Maureen Corish: Stepping away from convention

The indie music-loving Random House comms director is determined to propel the book publisher into the digital era, finds David Benady.

A force for good: Corish says of the suggestion she is forceful: 'I think if you have a presence underlined by intelligence and an understanding of what you both want out of the situation then yes, I am forceful'
A force for good: Corish says of the suggestion she is forceful: 'I think if you have a presence underlined by intelligence and an understanding of what you both want out of the situation then yes, I am forceful'

Maureen Corish, group comms director at publisher The Random House Group, emerges from the PRWeek photo-shoot admitting she is none too comfortable posing for photos.

But while she may not love the camera, she has made every effort to ensure the camera loves her. Strikingly dressed in a black and red tunic, with loud red nail varnish and a blonde bob, she stands out at Random's Vauxhall Bridge Road headquarters where the standard attire is rather more conservative.

Corish is on a mission to help drag the publishing world into a harsher digital era. As paper-based publishing is transformed by e-readers, online sales and social media, Corish is helping Random House cope with the brave new world. 'What I do here is manage the conversations and stories around our business and the audiences we need to reach. They could be potential employees, our employees, authors, agents - there's a message for them all,' she says.

Where once sales of a book would reach a tipping point through reviews, marketing, promotion by retailers and word of mouth, these days publishers need more direct conversations as they try to encourage readers to recommend books to each other. Just this week, Corish has been involved with World Book Night, an industry initiative where volunteers give away one of their favourite books to encourage reading.

'With the high street under pressure, it's important we speak to readers directly, and digital is opening that up for us. The major challenge is to reskill our marketing to reach out to audiences directly, so there is more emphasis on Twitter and Facebook,' she says.

The regional newspaper journalist turned PR professional has achieved her childhood ambitions. A girl from Wigan with a love of indie bands, she dreamed of a life of metropolitan culture, and she is now doing just that. Random House, which she joined in 2008, is part of the world's largest general book publisher. She works with chief executive Gail Rebuck developing Random House's external relations, running a consumer insight programme and boosting staff morale.

After ten years on local papers, Corish switched to PR in 1998, taking a job at the BBC in Birmingham promoting The National Lottery Draw and other shows. From there she joined Emap as head of press and PR and rose to comms director, heading corporate and consumer PR and internal comms for the broadcast, entertainment and new media divisions of its new incarnation as Bauer Media.

This gave her plenty of opportunities to do the 'shiny' side of PR, such as organising the launch of Kerrang Radio. This involved a double decker bus with flames painted down the sides, scores of revving Harley-Davidsons and Black Sabbath hero Tony Iommi playing air guitar on a squash racket. 'I guess I've been quite lucky; the Emap job and this role have enabled me to do consumer, corporate and trade PR,' she says, using intricate hand gestures to emphasise every point. 'There's a sort of showbiz glamour side of it but it's always underpinned by a proper business purpose,' she adds.

Her first employer in PR, former BBC head of press Donald Steel, says of his protege: 'You can have a candid relationship with Maureen without it feeling personal. She always seems upbeat and you won't see a long face. But she is still formidable, though she's a nice, warm individual.'

So is she formidable? Corish jumps from her seat and snatches down a dictionary to check the exact meaning of the word. She plumps for the second definition - 'very impressive because it is so good or great' - rather than the first - 'terrifying'. She is not at all terrifying, though does come across as forceful. She says: 'There is a difference between being formidable for the sake of it and having a presence. I think if you have a presence underlined by intelligence and an understanding of what you both want out of the situation then yes, I am forceful.'

She is a great believer in 'presence' and sees herself as having 'personal gravitas', tempered by a willingness to change her opinions if persuaded.

Corish, aged 45, spent her younger years dabbling in alternative culture and music. 'I would passionately seek out John Peel on the radio, or there were these alternative music shows, and I just remember being fascinated by indie music. When The Face launched, I thought it was a ground-breaking magazine and then when Channel Four and The Tube launched I remember thinking, "these come from a creative environment, I want to work in those places".'

Still in the thrall of alternative music, she also whiles away her time visiting quirky cultural haunts around east London.

She got a taste for writing at Sheffield University, where she worked on the student paper. 'I was drawn to creativity and culture, media felt like the place I wanted to be, and I had a strong work ethic as well so journalism sounded like a proper job.'

She professes to having no immediate career plans - portraying her journey so far as a series of happy accidents. Her next project is taking a short course at Harvard with other executives at Bertelsmann (Random House's owner), examining the way digital is changing businesses. 'I like roles that marry creativity with business acumen. For me, that has been in media, but that is not to say it will always be so.'

Whatever her next move, one senses a dry, corporate role is unlikely to fit the bill.

CV

2008 Group comms director, The Random House Group

2001 Comms director, broadcast, entertainment and new media, Bauer Consumer Media (formerly Emap)

1998 Publicist, The National Lottery, BBC

1995 Senior reporter rising to business editor, Birmingham Evening Mail

1990 Reporter rising to assistant news editor, Wolverhampton Express & Star

1988 Reporter, Sutton Coldfield Observer

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Getting my foot on the first rung of the journalism ladder. Also moving to PR by joining the BBC.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Samantha Fosbury, former marketing director at Emap Advertising, for sharing her knowledge on consumer insight; Paul Coleman, former marketing director at Emap's Magic Radio, who is a creative genius; and my current boss Gail Rebuck, whose passion is a daily inspiration.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Ask questions, listen, be enthusiastic, do more than you are asked, don't be afraid to make mistakes but never make the same mistake twice.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

The ability to write clean, compelling copy and a good balance between creative energy and delivery - topped with a sense of humour and perspective.

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