Sarah Waddington is not only the ultimate PR guru, but she is also the President of CIPR, a dedicated mom, a thinker, a woman of passion and purpose. In her interview she talks with frankness about the challenges that women professionals have to face and what it takes to balance goals, ambition, vision, productivity.
Q: Sarah, if you were to describe yourself in 150 words, what would you say?
A: Perhaps it would be best to ask someone else but I’d say passionate, motivated and someone who gets things done. I’m definitely fueled by purpose, which gives me direction, whether that’s in my home or professional life. I’m someone who really feels things in my gut so I harness my instinct to support decision making. I can be impatient and feel injustice deeply but I guess that’s good for mobilizing for a cause! At the end of the day, I’m committed to my work as a public relations consultant, but what comes first is my family.
Q: How did you get where you are today, and did anyone (or something) help you along the way?
A: No one ever gets to where they are alone. I’ve certainly had help almost every step of the way. Today, the only way I can run a successful PR and marketing consultancy, develop the #FuturePRoof body of work and volunteer with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and Athena40 is by having an incredibly supportive community around me, which includes family and friends but also superb childcare and even doggy daycare support. I’ve also benefited from mentoring in my professional life and private counselling when I’ve needed it.
Q: What were the main challenges you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?
A: I’ve faced a number of challenges in my professional life mainly based on gender discrimination in the workplace. Ultimately I started my own business because my prospects were hampered in my previous role by wanting to start a family – I was seen by the managing director as a ‘ticking time bomb.’ It shouldn’t have to be this way. Today my agency is based on a progressive, agile model, which matches the expertise and skills of the team around their lifestyle and working patterns to deliver world-class work for clients.
"People must set their own measure of success and not be led by what others expect or dictate"
Q: How do you define success?
A: Success used to be the next promotion, a bigger pay packet, a bigger house and car. Now it’s being able to do great work with great people, while helping to take the PR industry forward through my #FuturePRoof work and role at the CIPR. Most critically, it’s about being able to marry that with quality time with my partner and our kids (we have five between us) and finding some kind of balance. When asked, I always advise people to set their own measure of success and not be led by what others expect or dictate.
It’s liberating and absolutely crucial to staying motivated, not to mention positive mental health.
Q: Tell me about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career!
A: In Autumn 2015 I founded #FuturePRoof, a crowdsourced book and community aimed at reasserting the value of public relations to business. The book proved so popular, edition two quickly followed in September 2016 and launched on Kindle, immediately ranking within the top 10 for management, sales, marketing and PR. Edition three has just launched to showcase best practice in NHS comms as it celebrates its seventieth anniversary and I’m once again thrilled by the response from the marketplace. All three books are crowdsourced, which means each chapter is written by a different expert in the field so I’m not being immodest when I say they are a brilliant resource for anyone working in comms. I personally invest in the design, production and marketing and see it is part of my legacy and give back to my profession.
Q: Do you think the #MeToo campaign might have gone too far?
A: How can it have gone too far? It’s only at the start of the journey. It’s not yet gone far enough!
Q: What are the most important learnings for you in leadership, entrepreneurship and mentoring others?
A: Being a leader can be a lonely place and leave you feeling vulnerable, but if you’re driven by purpose, it helps rationalise decision-making and the work you do. Always make sure you are working in the organisation’s best interest and not to a personal agenda. It’s a similar thing as an entrepreneur. My breakthrough moment came when my business needed to innovate. I couldn’t see how to pivot and eventually found the courage to ask for help. Not long after I launched the video production arm to my PR and marketing consultancy and it now drives around a third of revenue. Which brings me onto mentoring; we all benefit from other people’s direction and support so don’t forget to pay it forward.
Q: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
A: This is an easy one: organisational culture. There are two developments that could make a radical difference. The first is the normalisation of shared parental leave and the second transparency. Until all companies are forced to publish their pay scales, ironing out the gender pay gap is going to be a long, painful and drawn out process.
Q: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
A: When I was a teenager my Mum gave me a very simple but useful piece of advice: nothing is ever carved in stone. As in you always have choices and it’s ok to change your mind, especially if something’s not working. Taking the difficult decision to move on is a strength not a weakness, if the reasons are right.
Q: What advice would you give to younger women who want to succeed in the workplace?
A: Get as much work experience as you can, keep up your CPD and actively look for opportunities to get management expertise. Find a mentor who understands the career path you’re looking to take. Don’t forget your own measures of success and find an employer with similar values. Finally join a professional body so you can benchmark yourself, extend your network and set yourself apart from your peers.
Q: Do you believe it is the era of women and why?
A: I like to think so. This year feels like there has been a palpable change. The #MeToo movement has shown what can happen when women unite and speak with one voice and it's powerful. However we need to find a way to make this the norm and we’re not there yet. Hopefully initiatives like Athena40 will help raise the profile of the female leaders across the world who are pioneering the way to a better future for us all and encourage others to follow suit.
MD, Astute Work
Sarah Waddington is a pioneer of best practice in the PR industry. The holder of the CIPR’s Sir Stephen Tallents medal 2014 for exceptional achievement in public relations practice, she has an established reputation as an ethics tsar and diversity and inclusivity champion. She is a strong advocate of accountable leadership and women in business and believes in helping young talent break through.
Sarah is the CIPR's President for 2018 and a regular speaker at industry events. She was the first North East practitioner to become Chartered, a status that recognises the highest standard of knowledge, expertise and ethical practice within the PR industry and is a benchmark of professional excellence and integrity.
The founder and editor of #FuturePRoof, a series of books and community aimed at reasserting the role of public relations as a management function, Sarah co-edited a white paper with Ketchum CEO Stephen Waddington characterising the public relations agency business and another exploring the mental wellbeing of the public relations profession. She spearheaded and has led the CIPR's gender policy work from 2014 onwards and this year launched a joint initiative between the CIPR, PRCA and Career Ready to improve social mobility within the industry.
Her other voluntary commitments include acting as a Trustee for the Sunshine Fund.
Sarah holds an MA in Marketing from Northumbria University, a BA (Hons) in French and Media from Leeds University and is a Google Squared digital marketing graduate.
When she’s not at work you’ll find her busy being Mum to two boys and walking her cocker spaniel Madge. You can also catch her being rather noisy on Twitter @Hallmeister.