In this post, Kate Burgess demonstrates sheer determination to achieve her career goals. Her ability to quickly overcome setbacks faced along the way is second to none and should inspire the next generation of female leaders. Read her story below:
The Path To The Perfect PR Career
Throughout my career, I’ve worked in a variety of industries but always in a commercial role of some kind and I can clearly divide that time into two: working for other employers and then working for myself. My early career revolved around the TV and film industry, distributing programmes and movies, licensing TV rights, advertising control and even heading up the fundraising efforts for Central TV’s Telethon ’90 charity extravaganza. Each role enabled me to learn something new and different, both job-specific and industry-specific, but even more importantly, about myself. I was always quite restless and moved on from most jobs after two years or so because I felt I’d mastered what was required of me and needed another challenge.
The tail end of 1990 saw me move down to East Sussex so my husband could take up his dream job and initially I was commuting back up to Holborn in London each day. To say I hated it is an understatement, as I soon discovered that leaving home at 7.15 in the morning to stand up for an hour on a train, then take a bus, spend 8 hours in an office to do it all again to return home around 8 pm, was not the life for me. Then in 1991, I was made redundant, which was a big shock, but actually the best thing that could have happened to me: it made me reassess what I wanted to achieve in my career and my life and I knew it certainly wasn’t what I had been doing.
‘I was made redundant, which was a big shock, but actually the best thing that could have happened to me: it made me reassess what I wanted to achieve in my career and my life and I knew it certainly wasn’t what I had been doing.’
After a number of temping roles, I decided that I fancied the idea of moving into public relations as I had found a small, specialist food PR agency based in a local West Sussex town and I could see that this sideways move would be a perfect base for a non-London centric career going forwards. So I took the chance when it was offered, halved my salary immediately, and started to build a new career. And I’ve never looked back.
During my three years at that agency, I worked with famous household food brands like Kikkoman, Boursin, Stork and, what came to be my passion, Ocean Spray cranberry products. And I learned the PR industry, working with journalists and chefs to promote our client’s products, putting passion into my work which was easy as I love food and really believed in the products I was working with. You can even blame me for introducing the humble red berry to Delia Smith, who then worked it into nearly every recipe in her blockbuster Christmas cookery book. Over my time at the agency, I progressed quickly from trainee to senior account manager, but working in a very small business can be quite stifling and difficulties arose when I was pregnant with my first child.
When I was on maternity leave and considering going back to work, I had one of those clear moments of self-realisation: I didn’t have to go back! I could change job and reinvent myself again. After all, I’d done it before! So I started looking for new roles and saw an advert in the local paper from a tour operator based just up the road from home, looking for reservations staff. I knew I didn’t fancy that, but took a punt and phoned them, asking if they were by any chance also looking for marketing or PR people. Blow me down with a feather but they said yes and would I like to speak to the Marketing Director who was recruiting for a new PR Manager! The stars were aligned for me that day for sure and this reinforced one of my earliest lessons in life – you have to open doors for yourself by taking a chance and moving out of your comfort zone.
‘You have to open doors for yourself by taking a chance and moving out of your comfort zone.’
Six weeks later I started my new job, my five-month-old son happily cared for by a lovely childminder, not even really knowing what a tour operator was or did, beyond it was something to do with holidays and travel – my next passion after food!
I took my first group of journalists away to Turkey within four months and at that point, I was well and truly hooked. Over the next three years, I travelled to the USA, India and all over Europe, hosting groups of travel journalists, staying in fabulous hotels, often travelling business class, eating in wonderful restaurants and experiencing some amazing sights and activities that I would never have been able to afford to do as a regular traveller. The work wasn’t easy though – it can be tricky telling a journalist 20 years your elder that they have to go to bed as it’s 1am, they’ve had more than enough to drink already and they have to be up at 7am for the next leg of the journey! Or telling your boss that sorry, your child is sick in hospital so you can’t come in and write his press release – not that it stopped him insisting that I did! But for those three years, I was a sponge, soaking up the travel industry, learning new skills, making new contacts and lifelong friends, growing as a person and successfully juggling my marriage and family.
By then it was time for baby number two and again I found myself in the situation of having an unsympathetic male boss even though I’d just successfully secured and managed for the business the first-ever travel docu-soap on BBC1 called Holiday Reps which made the company into a household name. But not liking football and boys’ banter worked against me.
So again I was on maternity leave and had to decide what to do – go back or reinvent myself again? It was a no brainer of course, so whilst on leave I went on a “how to start your own business” course at the local Enterprise Agency, and there impressed one of the tutors so much she introduced me to a client of hers who gave me my first contract as a freelance PR consultant. My company was born just four months after my daughter!
Over the intervening 21 years, I’ve grown the business from just me working in my spare bedroom to a million-pound concern employing 15 people and representing clients from all over the USA, Canada, Europe and the UK. Oh, and I managed to fit in another baby too!
I got to where I am today through hard work, imagination, trust, support from my husband and a little bit of luck! And the most important skill I’ve honed is to recognise an opportunity when it arises, seeing how to make it work for me and then make it happen. That takes tenacity and a really optimistic outlook.
‘The most important skill I’ve honed is to recognise an opportunity when it arises, seeing how to make it work for me and then make it happen.’
Lessons Learnt Along The Way
My gender has brought challenges to my career. I’ve had bosses of both sexes who were unsympathetic to motherhood. But actually these challenges are what drove me to change and to improve and to develop. So they’ve moulded me. Here are my biggest lessons:
Don’t give up – just change your approach or perspective.
Be really good at what you do, communicate your passion and your commitment and make sure that the right people know it.
Don’t let your direct boss hold you back because they see you as a threat – circumnavigate them if you can, but don’t show them up – that will just gain their enmity.
Be prepared to take a sideways or backwards step if that means a big leap later down the line.
It may be very un-pc to say it, but honestly, don’t take years off on maternity leave, unless you are prepared to take a lot longer to get to your dream role or have got there already. Whilst you’re off, your organisation will grow, develop and change, as will the people they employ. When you get back you’ll expect things to be the same as before, but they won’t be. Neither will you be. Motherhood does change you, believe me, I’ve done it three times! Things are not static; your colleagues, whether male or female, will have had extra experience you’ve missed out on and so will have moved up the chain of command, leaving you behind. That’s not wrong or unfair to you. It’s simply the way it is and would be unfair to them if it wasn’t. So, if your career is really important to you, take the minimum time off you can, so people don’t have time to forget you or your amazing skills and you’re not left running to try and keep up with the pack. You’ll know if this is right for you as there’s nothing worse than a bored, unfulfilled stay-at-home mum.
If you go for a leadership position, decide what qualities you really admire in the people who have been your bosses over the years and then try to emulate them. In the same way, think of the qualities you really found inappropriate, uninspiring and unattractive and make sure you never exhibit them yourself. Lead from the front and don’t expect your staff to do anything you don’t do yourself.
Most importantly, go for it!!