Profile: Susie Brown - Head of communications, The Northern Ireland Assembly

Susie Brown is on a mission to overhaul the 'passive' comms machine at the Northern Ireland Assembly. She tells Gemma O'Reilly her plans.

Susie Brown
Susie Brown

Political careers on the brink. A tangled financial web involving a teenager, a wife and a cuckolded First Minister. And an affair that tore through the corridors of power.

Not an average day for the head of communications at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

PRWeek's interview with Susie Brown takes place as the British press are gripped by the tale of Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson's wife's affair with 19-year-old Kirk McCambley.

Brown will not talk about the story, but does concede to 'having a busy day'.

Understatement is obviously a speciality.

A petite yet commanding figure, 41-year-old Brown has been in the role ten months and is enjoying every unpredictable day: 'You never know what's going to happen. It is part of the excitement and dynamic that is politics.'

But it is more than the excitement of the position that attracts Brown: 'It is a unique and privileged position to be at the centre of a new Assembly and be there at the start, directing on future strategy.'

In her short time in the role, she has already rebranded the PR team from media services to communications, recruited two new staff and set about revolutionising the way the Assembly talks to the public.

The 14-strong team handles media relations, publications, and advertising. Brown admits her audience is split between those who are interested in politics, and those who are jaded by it: 'Politics is a nasty term for some people. They are connected to the issues, like the environment and public services, but not to politics. We need to join the two.'

One of Brown's biggest challenges is to encourage the Assembly to talk more to the public about its work.

Brown joined the Assembly last year from her six-year stint as head of communications at the Consumer Council. She admits that moving from the proactive media team at her former employer to the more passive approach at the Assembly was initially difficult.

'The Assembly is similar to other Parliaments because it is traditionally conservative. But it shouldn't be afraid to tell its good news and put information out there.'

The ultimate aim, says Brown, is to get people to see the benefits of devolution over direct rule: 'People feel disconnected to politics because they don't feel part of it. They don't hear any information about what the Assembly is doing and what they can do to get involved and have their say.

'They need to know that politicians are elected here; they are publicly funded and accountable.'

Brown decided to roll out a series of roadshows last year across the country. The 18-stop tour aimed to combat criticism that politics had previously been too Belfast-centric.

Social media have also formed an important part of Brown's strategy. She has used networks including Twitter to create a dialogue with the public and gain feedback on the Assembly.

Brown admits tweeting out Assembly news in just 140 characters has been testing, but she describes the interaction with the public that Twitter creates as 'manna from heaven' for communicators.

Bubbly and energetic, Brown says part of the attraction of the job is the opportunity to be in on the action: 'Most PR people like to be in the thick of it. We're not exactly wallflowers.'

JPR MD Jane Wells says Brown is always well turned out and never seen without her glamorous high heels. 'Socially she's brilliant craic. She has the perfect mix of humour and hard work ethic to cope exceptionally well with her new job at Stormont.'

For Brown, the role helps her feel she is giving something back to society.

She counts her time at the Consumer Council as being particularly rewarding. The organisation raised concerns bank customers were not being offered fair and competitive personal current accounts, which was confirmed by independent watchdog the Competition Commission two years later. It set out a list of legally binding remedies that the banks must implement. 'It was the first time anyone had ever challenged the banks. We put money back in people's pockets and it was a fabulous campaign.'

Former Consumer Council CEO Eleanor Gill, who worked with Brown, says: 'There is no such thing as just thinking about today with Susie.

'She is the consummate professional, and is a real champion and leader for PR. It is in her DNA.'

 

SUSIE BROWN'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

My time at the Consumer Council was my biggest career break. It presented opportunities and challenges to do important work well. My other roles also created breaks. Working as a press officer in London certainly broadened my horizons. I travelled and organised events across England, Scotland and Wales. Part of the job was writing for Safety Management magazine, which involved visiting and writing profiles of our customers.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

I loved working with Eleanor Gill, exchief executive of the Consumer Council. She challenged me to think about communications in a different way and see an opportunity in everything. She was a great leader and role model. We were a small, tightly knit team. Special people and special times.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Be positive, creative, work hard and treat people the way you want to be treated. Join the CIPR and meet people.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

Hard work, initiative and a positive attitude.

 

CV

2009: Head of communications, The Northern Ireland Assembly

2004: Head of communications, The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland

2002: Communications manager, The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland

1999: Press officer, The British Safety Council, London

1997: Information officer, The National Lottery Charities Board, Belfast

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