‘I find it amazing when I go to events and people stand there navel gazing and complaining about the Chartered Institute of Public Relations [CIPR]. OK, you can sit on the sidelines and complain, or you can actually roll up your sleeves, get stuck in and make a difference. I do get annoyed with people that complain. I think hey, come on, we are all volunteers here.'
Strong words from Lis Lewis-Jones - this year's president of the CIPR. But while the 37-year-old is not afraid to voice her frustrations, she is actually softly spoken, and comes across as a soothing presence.
It is a good thing that Lewis-Jones exudes calm, because 2008 is likely to prove hectic. As well as the usual activities, Lewis-Jones's presidential year is the 60th anniversary of the CIPR, and also the year that it hosts the World Public Relations Conference & Festival, on 23 and 24 June. Lewis-Jones plans to use these events to boost the body's profile, and its membership rates - but she knows it is a challenge.
‘The people I come across are very pro the CIPR. It is a useful resource for them and they are proud of their membership. But we know there are people out there who are quite anti and we have to win them over and prove the value of membership,' she says.
‘If you look at the amount of people who say they worked in PR, and you look at our membership, then we still have a long way to go,' she admits.
In 2005, a study by the CIPR and the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated the total number of PROs at 48,000. Lewis-Jones believes the number is closer to 30,000. This year her aim is to see CIPR membership rise from the current 9,500 to more than 10,000.
Though her calm exterior never falters, Lewis-Jones seems a little annoyed at those who do not understand what the CIPR actually does.
‘What do we not do?' she laughs, reeling off a list of programmes, training, events, groups and services available to members. Her former boss, Willoughby CEO Julia Willoughby, says Lewis-Jones has ‘a natural talent for playing the ambassadorial role', adding: ‘If she had not been a PRO she could have been a news reader. She is extremely aware of her projection and
always comes across very well and looks the part - she makes a great president.'
She is the perfect person to argue the case for the CIPR, she says, because she has found her own membership useful at every stage of her working life.
When she started out in PR at Birmingham Airport - after studying Politics and Russian Studies at Swansea University - Lewis-Jones was part of an extremely small team and found the advice that CIPR membership facilitated ‘invaluable'.
At her first consultancy, Willoughby, she found the training ‘extremely useful' and became more involved in the institute. She was made Young Communicator of the Year in 1995 and set up the CIPR's first regional awards in the West Midlands in 1999 - now the Pride awards. She became chair of the Midlands committee in 2000.
When Lewis-Jones co-founded her own agency, Liquid PR, in 2004 she says the CIPR gave much support and information.
Today she uses the CIPR's headquarters in London's St James's Square, where our interview takes place, as her London office - a real draw for potential members working outside the capital.
For Lewis-Jones, the fact that CIPR membership means signing up to a code of conduct is also very important.
‘It says we are a professional organisation, we have standards, and are not frightened to sign a code of conduct and behave in an ethical and appropriate manner - the whole industry needs to do that. If you feel passionate about your industry and if you feel proud to be a PRO then actually you should support our institute.'
Ethics are obviously important to Lewis-Jones. When she set up Liquid, now four-strong, with partner Menna Rees-Steer, she says she ‘consciously decided' not to take any clients with her from Willoughby. ‘I was strict on the fact that you always treat people how you want to be treated,' she maintains.
She hopes that the subject of this year's conference, the public benefit of PR, will help drive the ethical message home.
As a practitioner, Lewis-Jones's forte is crisis comms and she has had her share of high-profile briefs. At Willoughby she supported beef abattoir Midland Meat Packers during the BSE crisis.
‘She always loved working on crisis work - she enjoyed the excitement of it but was always very adult. Indeed, she was quite young when she joined us, but she always came across as being very mature,' recalls Julia Willoughby.
Lewis-Jones admits that her social life has been hijacked by her children, which involves taking them to everything from magic shows to rugby training. Not that she is complaining. She is besotted with her two children and is ‘heavily involved' with their parents' association. She says she squeezes it all in by ‘never sitting still' and having just five hours' sleep a night.
On the day of her interview with PRWeek, for example, she was up at 5am in Worcester for a 10am start in London, then caught the train back to pick one of her children up from school at 3pm. If she feels tired or stressed by this schedule she certainly does not show it.
But while she has a calm exterior, according to Willoughby, ‘she is so passionate that she does occasionally get hot under the collar. And then you realise that she is human, after all'.
2008 President, CIPR
2004 Co-founder and director, Liquid PR
2001 Managing director, Willoughby PR
1995 Senior account exec-utive, Willoughby PR
1994 UK PR manager for Cellet Travel Services
1992 Press officer, Birmingham International Airport
What was your biggest career break?
Getting into PR in the first place. I was offered a job at Birmingham Airport as soon as I graduated, after having done work experience placements.
I might not have fallen into PR otherwise. The role meant that I dealt with corporate, consumer and internal comms early on in my career. While there, BBC Radio 4 ran a fly-on-the-wall documentary called The Airport, for which my phone was tapped for 12 months. Afterwards we looked at what we did well, and what we could improve on.
What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
Go out and get as much work experience as possible. That does not have to be in PR, it could be in the media - the student newspaper, for example.
Who was your most notable mentor?
My husband, who is in the West Midlands Police. He is always there offering
me support, he always pushes me and never lets me stand still. He is fantastic.
What do you prize most in new recruits?
Personality, an ability to prioritise and a large amount of common sense. Also research. There is nothing worse than receiving an application from someone who thinks PR sounds great but has no idea what it actually entails.