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“Do what you are passionate about, not what you are good at”, says Ketchum’s Stephen Waddington

18th December 2014


Is it wise in the PR industry to be a personality? Well, it can‘t do any harm and there is no doubt that Stephen Waddington, European digital and social media director at PR firm Ketchum, is a PR personality. He is never afraid to make his voice heard.

Waddington has got himself noticed in all his senior roles during the last 20-years as a public relations consultant, author and journalist. He is also president of the CIPR and visiting professor in practice at the University of Newcastle.

Waddington worked as a journalist in his early career, although his first training was in electronics. He says that he got into technology because, “I was one of those kids that was really good at technology and electronics and science and a little bit dyslexic, although that wasn’t recognised until I went to high school. Every early decision was driven by what I was good at, which was science and technology, but actually I would have been better doing something like English and History as that’s what I am more interested in. This is why I tell my kids do what you are passionate about, not what you are good at.”

He may have taken a detour by studying electronics at university and then working for an electronics consultancy, but Waddington soon followed his passion and started writing, including pieces for the Guardian. By 1998 he was running a technology PR agency Rainier PR, which he co-founded with Steve Earl who he had met at agency, Weber Group Europe.

He explains: “Steve and I shared an office and we had a lot of fun. We soon realised that it was time to start our own business.” This was a smart move, as by 2006, Rainier had grown to having 25 staff and revenues of £2.3 million, before it was sold to Loewy marketing services group.

Their next venture for Earl and Waddington was to create Speed online digital agency. Like many great partnerships, there came a time when it was time to go separate ways: “After working together for 20 years and being able to predict each other’s thoughts, we decided to do our own thing. My ambition was to work for an international agency. Having met David Gallagher I decided to ask him about the opportunities available at Ketchum.”

It is hard to keep up with Waddington, as he speaks so quickly and is so full of enthusiasm, it almost seems sometimes that he is talking about two things at once.

Having such a full-on PR job as well as his other commitments, I wonder how he manages to find time for his family. He describes how he combines working for an international firm, and spending time at his home in Northumberland: “In this job, your place of work is the Internet. Typically, I’m away from home for three to four nights at a stretch. You find you have to become focused and disciplined. I work very hard when I’m away from home, but try to get home on a Thursday night. Once I am there, family time is sacrosanct. For instance, no mobile devices are allowed in the kitchen which is at the centre of the home.”

Despite making an effort to get home as much as possible and be committed to his family when he is there, Waddington is still a self-confessed workaholic and fights to balance work and life. This has been especially true recently as his wife is recovering from a serious illness. Waddington says: “I have thought of ways of making our life simpler, but when you are going through cancer treatment, they tell you not to add the stress of significant life changes. We’re still working through the impact on our lives, but while Ketchum is a hard-working environment people are trusted to do their job – and in my role there’s no bullshit of ‘presenteeism’.”

One of Waddington’s main obsessions is education and standards in PR. That is why, when asked to offer guidance to those hoping to break into the PR industry, he first focuses on professional development.

So from a big noise in PR, here are three pieces of advice for people hoping to succeed in the industry today:

1. Read widely and learn. Continue your professional development. Plug into training locally, that is going on in agencies, and at management schools. Keep abreast of digital changes and stay informed about related disciplines.”

2. Network. Make an effort to turn up at events and use Twitter. This is incredible for opening up opportunities. If you do nothing else, open a Twitter account and follow people who work for the business you want to work for. Have confidence to engage with them and have conversations.”

3. Create your own media. Have a blog. Think out loud. This is a fantastic way to network. Steve Earl and I got book deals through it. The secret of good blogging is to stick at it. Start your own form of media. By engaging with new forms of media you get an absolute understanding of how they work.”

Stephen Waddington, European digital and social media director at PR firm Ketchum


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