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10 Minutes with a PR Pro: Amanda Callaghan, British Retail Consortium

Amanda Callaghan chats with us about being fearless, staying focussed, and needing a good fight

Role: Corporate Affairs Director Organisation: British Retail Consortium Amanda Callaghan was featured in the 2015 PR Week Global Power Book. As part of our #PRProSeries, Janie Emmerson, MD of Communications at Hanson Search, interviewed Amanda to find out how she made it in the industry.

Why did you get into communications?

I didn’t really have a plan, but I did have a passion for campaigning. So in 1990 I answered a job advert in the Times to be the PA to the Assistant Director of the Birth Control Trust, which was a tiny charity that operated out of a sort of shed on the roof of the Family Planning Association. Its job had been tremendously important in the 1960s because these were the women who were instrumental in bringing legal abortion to the UK. I was passionate about a woman’s right to choose, and so I jumped at the opportunity. As it was such a tiny organisation, from day one, I was asked to get involved with lobbying and media work. So I just sort of fell into it, from stamp sticker one day to public affairs officer the next, and I was completely hooked. At the time birth control was a big issue. There were always MPs putting down motions to try and restrict access to abortion, so there was always a fight on our hands. Eventually, my boss went to work for the UK’s big charity provider of abortions, BPAS, and I went with her as public affairs manager. I had a lot of interesting times there, a lot of fun campaigning over things like keeping the pill free. Then I did a master’s degree about how government works, and on the strength of that, got a job at the Royal College of Nursing in the parliamentary team. Through various circumstances I eventually, over 10 years, became the head of and director of communications. There I campaigned on things like nurses’ pay, patient care, a huge number of issues across health. It was fantastic, a great experience with brilliant people. I love campaigning, I think I need a fight to keep me interested.

What personal attribute has most helped you succeed in your career?

Tenacity. You can’t walk away at your first failure. To achieve what you want to do, you simply have to find another way to do it. There’s always another way. You have to try it, test it, see if it works and then keep going. I think the other thing is to constantly ask yourself why you’re doing something, and to keep your overall objective in mind. That will steer you away from producing boxes and boxes of shiny brochures that nobody ever uses, for example.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome?

The challenge is often staying focussed on what it is that you’re trying to achieve and making sure that you have got it absolutely pinned down, so that everything you do flows from that. I think people often become distracted, and forget what it actually is that they’re trying to achieve. In communications, you have to take a room full of people, or an industry full of people with you – and to do that you need to stay focussed.

Who would you say has been the most inspiring person you’ve worked with?

I’ve got two inspirations, the first of which is a lady called Ann Furedi, who first brought me into the Birth Control Trust all those years ago. She’s now the Chief Executive of BPAS. Very recently I joined the board of BPAS as a trustee because I find the way she works so inspiring. She’s the person that always insists on asking the question, “why are we doing this”. The other person is Dr Peter Carter who is the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing. His approach is that your job is never done, in the sense that you always need to keep working at issues or problems in order to succeed in the long term. You can’t, say, send out one press release and then think that the job is done.

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

Many years ago, I went to see a recruiter, who shall remain nameless. He looked at my CV, looked at me – and I don’t think he was enamoured by my pro-choice credentials – and then looked me in the eye and said “you will never amount to anything”. And I just thought ‘well, let’s just see about that’. The irony is, years later, he came to pitch to me and I said I’d have coffee with him because I thought it might be quite amusing. He clearly had no idea who I was, so I thought I’d have a bit of a play with him, and told him this story. He just said “Well! There you go then, my dear!”

In ten years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest change in the global communications industry?

Technology will still be having a huge impact not just on the way we communicate, but the way everyone lives their lives. I think that will be the underlying context, but one of my greatest concerns is the ‘you can’t say that’ culture. In light of recent political events, there are people who would probably have previously thought of themselves as free speech champions now saying that you can’t say things in case it offends people and gets you into trouble. My view is still that if you are maintaining a free society that means that you have to fight for the things you don’t want to hear as much as the things that you do. There’s no point in just having free speech for your friends. I think that is one of the most difficult, worrying trends. Particularly in universities, where there is the whole issue of ‘safe space’, ‘can’t say this’, ‘can’t do that’ and erasing the past. That worries me for the politics of the future.

What would you say are the three words that best describe you as a communicator?

A listener, strategic, and – for better or for worse – fearless.

Apart from your current role, what would be your dream role within communications?

I think being a director of corporate affairs anywhere is going to be really interesting, provided it is fast moving and there’s a decent fight to be had. I’d be lost without those two things.

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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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