10 Minutes with a PR Pro: Joan O'Connor, Brand PR Director, Coca-Cola

PR Pro Joan O'Connor chats with us about how she made it in the industry

Role: Western Europe Brand PR Director Organisation: Coca-Cola Twitter: @joandconnor Joan O'Connor Joan O'Connor was featured in the 2015 PR Week Global Power Book. As part of our #PRProSeries, Janie Emmerson, MD of Communications at Hanson Search, interviewed Joan to find out how she made it in the industry. Why did you get into communications? I did a four year degree and, as part of my year out, I went to work in the public sector. While there, I gradually gravitated towards their press office and loved it. That’s where I got a taste for communications. There was something creative and interesting about it which I felt complemented my personality. I found it came naturally to me, getting people to engage with an organisation and knowing where and how to provide the messaging. I graduated during a recession, and worked for a couple of consultancies, including ICAS Public Relations. I did a lot of business to business and trade campaigns, and really learnt the basics there. I used to do a lot of local press stories; that was really the hard work but it was fun selling in stories to media on the ground. Then I went to live in Nottingham for a few years, and worked for a small consultancy that was growing its new business base, so I did a lot of new business, pitching and campaign strategy for a range of industries. When you’re in a small agency, you get to do practically everything so that taught me a lot in a short time. Then I came to London to work for what was one of the biggest consumer PR agencies at the time, Welbeck Golin/Harris. They had longstanding consumer campaigns, like the long running search for Miss Pears and the famous Dulux Dog campaign. That was really integrated marketing before integrated marketing was a thing. I worked on some great FMCG and retail campaigns while there before coming to Coca-Cola. What personal attribute has most helped you succeed in your career? Tenacity. You’ve got to be pretty tenacious in this role. You can’t be put down easily. It’s sometimes a challenge maintaining a positive and independent point of view and mind-set, so tenacity and determination are key. I also think integrity, intuition and curiosity are important traits for a PR person. They’re all related to communication– both in your delivery and approach. An optimistic outlook helps bring people on board; intuition helps you communicate the right messages, integrity makes sure you do that in the right way, with the right people; and curiosity fuels creativity and innovation. What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome? Consumer PR is often misunderstood in terms of the value it can add to a business, in the short and long term. Sometimes it’s seen as nice to do and it is very tactically driven, but ultimately if PR is done well, it should be focused on long term objectives of the business or brand. Tactics can be a sure fire way to get fast fame, but I think you need a balance of both the short and long term to deliver a strategic response to communications. PR has also evolved massively over the last ten years. It’s easy for it to be pigeon-holed but in fact it’s a broad discipline that is well able to deliver content and experiences for consumers that drive coverage and conversations with key audiences. That’s an important factor when looking to generate impactful communication platforms and getting the right resource to do so. Who would you say has been the most inspiring person you’ve worked with? I’m drawn to certain styles of communication. I’ve been at Coca-Cola for a long time so I’ve worked with many inspirational marketers and people here – almost too many people to name! I found Alison Clarke, who I worked with at Welbeck Golin/Harris, to be a real inspiration and her tenacity to do the right thing always came through. She was always confident, determined, strategic and supportive of the people around her. Also Louise Terry, who recruited me here at Coke and then went on to work at L’Oreal, I found her to be an articulate, thoughtful communicator, with an amazing ability to work on very difficult communication briefs. She would always find an engaging and effective solution even if that meant challenging the norms. Both of these communication experts have been very inspirational to me and have always been strong advocates of PR, integrity and curiosity. In terms of agencies, I’ve worked with Raoul Shah at Exposure for a long time. He’s a very thoughtful, curious individual who has an amazing capacity to identify trends and put people and brands together in a most compelling way. He has also built a successful independent Communications agency which thrives because of its innovative and solution-focused approach to clients and brands. What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given? Listen more. You get a lot more out of people if you’re a good listener. Being able to take in the facts stands you in good stead, and it enables you to come back with an educated and strategic response. In ten years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest change in the global communications industry? I would say consumerism in general. Today it’s easier than it ever was before for people to really see a company. And they have a voice that matters. Brands need to be mindful of the power of the consumer. We’re going to have to be faster and more strategic, but we’re also going to have to be so much more. The skill-sets might change, certainly within a PR agency where you need a lot more people on the ground. So perhaps the power shift might go in-house as companies need to be closer to consumers and stakeholders than ever before. We will need people who understand the brand and the values of the company well. Technology is also constantly changing and consumers are looking for new things, ideas and experiences. We may not know always what will be the next big thing, the only thing we do know is that change and innovation are inevitable. What would you say are the three words that best describe you as a communicator? I would say tenacious, creative, and collaborative. Apart from your current role, what would be your dream role within communications? If I wasn’t in brand PR, I would probably do something completely different – maybe work at a start-up or run a microbrewery/pub.

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Author: Janie Emmerson

Janie leads Hanson Search's European offering. Based out of our London office, she manages both the London and Paris team, supporting and guiding their efforts across the region.

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