Jay O'Connor, president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) since the beginning of this year, does not suffer fools gladly. She is a straighttalking, no-nonsense character with a strong interest in crisis management. This is fortunate, as the CIPR's financial dealings attracted plenty of media attention and criticism from members last year.
Financial problems dogged the organisation during 2009 as the CIPR expected to make a loss of £700,000. More than £500,000 of that debt was the result of one-off property costs relating to the move from its St James's Square offices to Russell Square last April.
O'Connor is defiant when asked if the CIPR could have handled its own comms better, as well as criticism from some members that they were not properly informed. 'I thought we were quick and transparent in explaining the situation once we understood the implications,' she says. 'We did not gloss over it. We made a significant loss and the vast majority of that was to do with the property. We will not have that issue in 2010. '
She stresses that the CIPR is now closely managing costs, and that her priority is to start communicating the good news about what the trade body is doing.
O'Connor is a petite yet lively and imposing character, bursting with ideas and opinions. She is refreshingly honest and passionate about the PR industry and how she feels the CIPR can make a difference to those working in the profession.
The presidency is not O'Connor's first involvement with the CIPR. She is a former chair of the trade body's education and professional standards committee. It is clear that, for her, becoming involved and having a say in what is happening within the industry is the only way forward.
'It's very easy to be critical of the profession. What's important is to put your money where your mouth is. It's fine if you want to work in your role and contribute on an individual basis. But other people want to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, and that's something I've always done. I'm interested. I'm curious.'
However, the presidency is not an ego trip for O'Connor. She makes it clear that she has not taken the role just so she can say, 'look how great I am and what I've done'.
'This isn't my personal agenda. It's not about me,' she insists. 'What I can do is get people together and put ideas on the table. Members will then agree or disagree.'
Rather than having a one-year plan of action, the CIPR has mapped out a three-year agenda aimed at helping the industry to be prepared for the future.
This includes a number of reviews into membership, policy and professional dev-elopment. It will involve topics such as measurement and evaluation, digital and helping professionals working at every level within the industry, as well as a complete overhaul of the CIPR's website.
'We have to find new ways to engage online,' stresses O'Connor. 'It's about content. Learning content, development content, response and opinion. It's about how we bring these things together and have a conversation. Rather than saying, "here's our stance on the world, there you go,", we would rather say, "here's our view, what do you think?".'
At 38, O'Connor is one of the youngest female PR professionals to take the presidency. She is used to achieving at a young age, however. At 26, she founded technology company Fuse PR, which she sold to Racepoint Group, headed by Weber Shandwick founder Larry Weber, eight years later. She left Racepoint last year after completing the three-year earn-out period.
She is currently working as a consultant, which means she can dedicate more time to her role as president and her studies at the London School of Economics into the media, power and democracy. She says: 'In many ways, this is a fascinating learning year for me. I'm a great believer in continual learning. Just because I've got a certain job title doesn't mean I know everything. I'm always looking for what I can learn from a situation.'
Racepoint Group MD Blaise Hammond, who worked with O'Connor for eight years, says: 'Jay lives by exacting standards and expects her teams to meet lofty requirements. She has a passion for best practice and second best is not an option.'
However, she is passionate about staff development and Racepoint Group co-owner Marijean Lauzier says O'Connor has the 'soul of a teacher and mentor'.
'I'm a very open person,' says O'Connor. 'I'm very blunt and I'm not precious. I like feedback and critique, but I listen and observe everything. I'm sure people will find me very challenging.'
JAY O'CONNOR's turning points
- What was your biggest career break?
Undoubtedly, the decision by a division of Xerox to leave a large consultancy to become Fuse PR's first client. I was 26 when Fuse was launched and it was a huge leap of faith for the client, but one that worked and set a fledgling consultancy on the road.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
I have not had mentors as such, but I do believe that you can, and should, learn from everything that you do - good and bad - and from everyone you work with. I try to be a good observer, to watch, listen and learn. My father taught me determination and resilience - guidance that has served me well.
- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Learn from everything that you do.
Know that you will make mistakes, put your hand up when you do and ensure it does not happen again. Do not be boxed in by job titles or descriptions. Finally, do not be afraid to have a voice - everyone has something to contribute.
- What do you prize in a new recruit?
Integrity, curiosity about the wider world, passion for quality, a willingness to learn and someone that thinks laterally to overcome challenges.
For further information about Jay O'Connor's plans for the CIPR click here.
- 2010 Freelance consultant and president, CIPR
- 2006 MD, Europe Operations, Racepoint Group
- 1998 Founder, Fuse PR