Last week, we were privileged to host a Masterclass on how to access and navigate the PR industry with Creative Access Alum and associate director of healthcare communications MHP, Jaber Mohamed, Shereene Witter, vice president, communications at NBCUniversal International Studios and Yinka Akindele, vice president, communications at ViacomCBS UK and chaired by our own director of communications, Bibi Hilton. We learnt the ins and outs of working in PR, the differences between working in-house and in agencies and our panellists shared their top tips for how to get into and thrive in the industry.
Jaber Mohamed started off his career in journalism as a Creative Access intern at the Daily Mail. Jaber worked in journalism for 6 years before deciding it wasn’t for him and pivoting into PR. He worked in communications in the public sector, including within the Department for Transport and the Cabinet, before becoming the Chief Communications Officer for the Department of Health and Social Care, where he served as Chris Witty’s chief of press during the Covid-19 pandemic. He then moved into private healthcare communications for communications agency, MHP.
Shereene Witter started her career in communications with an internship through the Taylor Bennett Foundation. She began her time at NBCUniversal International Studios in 2017 as a communications manager and moved up the ranks to become vice president of communications last year in 2020. She is passionate about “helping the next generation of television makers get their foot through the door” and is an ambassador for ‘No Turning Back’, which aims for 20% of all communications professionals to come from Black, Asian, minority ethnic communities.
Yinka Akindele has worked across in PR across the broadcast media and tech sectors within both the corporate and consumer experience spheres for over 15 years. As vice president of communications at ViacomCBS UK, Yinka oversees the management of all ViacomCBS brands in the UK, including Channel 5, MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon. Prior to this, she was head of PR at Yahoo UK and Ireland.
Bibi has over 20 years’ experience working in PR. Before joining Creative Access, she was Managing Director of PR agency Golin, where she launched progressive initiatives such as a returnship programme and ‘Golin B&B’, which sought to help people from under-represented communities access the industry. She is also a former President of Women in PR and in 2020, she was awarded the PRCA Trailblazer award for her work in DE&I.
“You have to have a flair for language and telling a story to work in comms” – Yinka
When discussing what drew them to PR and communications, our panellists all discussed their love of writing, language and storytelling. But Jaber was quick to reassure the audience that having a degree in English is not the only way to gain the skills needed for the industry, having done a medical science degree himself. He said, “you don’t need to have loads of writing experience to make it in PR, but have an interest and learn how to do the basics.” He said that when it comes to practical skills like writing press releases, you must:
“Practice and practice often. Get advice from your seniors”
Similarly, our panellists stated that they were all sociable people – another factor which drew them into the industry. Shereene explained that “PR is about people” and therefore, learning how to communicate and network with different people is a key way into the industry. She encouraged aspiring comms professionals to “let their passions shine through” when connecting with people in the industry because, ultimately, working with people is all about how you fit into the team dynamic. Your unique interests will make you stand out against others, even if they have more experience than you. Another important point that all panellists agreed with is that “you’re always learning in comms”. Yinka told us that working in the industry is “all a building block”, no matter how senior you are, you always have more to learn. Shereene stated that she learns as much from her interns as she teaches them, leaving the audience inspired to have confidence in their skills and opinions, even if they don’t have years of experience or the skills that are typically expected in PR.
All three of our panellists wanted to acknowledge the challenges that the pandemic brought to this ‘sociable’ industry, which relies on networking. Yinka explained that the social aspect is one of her favourite parts of her role, but it is now “on temporary hiatus” due to the pandemic. Bibi asked Jaber what it was like working in frontline comms for the Department of Health during the height of the pandemic. He emphasised the stress of living through the event, as well as working on the story impacted his and his colleagues’ mental health. At points, they were releasing “9 press releases a day” about everything from vaccines to daily figures to PPE advice. Despite this, he recognises how the media appetite for health stories has increased, making it an exciting time to be working in healthcare communications, especially at firm like MHP.
Meanwhile, Shereene’s perspective took into account the murder of George Floyd in combination with Covid. She explained that the period forced a moment of self-reflection. After years of struggling with imposter syndrome in an industry that can too often be a ‘boys’ club’ and perceiving herself as “a young black woman who didn’t really feel like she could contribute”, she began to remind herself of her capabilities.
“I thought, there’s so much more I can offer, I’ve got more to do here at NBC Universal. It was a turning point for me & the other people of colour at the studio. We felt galvanised.”
Of course, you will face challenges in your career; PR can be a busy and fast-paced world. Yinka discussed the fact that when she entered the industry, it was dominated by those who were privileged and had attended public school; “I didn’t fit the mould”, she said. But she landed her first TV job because of her writing skills, despite not having the experience required for the role, proving Shereene’s earlier point about utilising your passions to stand out and get ahead.
Their advice for dealing with these challenges? Yinka recommends keeping a “calm disposition” throughout it all. Whereas, Jaber said that in the face of challenges, you have to be proactive. “Make the most of opportunities. Creative Access helped me but I had to fight for those opportunities myself. There’s a door, but only you can walk through it.” Again, we were reminded that it is necessary to have determination, but to have belief that your passions and perspectives are worthy and valuable. As Shereene stated it’s “your perspective” and “your opinion on the world” that you need to harness and tailor towards the role that you’re going for.
“Believe in yourself and be bold!”
Bibi stated that, “there are so many different types of roles in PR” and the panellists discussed the differences between working in-house and in an agency. Both Yinka and Shereene work in-house. Both she and Yinka described the benefits of working in-house, with Yinka highlighting that you are really able to “get under the skin of a brand”. However, she added that it is valuable to have an ‘agency’ mentality, even in-house as you work with multiple “clients” and stakeholders everyday
In contrast, MHP is an agency and Jaber stresses that the agency world is very fast-paced. “You get to work with lots of clients and you’re exposed to lots of different things. No two days are the same,” he said. He also told the audience about the breadth of work within an agency, focusing on the different skills you can acquire and areas of interest that you can discover: “You can do everything from writing copy to editing scripts, working with influencers and brainstorming”.
Overall, our panellists stressed that those wanting to get into the industry must make the most of the resources available to them. Bibi wanted the audience to know that, in her experience, most people at senior level remember the difficulties of starting out – they want to give back to the industry and they would generally be open to having a 10minute chat with someone looking to get into the industry and asking for advice. Jaber also advised people to leverage their contacts emphasising the value of having good mentors to guide you. He said: “They’ll be lots of bumpy times, but keep an eye out for opportunities.”
Ultimately, our panel emphasised that you need to have confidence in yourself, whether you have the ‘right’ skills or not, and the importance of carrying that confidence into to everything new you learn. Yinka told the audience,
“It’s about never giving up”
You have to have as many strings to your bow as possible to ensure you can find a way into the industry. Shereene told the audience to have confidence in themselves and their abilities even in the face of uncertainty, “Be fearless! You will find the role that’s made for you”.
A massive thank you to our wonderful panel! We certainly learnt a lot about the inner-workings of PR and communications. You can watch the Masterclass in full here.
If you’re looking to take your first steps into PR, or if you’re seeking a career change, check out our Opportunities.