SPOTLIGHT ON: JAMES KELLIHER, CEO, THE WHITEOAKS CONSULTANCY

Name: James Kelliher
Company: The Whiteoaks Consultancy
Job title: CEO
Twitter: @James_Kelliher
LinkedIn: jameskelliher
Website: www.whiteoaks.co.uk

Where did you go to university?
I studied communications and media at Loughborough University. One of the best bits of advice I was ever given was to focus, from an academic and career perspective, on the things that you enjoy doing, rather than thinking about a specific career. I enjoyed the discipline of communications and media – I found it interesting, stimulating and enjoyable, so I really just followed the path of doing the things I enjoyed. Afterwards I wanted to go into a career where I could use that degree, so PR was a natural fit.

What was your first job after university and how did you get that role?
I was a graduate trainee at an agency focusing on the healthcare and technology markets. The position was advertised in a local newspaper, that’s how long ago it was, back in 1998. It was a very low-paying and hard-working role.

How did you get from there to your current role?
I stayed in that position for a few years before joining Whiteoaks as an account executive. I quickly worked my way up through the ranks to become an account manager and later an account director. I then became a board director in 2004 before moving into the role of managing director in 2006. We later bought out the two co-founders, the first in 2008 and the second in 2013, and at that point I became CEO.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
I focus a significant amount of time on our own sales and business development activities. This involves talking to prospects about our proposition and our offering, as well as attending events and networking. I spend a lot of time developing ideas and recommendations for prospects, but at the same time I’m still very much involved in supporting our teams and our current clients, particularly at the outset of campaigns by setting strategies. I also provide training and consultancy for senior executives in our client base.

I’m also involved in crisis management planning and crisis management support when required. At the moment I’ve been doing a lot of training and consultancy in digital and social media. I also lead and chair board meetings as well as our leadership team, which is a team of six very talented and motivated people.

One of our key skill sets is content creation

You mentioned social media. How has that changed your job role?
I think it’s changed the whole PR industry, really. I would say for the majority of our clients today we are running both traditional media and social media campaigns. One of our key skill sets is content creation, and once we’ve created great content for clients we want to be using the most effective channels to get the content to the correct audiences. As audiences become more active on social media it becomes an increasingly important channel for us to use to get that content to market.

What do you like most about working in PR?
I like the pace of it. It’s fast-moving and there’s always a variety of different challenges that keep it interesting and varied.

I particularly like providing high-level consultancy to clients, where you feel that the advice and guidance you’re providing is valued and is having a very positive impact on their business. At the end of the day it’s fulfilling to see your work manifested in good results, whether it’s in a positive environment or in a crisis management situation. In a positive environment, achieving wide coverage, raising clients’ profiles and hitting performance targets are all great. In a crisis management situation, the desired result is nothing, it’s a situation where keeping a crisis under control and making sure something is not widely reported is a success.

Do you prefer working in crisis management?
While a crisis is never a desirable situation, and it can be quite stressful, it can also be one of the most challenging and rewarding things from a professional perspective, because you know the impact of what you’re doing is extremely important. If you get it right, you’re having a very positive and tangible impact on that client and their business. If you get it wrong, on the other hand, you can expect a very negative result, potentially right through to that client being in a position where there is such intense reputational damage that they can no longer operate. The stakes are high, but in a way I think that makes it more enjoyable because you know what you’re doing is important and impactful.

What do you like most about working at The Whiteoaks Consultancy?
The team. We have a team of 35 talented, creative and energetic PR people working in the business and it’s great to feel their energy, see their creativity and witness the results they achieve. It’s also great to see people growing and progressing within the organisation. We have a lot of people in the company today who started in junior roles and have grown and developed into senior roles, so that’s certainly a rewarding part of my role.

What’s the hardest aspect of working in PR?
I think most people would say it’s a fairly stressful profession, which is definitely true. Quite often it’s fast-paced and the advice you’re providing can be fairly critical.

For me personally, the most frustrating thing is when a client asks for advice and then doesn’t follow it, but still holds you accountable for the outcome.. This frustration is present for any consultant. That’s one of the things you learn very early on can happen, and it’s important to get over it. Quite often you don’t have sight and awareness of what’s going on within the client’s organisation. There could be other pressures present that you’re not aware of, so you just provide the best consultancy you can based on what you know. That being said, it doesn’t make it any less stressful.

Do you have a PR inspiration?
I’ve been lucky to meet and work with many people along the way whom I find inspiring, and I’ve tried to learn different things from each of them. I’ve worked with people who have been very strong on the theory and disciplines of PR, the technical side of the business, if you will. I’ve also worked with people who are very strong on the relationship side of PR, the softer side that involves building and maintaining relationships, whether it’s with clients, staff or media. In my mind, those are two equally important sides of the business and I’ve always strived to take the best from both of those areas and create a balance between the two. I’m always conscious of that.

“you should always flourish wherever you’re planted.”

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
It is something that Carol Bartz once said to me. She was the CEO of one of our clients, and later went on to become the CEO of Yahoo. She said “you should always flourish wherever you’re planted.”

The example she gave me was that when she was in college she worked in a burger restaurant and she wanted to be the best burger flipper – and she was. Someone noticed that and she soon became the front of house manager, then a regional manager, and on it went. What she was basically saying was that wherever you find yourself in your career, if you do it well and if you’re in a good organisation, it will be recognised and opportunities will come your way. If that doesn’t happen you’re either in the wrong organisation or you’re in the wrong job.

Do you keep that in mind now that you’re on the other side of that advice?
A principle that we follow as an organisation is to always identify and develop and promote people from within. We’re constantly looking at people in the organisation today and supporting them to fulfil their potential. I would like to think that if someone were to follow the advice I was given, they would feel they’re part of an organisation that does acknowledge and reward people who are doing a good job.

Which news outlets and websites do you follow?
BBC, The Economist and the Financial Times are the big ones, of course. All the leading tech publications and journalists as well. A lot of the information I get is from Twitter, and I’ve found one of the tricks is not just following media outlets, but the relevant people within those media outlets in order to filter the news and get information that is most relevant to me and Whiteoaks.

Do you pay much attention to what other PR companies are doing?
A little bit. We’re very much focussed on what we’re doing. I think we have a model that differentiates us from a lot of the other agencies out there and it’s a model that we believe in.

I’m more interested in what our clients have to say and what prospects say when we talk to them about our proposition. For me, that’s a more meaningful barometer than worrying about what our competitors are doing. Our approach has never been that we want to be the next XYZ, it’s been that we want to be the new us, a constantly improving version of Whiteoaks.

there are two things you need to be successful in PR

What are your tips for aspiring PRs?
Somebody once told me that, early in your career, there are two things you need to be successful in PR. One is attention to detail and the other is building relationships. If that’s all you ever do in your PR career you’ll be successful.

I would add a third piece of advice: constantly be learning. Particularly now, PR is such a fast-changing environment and a lot of that has been driven by technology. The media landscape is dramatically different from what it was when I started in 1998. You have to be constantly aware of that, which means utilising different approaches, techniques and skill sets. Be open to change and be open to learning new things.

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