Polly Neate is not 'in PR'. Well, she certainly does not consider herself to be so. But while her direct and sometimes spiky approach hints at her years as a journalist, her skills fit neatly into the comms world.
She joined Action for Children - one of the largest UK charities by income - in 2005 to head up the 61-strong comms, public affairs and policy directorate. She has just overseen the charity's biggest rebranding exercise to date (it was previously called NCH) and is preparing to significantly raise its profile among the wider public.
Neate had a tough job on her hands from the start, inheriting a department that was 'very demoralised' and shunned by other parts of the organisation. 'When I joined, the biggest issue facing the PR department was that the rest of the organisation had absolutely no understanding or respect for those functions,' she says. The comms team certainly has its confidence back. Neate's media manager sits in on the interview, taking copious notes and adding occasional comments.
Despite not considering herself a PRO, Neate passionately believes in reaching out to the public and is aware that, if done well, it can help a charity in crucial ways. First, it can help give young people and children a voice about issues that affect them. Second, it can improve a charity's relationship with the state, by providing a clearer idea of what the organisation stands for and what it has to offer. And third, it can help with fundraising. Neate uses this 'three-point plan' to rally her staff.
Neate began her career in journalism after earning a degree at City University. After a spate of freelancing, she joined Community Care magazine, where she spent more than 15 years. But after six years as editor, and on the cusp of 40, she decided it was time to change career before she was too old. 'Now I'm 42 I realise that isn't the case, but at the time I was worried I'd be stuck in a rut,' she says.
So Neate moved into social care, where she could use the skills she had picked up as a hack - an understanding of the media, the social care world and the basics of PR. 'I don't see my career as really having moved into PR,' she says.
Neate believes her background in journalism, and particularly at a magazine that deals with many of the same stakeholder groups as she does now, has given her certain advantages. Her experienced PR team, she says, can create a 'big cake', but 'sometimes there's not quite that cherry on top of what the journalist is actually going to go for,' she says. It is that cherry she believes she can provide.
Former journalist colleagues praise Neate's bright, sharp mind and her desire for social justice. They also say she is fun to work with. The Children's Society's director of campaigns and media Tim Lineham, who has worked with Neate both as a freelancer and in his current role, says: 'She presents herself as a bit chaotic, but she's got a really focused and steely resolve.'
Farmers Weekly editor Jane King, who was once Neate's boss at Community Care, says: 'Polly has been a rising star for as long as I can remember. Her leadership style is consultative and friendly, but she's no soft touch. She's fiercely competitive and the ultimate negotiator.'
Neate says she has 'learned a bit of humility' since joining the PR world. 'I feel bad about how awful I've been to PR people in the past,' she laughs. She confesses that when she was an editor she would never speak to a PRO: 'I would only meet a CEO. I wouldn't have met myself,' she laughs. But despite having a lower personal profile in her current role, she believes she is making more of a difference in social care. 'Being an editor is a big ego trip,' she says. 'If you've done it once, you don't need to do it again.'
She is keen that Action for Children is not affected by the media's moral panic about youth. 'The media are very negative about young people, and oversentimental about children,' she argues. 'They generate an inflated climate of fear around both groups, and we are careful not to feed into that.'
While Neate has made dramatic changes to the charity's comms over the past three years, huge challenges still lie ahead. Before the relaunch, an audit found the charity had only one per cent unprompted public awareness. 'That's not a good platform for fundraising,' she says, particularly in a crowded marketplace with well-known brands such as the NSPCC, The Children's Society and Barnardo's. So a media onslaught is planned for early next year to increase awareness of Action for Children.
Neate was able to make a big impact at the charity - now it is time for the reluctant PRO to take on the public.
2005: Executive director of public affairs and comms, Action for Children
1999: Editor, Community Care
1994: Deputy editor, Community Care
1992: Features editor, Community Care
1990: Writer, Community Care
1989: Freelance journalist
POLLY NEATE'S TURNING POINTS
- What was your biggest career break?
Probably getting this job, because I wanted to change my career path completely and this gave me the chance to do that.
- What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?
Be self-aware. When people make it just so far and no further, it's almost always because they don't have a realistic perception of their strengths and weaknesses. You don't have to be brilliant at everything, but you have to be aware of what you're less good at.
- Who was your most notable mentor?
Probably my first boss at Community Care, Terry Philpot, who gave me so many opportunities - in particular to run campaigns, which was a fantastic experience. I also once had a timely piece of advice from Helen Dent, CEO of Family Action. She told me self-deprecating remarks and crazy shoes have no place on a serious conference platform.
- What do you prize in new recruits?
Someone who really wants the job. They should be able to visualise how they will make a difference. And they should be full of enthusiasm.