Name: Sally Sykes
Job title: National Director of PR & Marketing
Company: BMI Healthcare (the UK’s largest independent hospital network)
Did you go to university?
I did a first degree in English Literature at Leeds University. I knew I wanted a career in writing and I was good at English. I loved (and still do) books, history, character analysis and creative writing. I did a Masters in Public Relations by distance learning at Stirling University in the second ever cohort to go through the programme, led by Professors Danny Moss, Tim Traverse-Healy and Jacqui L’Etang. I won second place in a competition run by Cosmopolitan magazine to get my fees part-paid. I have continued to learn throughout my career and did the Chartered Practitioner qualification in 2011. I also hold the Institute of Directors Diploma in Company Direction.
What was your first job in PR?
I worked for Anderson’s, part of the BPB Group, a building materials manufacturer (roofing products) and learnt the basics of business to business and trade and tech PR – including getting a byline in “Roofing, Cladding and Insulation” magazine. Seriously, we had some amazing product case studies in architecture, including the Lloyds building in London, which I was fortunate to visit.
How did you get from there to your current role?
From there I went on to work for the global chemicals company Ciba-Geigy and then into FMCG with Scottish Brewers. A spell in fashion followed with Littlewoods, where I worked on the first batch of reality TV programmes showing behind the scenes in fashion and also did a great deal of national PR on the back of celebrity and designer ranges by Vivienne Westwood, Katharine Hamnett and Workers for Freedom. from Littlewoods I moved into my first full public affairs, corporate communications and general manager role leading the team at Manchester Airport. This was a full on job with plenty of issues, crisis management and airport policy development aspects. My work included the communications and lobbying around the airport’s second runway (including Europe’s largest environmental protest), crisis management, acquisitions and the response to 9/11. After the airport, I spent 7 years in global pharmaceuticals and medical devices with AstraZeneca and then Johnson & Johnson before moving to the Health & Safety Executive as Communications Director. Then I worked as External Affairs Director for the manufacturers trade body, EEF Ltd, worked as an independent consultant for a while, joined the board of Parliamentary & Health service ombudsman for 2 years before my current role as PR & Marketing Director at BMI Healthcare.
I am part of the company’s governance structure as an executive board member, so I am accountable with my colleagues for the performance, sustainability and success of the business
What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
On a day-to-day basis I try to ensure that my time is spent on growing our business and contributing at a strategic level. But I also do a lot of people development, work on business wide change projects and issues management and regulatory affairs are feature of healthcare communications and my work. On a daily basis I will mainly be preparing for, or taking part in, meetings that progress our business – we have a cross functional PR & Marketing committee for example and I am part of the company’s governance structure as an executive board member, so I am accountable with my colleagues for the performance, sustainability and success of the business.
Practically, this involves writing board papers, providing support and guidance to my team of over 200 people and ensuring that our PR & Marketing, including digital and our contact centre performance drives business.
I like the sense that you can always do better, learn and improve
What do you like most about working in PR?
I love the ‘access all areas’ it gives you to the business and to some of the truly inspiring work of, for example, in my work, clinicians, nurses and medical innovators. I still get a sense of achievement when a story about something new and different in our business is highlighted which benefits patients or when employees comment positively on communications which helped them understand our business better. I like the sense that you can always do better, learn and improve. I have always been motivated to work for companies adding value to society and helping people through innovation, care and skill – and no better place than in healthcare.
What’s the hardest thing about working in PR?
From time to time you will have to deal with a crisis – when 9/11 happened and all aviation ground to a halt and was the focus of the news agenda, I and my team worked round the clock on a shift system. That means your life gets disrupted and your friends and family have to accept that you don’t do a 9-to-5 job. The 24 hour news agenda and social media, plus technology have all made it difficult to switch off!
Who is your PR inspiration?
I have known professor Anne Gregory since I was in my first proper PR job and I really admire what she did for the CIPR in getting us to chartered status. Outside of PR, Baroness Shirley Williams has been a constant inspiration as a sensible pragmatic politician, with warmth, intelligence and common sense. The fact that she is also the daughter of Vera Brittan, whose book ‘Testament of Youth’ is one of my favourite books, also adds to my admiration of her life and character.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever been given?
When I was at Stirling University doing my Masters, I was inspired by Professor Tim Traverse Healy who gave great advice on how to get PR into the boardroom and for companies to take a strategic approach to risk, reputation and issues management. It’s taken decades to get this to happen, but it’s much more accepted now.
Which PR blogs, news sites and websites do you read?
I read CIPR sources (for my CPD as well as my development), I travel a lot on trains so I read business books and I follow PR Daily’s blogs, especially enjoying their reflections on grammar and language. For health, I read Health Service Journal avidly and Roy Lilley’s NHS Managers’ blog.
If you want to progress to Board level, be prepared to invest in your development as a rounded business professional
What are your tips for aspiring PRs?
PR is hard work, be prepared for long hours. If you want to progress to Board level, be prepared to invest in your development as a rounded business professional – understanding strategy, project management, business change and finance as well as your own function. This is the key if you aspire to be on a board.