PRINZ Senior PR Insight blog series: Catherine Etheredge, NZ Super Fund

Throughout 2015 PRINZ will be interviewing senior PR practitioners about their career, discovering what they believe is the key to being successful in PR, what tips they were given and have used in their career, and what they expect of a junior PR practitioner in 2015.

This month we feature Auckland-based Catherine Etheredge, Head of Communications at NZ Super Fund - a $29 billion global investment fund set up by the Government to help pre-fund universal superannuation. Prior to joining the Fund in 2012, Catherine headed up the Communications team at Ports of Auckland. She was formerly a senior consultant at SweeneyVesty.

How long have you worked in PR/Communications industry?

My whole career – I started at the Land Transport Safety Authority (LTSA) in 1996, straight out of university.

What attracted you to the industry?

I had studied English, and I felt public relations would be a good fit with my skill set. I’ve also always had an interest in the media and politics. Over time, I’ve become interested in business as well. One of the things I like about my current role is the government/business mix.

Did you complete tertiary study? If so, what and when?

In the 1990s, I did a BA Hons at Canterbury, followed by an MA Hons at Auckland – both in English literature. My Masters dissertation was on the use of humour in a group of contemporary English plays, but prior to then I had focused mainly on American literature and the 19th century novel. I still love reading, and am in a wonderful book club.

While I was working in my first job, I also completed Margie Comrie’s post-grad paper in public relations through Massey University.

What do you think is the most significant industry change you’ve experienced?

When I started work at the LTSA we had no mobile phones, no website and no external email. Media statements were sent out – often painfully – by fax. Advances in technology aside, I do believe the industry has matured, diversified and become more credible over time. It’s good to see the increased focus on areas such as stakeholder engagement and internal communications.

What has been your favourite piece of work to date?

There have been lots of great experiences, and I loved my job at Ports of Auckland, but working for the Eden Park Trust Board on the 2011 Rugby World Cup waterfront stadium debate, while I was with SweeneyVesty, was a highlight. I enjoyed the intensity and high stakes nature of it, and the way the work spanned media, community, stakeholder and government relations. We had a great team (Carly Young, Linda Clark, Hamish McDougall and Madeline Haden) and two fantastic, up-for-it clients in Rob Fisher and John Alexander.

What is the most valuable piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

Early in my career I was offered the opportunity to manage communications for a project that I believed wasn’t going very well. I recall asking my manager whether it was “a dog that won’t bark”. She said yes, but advised me to take it on and said that I would learn more from one really difficult job than any number of easy ones. It was good advice and while I lost more than a year of my life to what was an all-consuming project, I know I made a difference and the experience was invaluable. Difficult issues give you an opportunity to show your mettle as a communications professional. I’ve been lucky to have a few come my way.

Who do you look up to/who did you look up to as a young practitioner?

Robyn Johnstone, my first manager at the LTSA, was a wonderful person to work for - warm, supportive and encouraging. It was a great way to start my career – Robyn, and CEO Reg Barrett, gave me confidence that I had chosen a career I would be good at.

I learned an enormous amount from Greg Fahey at SweeneyVesty – a great strategist, cool head under pressure and able to give robust advice to clients while always being nice about it. I also admire Jane Vesty’s and Brian Sweeney’s achievements in building a long-lasting and successful company, and their support of the arts along the way.

What do you expect of young practitioners that they may not be aware of?

I expect young practitioners to be interested in the world, and able to discuss current events in business and politics. In my current role, I also look for people who are comfortable with numbers and who are prepared to put the effort in to understand complex financial concepts.

I also value a good quality arts or science degree. By all means, couple or follow this with something more obviously commercial, but don’t neglect your broader education in favour of vocational training too early on.