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Mentor Quarterly Q&A: Jo Marino

I have been a PR freelancer for almost two years now. Often working from home on my own or from a number of different locations on a broad range of clients, I've become very focused on work-related output and goals and ever-more reliant on the wisdom received from people I consider to be mentors and leaders in PR since I embarked on this career path in 2010.

One of the benefits of being freelance is the external perspective I can provide to organisations, which has made me begin to reflect on the importance of the PR leaders who have made a difference to my career by challenging me to question my work and also to consider the future of where our industry is heading.

I feel strongly about making time outside of the working day to interview the people that have helped shape my PR path on this blog each month to encourage wider discussion around the industry and to inspire other PR people at different stages of their career to think about the bigger questions.

My first Q+A is with Jo Marino, Senior Freelance Communications Consultant, who I was lucky enough to work with at Way To Blue where Jo was Director of Consumer. This was an incredibly valuable time for me as she challenged me to unpack everything I thought I knew about storytelling and the role of PR in doing this well. I shall let our chat do the talking!

How important has mentoring and having role models to look up to been in your career and is it important for it to be ongoing?

Yes, I think it’s hugely important as having a good role model gives us an alternative reality with which to question how we approach things and what our barriers may be that are stopping us thriving. When looking for role models, I think it helps to not only look up but also to look from side to side and below us in the hierarchy. There is much we can learn from those who have been around a while but equally there is plenty to learn from those who have been in the industry for much less time and are therefore less jaded. Ours should not be a linear profession (although the management charts would like to tell us differently) as we can, and should allow ourselves to be inspired by attitude, outlook and creativity wherever it grabs us. There is often too much competition at a peer-to-peer level which can stop individuals buzzing off the most relatable role models.

The reason ‘360 degree’ role models are important is we must never stop learning to be better PRs – there is never a time, ever, in your career when you will know everything. I got asked in an interview recently what I wanted to learn more about. My answer was brand strategy. The interviewer’s response was ‘Why, are you not very good?’ I found this peculiar and replied that I thought it was actually one of my strengths but that we should never stop looking to learn and especially not in those areas where we believe our talents to sit. So look up, look down, look sideways, learn and keep feeling challenged and inspired by whoever floats your boat, regardless of job title.

Mentoring is plays a different role and, done well, is probably one of the things that will keep you sane in this industry! But it needs to be consistent. The majority of us PRs are emotionally charged, that’s what makes us good and what we do. This can have a down side though in that we can start to believe our own hype – both good and bad. A good mentor will act as a leveller when you are maybe riding the wave a bit too fast but will also pick you up by your boot straps when you crash and burn. I’m lucky enough to be married to my mentor (but you don’t have to take it that far!) and his best advice, which I come back to time and time again when the sh*t hits is ‘You don’t suddenly become a bad PR’. A good mentor should be similar enough to get you but not too similar that they join in your ‘GAH’ moments with a ‘GAH’ of their own. I’ve never felt that a mentor needs to be the same gender in order to get me. Personality fit, generosity of time and spirit, an interest in having a long term connection and a level head are far more important factors in getting the most out of a mentor relationship. And I think it’s important to remember that, like friends, there are such things as bad or toxic mentors who can want to mould you rather than letting you grow into your own PR, rather than theirs. If you think that’s the case with someone in a mentor position, cut and run as what this industry needs the most of is individuals with their own defined sense of individualism and creativity

What do you love most about working in PR?

The variety, the people, the crazy jobs and the buzz when an idea hits or indeed doesn’t hit….or a crisis strikes and the team need to pull together at a lightning speed to pull it off. Those are some of the best days in PR as it’s when you get to see the grit at the heart of a good PR team in terms of tenacity, team spirit, idea generation and commitment. And nothing beats the high of pulling a job off against all odds!

What do you view as the biggest changes for the industry?

The rise data and how this affects storytelling. A middle ground has opened up for agencies in terms of ownership of this storytelling and we are seeing the old hierarchies between PRs, AD and marketing people break down as a result.

It’s great to see agencies – like Taylor Herring with their Samsung TV Ad – being bold enough to cross the blurred lines in terms of content creation but for me there is a watch too and that’s the fact that not all content is created equal. I love a bit of an insight and data is an extremely valuable tool for drilling down and getting to a kernel of an idea but we mustn’t forget our editorial roots in the process.

I think that the term ‘storytelling’ has become one of the most mis-used phrases in our industry to a point where it’s become a bit meaningless. So much of the content out there lacks a strong narrative and my feeling is ‘it’s the data what’s done it’. A story that really resonates goes beyond the data and back out into the world and layers on observation, gut and instinct. To relate to a story, you need to be able to feel it.

For me, it’s not just storytelling – a tale that carries you away in a book, it’s editorial storytelling - a piece that grabs you for its relevance to the world you live in now – that’s the heartbeat of our industry and one of the biggest distinctions, and assets, we have to sell.

Why do you think so many women work in PR yet are underrepresented in the board room?

Our reproductive systems! It seems to me that there are so many talented women who are making the choice between going all the way to the top and seeing their kids occasionally. There are some great companies who are embracing flexible working (for both genders) and all credit to them. However, there are still too many agencies and PR departments in our industry that equate not working full time with a lack of commitment. Not every women feels this pressure of course but there are women being pressured in our industry to either go against what they feel is the right balance between work and family or opt out of the upward trajectory. A defining memory for me was when the response to a discussion on flexible working (from a recruiter I might add…not dissing all recruiters here as there are some great ones flying the flag for flexible working but then again there are plenty that aren’t) was being told that kids don’t really notice if you are not there (they do!). The other issue here is the art of paying lip service to flexible working arrangements. Again, far too often I hear women say ‘Well, four days a week isn’t really full time as you do the fifth day anyway’. So we may be our own worst enemies here by feeling the need to squeeze a five dayer into four days but this is also driven by industry culture. The problem here is that we keep trying to do the big squeeze and either get so knackered or so disillusioned that we opt out. I know this is a bit of a rant but I don’t think it should be an either or. I’ve worked flexibly for 12 years and done some of my best work in that time and I believe this is because my world has expanded beyond the necessary grind of the office. I would imagine this is the same for anyone (male or female) working flexibly whether for reasons of family or a passion point…or both!

What can all leaders – men and women do to change this?

Ditch the presenteeism and build trust between employers, employees and teams. A few years ago, my team and I had to work remotely due to an office issue (long story!). What did I learn about my team mates? It validated what I knew already, which was they were one of the best bunch of people I had ever worked with, but it made me realise something too - not only their amazing resilience and resourcefulness but also that their creativity, client service, team work and collaboration didn’t diminish just because they weren’t all in an office together. Each person in the team knew what they needed to do to keep the ship moving and had a huge respect for the part they played in doing that. This led to a strong sense of trust that all the work would get done, and it did. We live in an incredibly connected world but pockets of our industry still seem to measure dedication by bums on seats. What I learnt through our ‘out of office’ time was that if you have trust you have everything you need.

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