“It Is Getting Better But At A Glacial Speed”: PR Guns On Shaping A More Diverse Media Industry

“It Is Getting Better But At A Glacial Speed”: PR Guns On Shaping A More Diverse Media Industry

B&T would struggle to meet our daily newsletter deadlines without them, but their contribution to the industry too often goes unnoticed. 

Lead image: Rochelle Burbury (top left), Sandra Hogg (top right), Katy Denis (bottom left), Susie Thomson (bottom right)

But not today! Ahead of the 2024 B&T Women In Media Awards, presented by Are Media, B&T is highlighting the incredible women of PR who flood our inbox nearly daily. Rochelle Burbury, Principal at Third Avenue; Katy Denis, Founder and CEO of Extollo; Susie Thomson, General Manager of CHPR, part of Clear Hayes; and Sandra Hogg, Communications Specialist/Business Operator of Mohr PR, sat down with us to discuss what it means to be a woman in the PR industry and how we can continue to shape a more diverse industry for the next generation.

Enter B&T’s Women in Media Awards Now!

B&T: What inspired you to pursue a career in PR?

Burbury: I’m not sure ‘inspired’ is the right word. I enjoyed a 20-year career in journalism – and that, to be honest, was and always will be my first love. However, I knew the time had come to try something that got me out of my ‘comfort’ zone. Along came M&C Saatchi, who were looking to establish a standalone PR consultancy, so I ‘crossed over’ when my second child was just four months old. I’m proud to say that we won B&T’s inaugural PR Agency of the Year. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Denis: I was never the person who knew from a young age what they wanted to do, apart from dreams of being a famous singer or actress, but I quickly realised that I perhaps didn’t quite have the talent in the case of singing! Having studied a Bachelor of Arts and then setting off for Italy to be a nanny, I came back home feeling a little lost. I remember vividly hearing a radio ad for APM Training Institute talking about a Diploma in PR where it said the key skills you needed were good communication and writing – and to like talking to people. That got me in right away!

Thomson: It was an unusual and accidental route into my PR career. Having spent a few years in my early 20s doing various admin roles in elite law and property firms, I knew there was something bigger in the works for me. At that point in time, I thought I was going to be an event planner extraordinaire and took up a role as the national events manager for the Public Relations Institute of NZ. And that’s where my PR journey began. I was at the epicentre of NZ’s PR world, and I ended up nabbing an account coordinator role for a small independent agency called Core Communications.

Hogg: My career in PR was a happy accident. I always wanted to be a nurse, but sadly that was not to be. When I was in my mid-20s, I was travelling, found myself penniless in the UK and landed myself a job in the press clippings department of London PR agency Broad Street Associates, basically reading newspapers, cutting out relevant articles, gluing them on a page and sending them upstairs to the lofty Account Directors. Naturally, when I returned to Sydney, I thought I had PR experience and applied for a job with the late John Cameron, the then-CEO of an agency called Neilson McCarthy. He offered me a secretarial job – even though I couldn’t type – and therein started my journey on the PR journey of life.

B&T: Who has been your biggest role model that has helped you get where you are today?

Burbury: This is a tricky one as I’ve never really had a mentor, but there are a few people I really admire. The inimitable Judi Hausmann from Hausmann started and has run an insanely successful PR company without ever having (or wanting) to chase her own publicity. This is a philosophy I, too, have adopted. A couple of others who deserve a mention – my Third Avenue team of Julie Wright, Leigh Fenech and Emma Spillett – all working mums with young children and all with amazing work ethics; they inspire me (and keep me sane). Lucia Elliott for her unicorn ability to combine creativity and strategy like a boss. And finally, my husband, who works in theatre and who puts on show after amazing show, always with a host of dramas behind the scenes. You’d never know!

Denis: My parents. They are hardworking, ethical and good-hearted, and they believe you should never get ahead in business by means that may hurt someone else. These are among the values that I hold, too. 

Thomson: The PR industry is full of tenacious leaders, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the best in the business – and yes, I know that’s very diplomatic and cliched, but as PR professionals, I think we all punch above our weight without even knowing it.

If I’m honest, I’ve had a tribe of role models. An early one was Claudia MacDonald at Mango for her methodical steering and guidance. Elly Hewitt, now heading up Alt Shift, for her drive and being a fountain of endless positivity. I count myself lucky to have worked with these industry leaders and I’ve no doubt working with each one of them has helped me get to where I am today.

