Sue Wolstenholme - The only way is ethics

The new CIPR president is on a mission to challenge the 'ducking and diving' image of some elements of the PR industry, finds John Owens.

High standards: Sue Wolstenholme
High standards: Sue Wolstenholme

She has coped with the Iranian authorities, the NHS and Richard Branson.

Now new CIPR president Sue Wolstenholme is using her powers of persuasion to address an arguably bigger challenge - helping the industry achieve professional respectability.

'PR can be used for all kinds of things,' she says, 'whether it's starting wars or selling bars of soap. But when it is professionally done it usually changes something for the better. It is such a powerful tool it must be done ethically.'

Wolstenholme sets out her presidential stall to remove the 'ducking and diving' image that, she argues, remains attached to the industry. And for the 60-year-old this quest boils down to one thing - accreditation that deserves to bear the name.

There are a range of training options at the CIPR, and Wolstenholme can call herself a chartered practitioner, but she says these schemes are 'only really bedding in now'.

'I would like a lot more people to become chartered. I'd like to see companies only inviting agencies to pitch if their staff have chartered status.'

The aim is laudable, but could such a system not restrict the breadth of talent and diversity of those entering the industry?

'It won't do that. It is a marker of how far this industry has come and a celebration of where the individual has got to.'

The CIPR's move last week (PRWeek, 1 February) to open up its presidential election process can be seen as a nod towards encouraging diversity, though this inevitably leads to another question.

How does the organisation account for the embarrassing presidential election process in November, which meant president-elect Lionel Zetter had to stand down because his nomination had been accepted post-deadline?

Wolstenholme answers the question in the same self-certain but unaggressive way she answers all the others - she later claims to be someone who does not feel stress and it is a believable claim.

'It was genuinely a mistake and I don't think there's any more to it than that. It's not the end of the world and I defy people, especially people in PR, to say they've never made a wrong decision. We came clean, said a mistake had been made and put it right.'

When it comes to the wider impact on an organisation charged with defending the reputation of the reputation defenders, she answers with as much conviction.

'Has it damaged our reputation? Not at all. They're still coming (to the CIPR) and we're still leading in professional development.'

Wolstenholme has been teaching CIPR courses since 1998. She has also taught alongside the Association of Colleges director of comms Ben Verinder, who says that formal education on PR is 'very important' to her.

'She has demonstrated her dedication to raising standards by matching her rhetoric with the time she spends on the issue. She's passionate about it, and is helped by a strong sense of empathy.'

Though keen to help create benchmarks for progress and achievement in PR, the gardening enthusiast's entry into the industry was not a smooth one.

From working in an insurance company by day and agitprop theatre in the evening - 'shoring up the system during the day and trying to smash it during the night' as she puts it - her early career encompassed a furniture business, organising a festival and a stint as local news hack.

But it was upon approaching Amnesty International, her confidence boosted by her festival work, that she got her break.

It enabled her to launch her own agency, working on resurrecting the benefit show the Secret Policeman's Ball in 1986 - a project that brought her into contact with the event's benefactor Richard Branson. Asked about the PR savvy CEO, she hesitates before, one senses, playing the diplomat: 'He can recognise good people and delegate very cleverly to them.'

Following her agency launch she dipped a toe into academia, lecturing on PR at the University of Exeter. She loved the teaching, if not the snobbery towards a subject not taken entirely seriously.

Since then, as well as helping establish training at the CIPR, her work has included heading up comms at Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust, speaking in Iran on public engagement and handling her own agency Ashley Public Relations. She has been president of the European Public Relations Education and Research Association twice, and a fellow of the Nigerian Institute of PR.

A thread of moral judgement runs through her work - she pulled out of work for an estate agent because 'it didn't feel right'.

As with Zetter in his brief stint as president, her vision involves closer work with the PRCA, a body with which the CIPR has had a number of differences of opinion. 'It doesn't make sense to me to be competing over a large industry. We need to have more ways of working jointly,' she asserts.

But while a collaborative hand is extended to the PRCA, the same cannot be said for someone known for their ability to manipulate the news.

Max Clifford may be the quintessential PR man in the minds of some outside the industry. But Wolstenholme sees little space for his ilk in the industry stable.

'He is not a PR person, he is a publicist ... if they're ducking and diving and not worrying if the facts are straight as long as the copy is good, they're publicists.'

Not a conventional way of defining PR, perhaps, and likely to ruffle a few feathers. But certainly a statement of intent.


2013 President, CIPR

2012 Fellow, Nigerian Institute of PR

2005 Chairwoman, CIPR Professional Development Committee

1998 Director of comms, Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust

1997 Owner, Ashley Public Relations

1994-2008 President, EUPRERA

1992-2008 Chairwoman, PR educators' forum UK

1991 Lecturer and course leader, University of Exeter

1986 Owner, Service Public Relations

1981 Commercial and PR lead, Elephant Arts Co-op


What was your biggest career break?

The 25th anniversary of Amnesty International launched my consultancy nationally. My campaigns, for which the fees were paid by Richard Branson, saved it from bankruptcy and relaunched the Secret Policeman's Ball, both of which I am proud.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Wendy Laister, who was Richard Branson's PR lead. She had a talent for creative angles but never failed to fact check and risk assess.

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

Never stop listening, especially when you think your ideas are more important. Keep on learning because sometimes old approaches might be the best but you must know why and how they will work. And never stop questioning.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Inquisitiveness, idealism, optimism, openness to new ideas and a real hunger for development.

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