Profile: Julie Hollings, Royal College of Physicians

Evidently pleased with the setting for her new role, Julie Hollings takes PRWeek on a whistle-stop tour of the Royal College of Physicians’ Regent’s Park offices. Now a towering modernist structure, the site’s original building was commissioned by Henry VIII, as the gallery of ancient physicians testifies.

As she prepares to become the RCP’s director of comms next month, overseeing 20 PROs, Hollings is looking
forward to her return to in-house work. She has spent the past two years at public sector specialist agency DTW, the only time in her 15 years as a PRO when she has not been in-house.

‘Consultancy work provides variety and the feeling you’re bringing a fresh pair of eyes,’ she says. ‘You always have to deliver, but you certainly feel pressure to deliver quickly. It sharpens you.’

Hollings is businesslike and forthcoming. Asked about plans for her new job, she launches into a detailed run-down of how she intends to strengthen the group’s profile and sharpen its comms techniques.

The RCP is not a negotiating body, like the Royal College of Nurses, but a support organisation – setting standards in medical practice and ensuring doctors are best placed to treat the sick. It also advises government and helps keep the public up to date on important medical issues.

Although well known as a public sector comms head, Hollings in fact started her career in journalism, after completing a degree in typography and graphic communication at Reading University. She was chief sub at 1980s teen mag Look-in before joining Hampshire’s Southern Daily Echo as a news sub. After her first child was born, she joined the comms team at Southampton Technical College, and then Hampshire County Council. ‘PR seemed an ideal blend of the news and the marketing side,’ she explains.

She next joined the Isle of Wight Council to oversee its comms team, and found plenty to keep her busy. ‘One day  we had to help organise the Admiral’s Cup sailing race and simultaneously deal with a story about a woman who had killed her two disabled sons because she couldn’t cope and was attacking social services,’ she recalls. ‘You go from a dreadful crisis to a high-profile yacht race. Then you’d go to a meeting on [transport] planning. I’m not sure there’s a sector quite like local government for the range of issues.’

Roger Russell, one of her colleagues on the island and now a director at headhunter Veredas, says Hollings has
a knack of dealing with volatile and highly politicised environments. ‘She’s honed her skills in both local and central government and has a great ability to identify what is required from different audiences,’ he adds.

After a short stint at Hampshire County Council, Hollings joined Haringey in 2001. The authority was ‘under siege’ after social workers had failed to prevent the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié at the hands of her guardians.
‘I started about 18 months after Victoria had died and the inquiry had just begun. After the coverage from the trial itself, the council’s comms planning was unsurprisingly defensive.’

When Lord Laming halted the inquiry to write his report, the 30-strong comms team had ‘a chance to catch its breath’, says Hollings. ‘We knew what he was likely to say, so drew up a strategy that said “sorry” but also focused on how Haringey had changed.

‘When the report was published, I was satisfied with the coverage, bearing in mind where we started from. The Guardian ran with “Leader of council says sorry”, so there was recognition of what we’d been trying to say.’
Now living in Hertford with her two children and art teacher husband, Hollings is a keen horsewoman. Riding Pepper (‘black cob, 16 hands, gelding, bit of a handful at times’) four times a week is ‘a wonderful stress-buster’.
She adds: ‘When you’re on a horse, you can’t think of anything else – you tend to focus on staying on and going in the right direction.’

With new Royal College of Physicians president Sir Ian Gilmore due to arrive in July, and healthcare always on the news agenda, Hollings’ cool head should be just what the doctor ordered.

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