.  At Oast Cottage, we had quite a big study which we shared but the study in the apartment is smaller and I get to use it!

Being a new build and in London we have fibre broadband right into the apartment which compared to the 2Mb we had at Oast Cottage is brilliant as we are often running webinars from here. 

What do you admire in each other as business partners?

Kevin: Ann is super-focused on doing things right and well. She is also excellent at building good relationships and making sure that everything runs smoothly. She has qualified as a project manager and is very process orientated. Most of what we do is logistics based on tight processes and systems and you have to keep on top of it. We can’t go to a café without her want to process re-engineer the way they work!

Ann: Kevin is the brains behind the business (he made me say that). He is also very good at spotting opportunities. Having done a PhD, he is much better read than me.  He is also very good at seeing things clearly and making a strong argument.

How are you getting on now there’s so little separation between home and work, and so few options for external activities? What advice can you offer to others ‘stuck in the middle with you’?

Ann: We are running webinars in the evening so for us, work does spill over into what would otherwise be non-work time. But the flip side is that being at home, if we want to go out for a run or walk we can do that almost whenever we want.

I would say routine is important but our work pattern makes that hard so for us it’s about planning. We try to look ahead across the week, but then also plan each day in the morning if we can.  A lot of that revolves around meals which seem to take on a new significance during lockdown. We tended to eat out a lot and shop day by day, but now we are trying to go out to shop as little as possible so we need to be a bit more organised and that’s actually good fun. 

Kevin: We’re lucky that we have easy access to the Thames Path for a quick walk or run every day.

It’s important to have other interests, otherwise you can end up talking about work in the evenings. Ann is studying for a WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I am currently learning French (again) and have decided to read the entire works of Hilary Mantel in order of publication.