You’re currently working for Portland as a Director on the international team. What does it entail?
I look after our international clients – a mix of development foundations, overseas governments and corporate clients – advising on communications strategy and campaigns, and helping to build their own communications capabilities. I also do lots of management of the team, and I work on growing the business through identifying and targeting new potential clients.
What do you do on a “typical work day”?
One of the great things about working in communications is how varied the work is. So a typical work day is hard to describe. But it might involve a meeting with a client, a pitch to a target client, some work developing a story that we are “selling in” to media or pushing out online. Plus some internal management or interviewing potential recruits – recently we have been hiring a lot of people.
How did you get to your current job?
I used to work in the Foreign Office as a speechwriter, which got me interested in international communications more broadly. I applied to Portland and fortunately it worked out.
You used to be a speechwriter for the FCO - what did that entail and what were the particular skills you used?
It involved a lot of research and information gathering, both within the FCO and externally, when we were looking for new ideas for speeches. It obviously involved a lot of writing, sometimes a full text but sometimes just bullet points, if the speech was in a more informal setting. Like any communications job, I think the key skill in speechwriting is being able to process a lot of new information quickly and boil it down into a fresh and compelling argument for your target audiences.
You studied history and IR at university. How was it helpful in your career?
It’s the way you learn to think about things that is most helpful – digesting huge amounts of information, summarising it, challenging it, and forming your own arguments. The subjects were absolutely fascinating of course but it’s these skills that now matter most in my line of work.
Having worked both for the FCO and Portland, what are the key differences between working for the public and private sectors?
I can’t speak for all of the private and public sectors. But in my experience of the private sector, you always have a clear goal, which is to keep growing the business, whether it is through great work for an existing client or building a relationship with a potential client. In the public sector it can be harder to find that clarity and drive. But if government and international policy-making is your thing, then there is obviously a huge amount of satisfaction that comes from being an ‘insider’ and working directly on fascinating issues, which you do with a bit more distance as a consultant.
You speak Russian and French. How is that helpful in your career?
I don’t speak either well enough for them to be very helpful! But I would strongly recommend developing a second language to a level of fluency if you haven’t got that already.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your job?
There are some clients and client issues that you just love and find fascinating. I have been fortunate to have a few of those. But in consultancy you have to work with whatever clients you can get, and there are always going to be clients that you feel less passionate about.
What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?
Put yourself forward for opportunities, ask questions, go up and introduce yourself, volunteer. You can’t expect opportunities to come to you, but you can always create opportunities for yourself.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
You have to enjoy variety and unpredictability to work in communications. You have to use your judgment quickly, often with limited information. You have to enjoy interacting with people and giving advice where you can. But I’m not sure whether you can learn these skills. Relationships and networks are important to get things done, and those are things that you can always build.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
You can know your subject brilliantly, but unless you know the right people (journalists, politicians, whoever it might be) it’s very hard to get things done in this industry.
What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?
There are some things that I wish I had put myself forward for, or had the courage to go through with, and I didn’t. The key thing I would say is make sure that you don’t miss out on opportunities, whether it is to meet people, learn something or challenge yourself in some way.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
My biggest career challenge has probably been not giving up hope when things don’t work out as you want them to. We all do job interviews where we don’t get offered the job. We all make the wrong call on things sometimes and it backfires. You just have to learn from mistakes but then move on.
What achievements are you most proud of?
Getting a job in the Foreign Office – I was really fortunate to have that opportunity. And then lots of little things, particularly the things that feel like they won’t work out but when you persevere they do.
Why would it be good to have more women working in your field? What difference would it make?
There are actually lots of women working in my field, just not many senior women. I don’t want to generalise about how women behave or what they do or don’t do in the workplace. But diversity on every front means is a good thing, leading to more creativity and ultimately better decisions.
Laura Kyrke-Smith - Director on the International Team of Portland Communications
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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