“Make sure you can write, that is what the whole PR industry hinges on”, says Anna Wharton

Former global communications manager at Red Bull Stratos, Anna Wharton’s, first job was selling handbags in Harrods, but it wasn‘t long before she broke into journalism. Here she gained priceless experience for her later work in PR.

We find out how her career has evolved, the advice she offers to other PROs, and what it was like working on one of the most famous stunts of all time – Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic jump:

What attracted you to working in communications?

I have always been enormously curious and love learning about other people's stories and experiences. Everyone has something fascinating to say even if they don't realise it ... it's just a matter of asking the right questions. After university and a stint selling handbags at Harrods, I wrote to every newspaper in England and got an apprenticeship on a local paper. It was a hard learning curve, but over time I climbed the ranks and crossed over from regional to national press. The experiences and skills garnered from seven years in journalism have been invaluable throughout my career.

I then joined the media team at Conservative Central Office campaigning for the 2001 General Election. Following a victorious Labour result, I spent a short period at a PR agency before deciding to go in-house permanently and proceeded to work for a number of global brands including Google, Yahoo! and Dow Jones. 

So you moved to Red Bull, what were some of the main challenges of working with Red Bull Stratos – Felix Baumgartner's supersonic jump from the edge of space?

I had to pinch myself when I was offered the chance to work on Red Bull Stratos. It has been the highlight of my career so far and proved to be a challenging and exhilarating three-year journey.

The sheer size of the project at times could be overwhelming. We operated with a very small core communications team, many of whom were also juggling other Red Bull projects. But we were all driven by enthusiasm and adrenalin ... and cans of Red Bull of course. 

However, as with any project of this magnitude and complexity, we had to foster a lot of good will from our supporters and the media as delays turned from weeks to months. This is where social media proved to be an invaluable tool. It enabled our “followers” to share our day-to-day challenges, the highs and the lows, helping them to understand the true enormity of the project and making them feel part of the journey.

When Felix stepped off the capsule it was an amazing high for the whole team, but, for me, tinged with sadness as our “Stratos family” would soon be coming to an end. The resulting footage was breath-taking, I still get goose bumps watching it.

Why do you enjoy working in PR?

It has enabled me to work within a variety of businesses and diverse sectors. Good practitioners learn how to adapt within a new environment where, despite the core communications skills being transferable, one has to be sensitive to a completely new set of ground rules. It is that diversity that fascinates me. That may stem from my journalism roots, asking lots of questions and having an appetite for knowledge. 

It also provides the opportunity to work alongside some of the world's most talented individuals who have created remarkable brands and businesses. You are then charged with giving their “vision” a personality and a global voice. It is an incredible position to be in.

What did you want to be when you were a teenager? Would you have been pleased to find out that you would end up doing what you do now?

I did toy with joining the military or becoming a geologist as I love the outdoors and extreme sports. I'm an offshore yacht sailor and now a reasonably good skier, having moved to Red Bull's HQ in Austria for my latest role. In those early days I would have been amazed to learn that I was going to work on a “space” project which would break records and raised the bar in terms of global communication. 

How did you get your first break?

My first global brand experience was at Google. At the time, it was still a relatively small company, but nevertheless a dynamo of frantic activity. While there, my boss taught me the importance of being super organised, decisive and being able to prioritise and deliver while under immense pressure. It gave me a real appetite for working within an international brand and being part of a global team.

How has your career evolved, and did you take any wrong turns? Why did you move from agency to client-side?

I don't believe in wrong turns as all experiences add to a deeper understanding of our discipline. Although I did not pursue a career agency side, my three years at QBO Bell Pottinger were invaluable as they helped me appreciate the many pressures that my agency colleagues are under when managing the expectations of numerous clients simultaneously. 

For me, the benefits of working within a business mean that you enjoy far greater freedoms to craft a communications strategy and gain face to face access to those at the top who have the power to make across-the-board decisions.                                                        

What advice would you give people working in PR today?

Back to basics: make sure you can write, as that is what the whole industry hinges on. My heart sinks when I am handed a piece of editorial which is poorly drafted, even an apostrophe in the wrong place makes my toes curl. Never underestimate the value of being pleasant and respectful, no matter who you are dealing with. Being able to connect and build a strong rapport means people will go that extra mile for you.

Where will your career take you next?

When we wrapped up Red Bull Stratos I took the decision to move back to the UK from Austria. My heart is in London, it is a magnificent world city and offers a wealth of opportunities. I took a sabbatical, backpacked in Central America and took part in a number of international yacht races. Now I am looking forward to the future and am focusing on finding the right permanent role and feeling the pressure and exhilaration of being back in the thick of it once again.

Anna Wharton, former global communications manager at Red Bull Stratos