Hogg: Chris Savage gave me my initial break at Burson-Marsteller, “sacking” me as his secretary and encouraging me to take a PR coordinator role with Jeanne LaBash-Lewis, a woman who taught me what the role of a good PR consultant involved. Level-headed to the core, Jeanne gave me the foundation for everything I know today; she was my mentor on and off for years, and we are still great friends.

On a day-to-day basis, my great friend and previous job-share colleague Rebecca Tilly has probably been the centre of my PR universe for the last decade or more. She is my trusted advisor, my voice of reason and the person I go to for laughs when I need them most. I couldn’t do without her advice and friendship.

B&T: What advice would you give to the next generation of women in PR following you?

Burbury: There are a few top tips here, but most importantly, back yourself. I left it too long to do this and wish I had done it earlier.

Be authentic and – critically – have integrity.

Be honest with clients – even if they sometimes don’t like it – because that’s the advice they pay you for.

Have a keen interest in reading and journalism. Apparently, relationships with journalists are still pretty bloody important in this game!

Finally, be kind.

Denis: It’s a dynamic, fun, fast-paced, and rewarding career, but it often comes with a lot of pressure and can be stressful, as your work is almost always on show. I’ve found that having a core team of supporters is invaluable. Not only do these people help you when times are tough, listen to a rant or two, and celebrate your wins with you, but they also become cherished lifelong friends.

Thomson: Never stop being hungry to learn. PR is constantly evolving – when I started my career in PR, influencers were people who read the 6 pm news on TV. The landscape has changed dramatically, and it will continue to do so with advancements in AI impacting our industry. Keep up with trends, network (network, network) and remember we’re in PR, not ER. As cliche as that is, it’s good to put things in perspective and enjoy the work that we get to do, remembering to have a laugh along the way.

Hogg: Open your eyes; think outside the square, and never be afraid to dive off the high platform into the deep end. But I’d also say trust your instinct and don’t be afraid to speak your mind…with respect, of course. PR is no longer defined as a “press release”. Good communications should be part of every business’s DNA and part of every good growth strategy. If you can’t communicate your offering – in whatever form – and differentiate yourself from your competitors, your business simply won’t thrive.

B&T: If I were to ask what pivotal moment in your career pushed you to where you are now, what would it be and why?

Burbury: Making the leap into PR was a little intimidating, given I had no real idea of what I was doing. So I needed to back myself. The second pivotal moment was deciding to launch Third Avenue after selling my previous PR business. I was really out on my own and had to rely on relationships and reputation. Luckily for me, it’s still working after more than a decade.

Denis: In the early days of running my business, getting up the guts to cold call and ask for a meeting with Todd Sampson and Josh Grace (then CEO and CCO at Leo Burnett Sydney) to suggest that they should engage me to do the agency’s PR. I got the gig, and that account changed my business forever with the years I worked on the Leo Burnett brand, some of my most memorable and among my proudest. 

Thomson: Agency life isn’t for the faint-hearted and I thrived in the constant change and at adapting to solve clients problems in a creative way. When kids came along, I chanced my luck and dabbled in consulting – and surprise, surprise, I also loved running my own business and driving my own success. But going out on your own comes with its own set of challenges. Not only did I need to drive my own business development while making sure the day-to-day account work got done, but I was thrown into the world of needing to understand how to run a business which, frankly, no one prepares you for.

Gaining knowledge in finance, HR and risk management has really set me up to succeed in my current role as General Manager for CHPR.

Hogg: Being made redundant. Shocking at the time…but the need for an income drove me to set up my own consultancy and here I am.

B&T: How do we get more women interested in media careers and stick with it into leadership roles?

Burbury: This industry has been inherently sexist since I was a baby journalist. I have seen and experienced more bad and ugly than good. It is getting better but at a glacial speed. The brilliant work by the incredible Jasmin Bedir and Fck The Cupcakes – and the inspired idea of engaging men to help change gender equality – is really making an impact.

The worst part of gender (in)equality is that it doesn’t really end. As women reach ‘middle age’ (a term I despise), they either become invisible or are looked upon with amusement or bemusement by those younger than them – sadly, by both women and men. Not that I buy into this – we may be old(er), but we know shit, we’ve seen shit, and we can handle shit and cover it in glitter, and that is really valuable.

