PRINZ Senior PR Insight blog series:  Peter Heath, MPRINZ, Due North

Throughout 2015 PRINZ is interviewing senior PR practitioners about their career, discovering what they believe is the key to being successful in PR, what tips they were given and have used in their career, and what they expect of a junior PR practitioner today.  

 Peter Heath

Peter’s career in public relations spans four continents. He has worked both in-house and in leading consultancies and has extensive corporate communication experience in the technology, manufacturing, retail, energy, environmental and travel sectors. He and his family have chosen to make their home in Northland’s stunning Bay of Islands from where Peter now runs Due North, a full-service public relations consultancy with clients throughout New Zealand. He is a member of both PRINZ and the CIPR.

How long have you worked in PR/Communications industry?

I’ve worked in PR for 24 years.  I’ve been in consultancy for most of that time but I’ve kept things interesting by throwing in a hefty bit of in-house work for good measure.

What attracted you to the industry?

It would be nice to say that my involvement in PR was part of a carefully-considered career strategy. But it wasn’t. After leaving varsity I thought advertising would be my thing but a close family friend who was a very well-known broadcaster put me right and said PR was where I should be. She arranged an introduction with the man who would become my PR mentor and I haven’t looked back since.

Did you complete tertiary study? If so, what and when?

My CV says that I failed to complete my BA Communication degree at the University of Zimbabwe “due to political disruption.” Of course that’s entirely true but it really doesn’t provide an accurate picture of the horror of my time there; lectures disrupted by armed policemen bursting in to corral and interrogate students, First year students being force-marched into central Harare to stone the offices of South African Airways, social gatherings subverted by the intelligence agency. I’ve often wished I could have afforded to go to a South African university, as all my mates did. But – no student loans available in Zimbabwe. So I ditched varsity and moved straight into a junior account executive position at Spectrum Public Relations in Harare, under the tutelage of George Foot, Jill Day and my mentor, Stan Higgins. As it turned out, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

What do you think is the most significant industry change you’ve experienced?
I blogged recently about the changes in process and approach. I smile and, yes, cringe inwardly at some of the ways we used to do things. But for me the most significant industry change really has to be the ability people now have to share and pass judgement on information, and to create news and distribute it worldwide within seconds.

Also, the proliferation of really effective communication channels available to any organisation (let’s all drink a toast to the long-overdue, but still pending death, of the long-suffering news release).

Oh, and also the deep, almost-instinctive initial scepticism that now exists widely of pretty much anything any organisation has to say. This is a good thing – it’s forcing them to become better listeners and to engage properly with people.

What has been your favourite piece of work to date?

I’m going to resist the temptation to go all dewy-eyed about the most rewarding, career-enhancing or satisfying piece of work. There have been a great many of these and, thank God, they continue to roll in. And, thinking about it, I can’t actually disclose details of the ones that really rocked my world.

Instead, I’m going to take the question at face value and talk about my favourite piece of work.  No doubt – it has to be doing the destination publicity for the Caribbean island of Grenada as a 20-something Account Manager at Pielle + Co in London. I have particularly fond memories of a media trip to the island involving hectic days, long nights, warm seas,  and the world’s finest Rum Punch.

What is the most valuable piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

Your personal brand is immensely important. Be great at what you do, be a nice human being and you will create a personal brand of significant value. Then hold onto it at all costs and never, ever let it be absorbed into the corporate persona of any single client or employer.

And, on a related note, don’t drink the corporate Kool Aid. It does bad stuff to otherwise rational people.

Who do you look up to/who did you look up to as a young practitioner?

In professional terms: Anyone who has built a successful PR business from the ground up or carved out a path to be responsible for PR at the corporate boardroom table. It’s jolly hard work. And the selfless mentors like my former boss Stan Higgins who take the time and the trouble to teach juniors about the real-life skills and bear-traps that academia doesn’t know about and can never prepare young practitioners for.

In management terms, people who can motivate and enthuse diverse teams and inspire the individuals within them to stretch outside their personal comfort zones to achieve more than they thought possible.

In human terms, the real leaders like my former client the late David Brown who would take the time to talk to even the most junior person in the crowded room, devoting his entire attention to that person and making him or her feel like they were the only other person there.

What do you expect of young practitioners that they may not be aware of?

Ours is truly a people business; you can teach skills but when it comes down to it I’m looking for personality. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really fantastic young practitioners and they all had the stuff I’m looking for; a spark in their eyes, a ready smile, a thick skin, a hunger to succeed but without the arrogance of naked ambition, an ability to absorb stuff and a political nose.

But above all, a backbone. A willingness to say: get stuffed, you’re taking the mickey. Regardless of the consequences. And, after being knocked down, the fortitude to get up, dust themselves off and carry on carrying on.

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