Three rules for those who work in PR: Be inquisitive, don’t be an arsehole and stay positive! Says Jim Donaldson
13th January 2016
After four years in a senior role at agency Weber Shandwick, following 15 years at PR firm Hill and Knowlton, it must have been a big decision for Jim Donaldson to jump ship again. Discussing how he ended up taking the risk of moving to PR agency Fleishman Hillard, Donaldson says: “John Saunders (then president EMEA region) courted me assiduously for a few months and it was impossible to say no! Ultimately, FleishmanHillard is one of a small group of great global agencies, there was a brilliant and challenging job available and it was too good to turn down.”
Donaldson joined FleishmanHillard as senior partner and managing director UK just over a year ago and has recently taken on the role of CEO, UK and Middle East. Discussing the particular challenges of his job, Donaldson says: “London is a pretty unique market for agencies – highly competitive, fast-moving and constantly evolving. We have just merged with Fishburn in London to create a brilliant top-10 agency which is one of the most exciting developments in the market in recent years (as it is for me too). In addition to all the pressures of running a big office in a global network owned by one of the major groups (margin anyone?) this brings with it all the human and cultural challenges of integrating two great brands together.” This sounds like a daunting task for anyone to take on, and Donaldson admits that the first six to 12 months are going to be “critical”.
Another part of Donaldson’s role is looking after the Middle East, where the firm has a burgeoning presence. “Having worked with the region for almost two decades the challenges there are pretty constant. You need to find good-quality people who will stay with you – and then seek out good-quality clients.”
Going back to the Donaldson’s early years, the only indication that he might end up in PR was the fact that he loved the media. Discussing his teenage self, he says: “I literally had no idea what I wanted to do (there were a few other things on my mind… ). I was always interested in the media and read newspapers avidly from a very early age, so I guess the move into something to do with the media was natural. My teenage self would probably be grudgingly impressed with my present career, but perhaps he might think I was a little too ‘corporate’!”
Donaldson says he first got the idea to work in PR when his flatmate suggested it. He then managed to get a summer job working at a healthcare congress in Nice that Burson-Marsteller was involved with: “I met a senior Burson-Marsteller person there who offered to get me onto the grad scheme selection day. I got offered a job at the agency and have been in agencies ever since. As this was the only job I have ever really applied for, I always wonder a bit whether it was fate or luck!”
Looking back over his whole career, Donaldson says he has no regrets. “You learn from the errors you make and I have made many. The one piece of advice I give my kids is not to feel that you need to rush into a ‘proper’ career after university. I ended up running an office for Hill and Knowlton at the age of 27 so have been doing ‘serious’ jobs in the business for 20 years. Whilst that has given me a huge range of opportunities and experiences, it sometimes feels like I got too serious too early!”
There have been many career highlights over the years. “My years overseas were brilliant and working abroad is something I would strongly recommend to everyone. I ran an amazing campaign in Greece that changed the whole country’s attitude to mental health.
“But pretty much all of the best moments revolve around laughter and having fun with colleagues. I still have friends from the 1990s and many others around the world.”
When asked for advice that he can offer people coming into PR today, Donaldson says there are three golden rules. “The first is to be an inquisitive sponge. Soak up every piece of knowledge you can lay your hands on. Ask questions. Volunteer for all the projects you can. Be interested. That is how you will learn the most and it is that experience you can exploit forever. Second, don’t be an arsehole. Whilst that seems obvious, it amazes me how often people behave badly whether with clients or with their colleagues. This is a human business so treat people as you would want to be treated – the TV Show The Apprentice has much to answer for I think. Finally, be positive. PR is a very stressful industry to work in. Gone are the glory days of long lunches and quiet Friday afternoons (I don’t know if they ever actually existed). It is easy to get sucked into the stress and potential negativity that can bring. All the successful people I know in the industry are those that have a positive outlook on their work and their lives. People will feed off that energy and want to work with you.”