Once again, I say to women – back yourself and be fearless.

Denis: I think support and true flexibility are both very important, as well as the acknowledgment – and commendation actually – that women are also managing the logistics and mental load of family (be that children, fur babies, who for many like me are our actual babies, and/or caring for parents) alongside all the work commitments. This is, of course, the case for men, too, but I think, generally speaking, the mental load often falls more heavily on women.

Oh, and abolishing the gender pay gap, no question about that. 

Thomson: PR is still a female-dominated industry and from my experience having worked in both large and boutique independent agencies, it all stems from great leadership. I have thrived under leaders who have taken the time to coach and mentor me through various challenges that our clients and journalists can throw at us. Supporting talent and offering them training opportunities is also important, but I believe that fostering a positive work environment will result in an empowered and motivated team. 

Hogg: I would say to the next generation of industry professionals, remember a career in our industry is exciting and can be long-lasting. You just have to find the role that suits you most, a role that will satisfy your mind, your ethical standards, your quest for improvement, and above all else, provide a sustainable life/work balance.

This doesn’t come quickly or easily. You have to stick at it, gain experience, soak up knowledge, and earn your stripes. Leadership isn’t for everyone, but if that is your aim in life, then I encourage you to think about a long-term career in our industry, no matter whether you have a comms/journalism or related degree or not. These days, bringing diverse perspectives to work is valued so much more than just a marketing-related degree.

B&T: Could you share a specific instance where your leadership style has made a significant impact? How does your approach differ from that of your male counterparts?

Burbury: Sadly, there are still men who prefer to work with men. It’s so last century. Luckily for me, the men I work with are more ‘evolved’, and to them, it’s irrelevant whether they are working with a man or a woman.

My leadership ‘style’ is direct, honest, transparent, kind and has integrity. There’s no point saying something is a good idea when it just isn’t. On the whole, clients value advice and experience. I think the most significant impact I have had is advising them when to just stop. Emotions run high when there is bad or negative news out there. Knowing when to stop giving a story oxygen is a difficult but necessary skill.

I have no idea frankly of how my approach differs from my male counterparts because I don’t view people as males or females; they’re just people, and my approach would be exactly the same for each.

Denis: I always aim to lead with kindness, positivity, compassion, professionalism and a strong focus on being the best at what I do – with a fun, upbeat vibe. I’ve been told that this approach often brings out the good in people, and they feel valued, understood, supported and special, which makes me proud.

Thomson: I focus on being positive and proactive, always showing them a cheery face (even when you’re paddling like mad under the surface), digging in, and hustling on their behalf to get results they could only dream of. 

Personally, I don’t think it boils down to how males and females approach leadership, work, and business challenges. After all, we’re here to smash the stereotypes, right? Everyone has a different way of looking at and doing things, which comes from their personal experiences and learned behaviours.

Hogg: I’ve never led large teams, but I have been a mentor to many “young proteges”, and I have always made listening, access to L&D and encouraging people to take calculated risks and learn from their mistakes some of my top mentoring qualities.

One of the CEOs I currently work with says her leadership style is Values-driven, People-Focused, and Empathetic. She is totally focused on the future and passionate and active about making a contribution to the wider industry. I try to emulate many of her qualities.

B&T: What action have you taken to challenge gender stereotypes in your projects?

Burbury: It sounds simplistic, but reminding clients to have gender diversity in everything they do, especially when commenting in the media, is really important.

What I would like to see is not just gender diversity but general diversity in the industry. Then we’ll know it’s in a better place.

Thomson: For Adland, where women are underrepresented in senior leadership, I’ve been very conscious of ensuring we help to promote and elevate female leaders’ voices in particular.

It definitely helps when you work every day with some kickass female founders who are smashing those stereotypes out of the water and are prepared to put themselves out there where others may have been a little more reluctant traditionally. It gives me a real personal thrill because I know there are young women in the industry searching for role models to emulate.

Hogg: Last year, I was part of the Australian chapter of the United Nations’ global initiative, Unstereotype Alliance, which aims to make the media industry more diverse and inclusive. So many interesting initiatives were discussed and implemented globally throughout the year, but more than anything, it showed me that, as an industry, we have a long way to go to eradicate stereotyping in any form.

Enter B&T’s Women in Media Awards Now!




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