Sally Sykes: Woman on a double mission

The Health and Safety Executive's comms director and soon-to-be president of the CIPR loves life in the fast lane, finds Matt Cartmell.

Sally Sykes: Woman on a double mission
Sally Sykes: Woman on a double mission

Sally Sykes is looking surprising perky considering she rose at 5am to catch a plane back from the Northern Ireland CIPR Pride Awards.

Despite this, the Health and Safety Executive comms head is cautious with her footing as she poses for photos.
'The press would have a field day if I broke my ankle,' she smiles.

Sykes, 49, takes over as CIPR president next year, having shadowed Paul Mylrea during 2011. Her challenge is to continue pushing the transformation of the body that began last month with the restructuring of its membership criteria.

During the interview, Sykes talks about her keenness to grow the CIPR's membership and help more people with training through their careers, while delivering on the diversity agenda for the profession (in her day job she is the Health and Safety Executive's lead for diversity). She will also be refreshing the strategic plan for 2012.

'Two years after it was developed, it doesn't reflect the change in social media so well. I will definitely be looking at that,' she says.

Robertson Taylor PR founder Kevin Taylor worked closely with Sykes during 2009, when he was CIPR president and she was treasurer. This was during the period when the institute was working to remove a £700,000 black hole in its finances.

Taylor recalls one of her strengths as being 'very inclusive'.

'She's very good at getting people around her on board with the direction. That came across very clearly. What I found is that she is very disciplined about how she sets out what she wants to achieve. But it's not done in a dogmatic way; it's done in a very inclusive way.'

Taylor adds that Sykes' eye for detail on finances was 'fantastic'.

Sykes also defines herself by her collaborative style, which led to her running mentoring programmes at Manchester University and Leeds Metropolitan, but she adds that another thread running through her career has been the 'values-led' organisations where she works.

In her current HSE role, she works hard to change perceptions of the quango. 'It's not all about clipboard-carrying bureaucrats,' she smiles.

'I work in organisations with a sense of social purpose,' she says, pointing back to her job as head of press and PR at Manchester Airport. In terms of the economic opportunities it brought to the north, it was, she says, 'the modern equivalent of the Manchester Ship Canal'.

While there, she worked to explain the benefits of the second runway to transform local people's lives - an argument that faced strong local resistance.

She says companies could learn much from the PR handling of protesters such as those in Manchester and Occupy London. 'Protesters are so much lighter on their feet than the corporations that have to check everything with their lawyers. On the day we evicted them, there were 135 protesters and 165 journalists there.'

While at AstraZeneca, she proactively made the case for animal testing, during a time in which many of her colleagues were intimidated by animal rights protesters: 'I'm not afraid of controversial projects, but I have to believe in what I do,' she explains.

Sykes has seen both sides of the protest line, having held placards as a student against the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. 'Every generation has its cause and that cause was so self-evidently right. But for the runway protesters, it was rather irksome that the protest cost the airport £4m,' she says.

'As the airport's profits are distributed back to the local taxpayers of the nine authorities and Manchester City Council which jointly own the airport, it deprived local people and projects of vital money.'

Sykes left Leeds University without being sure what she wanted to do: 'I wanted to write. I could have been a journalist. My heroines were Joan Bakewell, Ann Leslie - those types of journalists. I don't do much creative writing now, but I still love writing for pleasure. It's something one should do for self-reflection.'

When not at home in Altrincham, she can be found tending the farm that she and her husband own in Anglesey. And for one who heads comms at the health and safety quango, she is surprisingly at ease with taking risks - not least when riding a Kawasaki ER6 motorbike during her time off.

'My husband has ridden motorbikes for 35 years - no, he wasn't a Hell's Angel. I spent 15 years riding on the back and I thought "if you can't beat them, join them".'

She says she has a knack of remaining calm at times of high panic, which probably came in useful on 9/11 when seven planes that had left Manchester Airport were flying into America during the time when the twin towers collapsed.

'I like to have fun. The job is hard enough and the ability to release tension with a bit of humour in difficult times is important,' she says.

Sykes says last year's Comprehensive Spending Review led to the HSE's funding being cut by 35 per cent. 'I'm an optimist by nature - my glass is half full. My team has adjusted to working with significantly less money, but PR has never been more important,' she emphasises.

The next test is to show the PR industry that the CIPR itself has never been more important. Time to rev up the motorbike.

CV

2008 Comms director, Health and Safety Executive

2008 International comms director, DePuy (Johnson & Johnson)

2002 Head of UK comms, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals

1996 Head of press and PR, Manchester Airports Group

1992 PR and comms manager, Littlewoods Home Shopping

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?
Manchester Airport, running an integrated comms team for the first time, covering a range of PR disciplines, including public affairs in a local authority-owned business.

Have you had a notable mentor?
Rowena Burns, my boss at Manchester Airport, who taught me that business-led PR has to dovetail with public affairs in order to achieve policy objectives.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?
Stay positive. Think what you can give, not just what you can get. This includes participating in professional bodies such as the CIPR.

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