PR Pro Perspectives: Nicola Cooke

In the latest instalment of our popular “PR Pro Perspectives”, Nicola Cooke, Media and PR Manager for Bus Éireann spoke to MediaHQ about her switch from reporter to press officer, dealing with national transport emergencies and offers advice to those looking to start out in PR.

 

Q1: For years you worked as quite a successful journalist. What made you want to enter the realm of PR?

While journalism is very much in my DNA, and I worked in four different newspapers between 2002 and 2012–as well as contributing to current affairs programmes on both TV and radio–I could see the worrying ongoing decline in print media sales, and I was concerned about my long-term career prospects in the area.

That–combined with the fact the title I was then working with went through a very challenging examinership process that required much re-building and re-organisation.

In September 2013, I decided to do a Diploma in Public Relations (PR) as I felt it was an area that would suit my skill set and one that I could transition into. When a call came about the Bus Éireann job in 2014, I was ready for the move and a new career path evolved from it.

 

Q2: What does a typical day look like for you?

There is no typical day in Bus Éireann! Anything can happen and it’s never dull.

We provide 6,000 services a day across the country. That includes an average 110,000 daily passenger journeys on road transport services and 115,000 school student journeys under the School Transport Scheme. The company is the largest nationwide public transport network and has three separate businesses including around 250 Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes, 23 inter-city commercial Expressway routes and over 3,000 school transport routes. Eurolines also provides services from Dublin and Rosslare to cities across the UK. Given the magnitude of that operation, and being a frontline service provider, pretty much anything can happen!

Typically, I start my day checking my phone in the morning and scanning through Google alerts and press cuttings. I usually have a meeting or two, which could be related to the ongoing service enhancements –which we publicise–or a public/corporate affairs matter, CSR campaign, or a catch-up with the CEO and CCO, both of whom I work closely with.

Media queries are daily and frequent, and I would delegate some of these to the Press Office team. We have a social media calendar and regularly post about partnerships, competitions, service changes, our ‘Go Places with Bus Éireann’ competition for Transition Years, or festivals/events/destinations that people can use our public transport services to get to.

I’m also responsible for overseeing replies to Parliamentary Questions and preparation for regular Joint Oireachtas Committee appearances, and I’m a main contact for some of our key stakeholders including the National Transport Authority, Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport and Department of Education & Skills. I’ve managed to hone my crisis communications skills at Bus Éireann through various IR disputes and others issues. I see this as an important part of the role–ensuring the public understands the company’s position, and why that is the case. Overall, no day is the same and–much like journalism–it remains busy and varied, with a lot of challenges and deadlines!

 

Q3: As one of the largest public transport entities in the country with thousands of citizens using the service each day, a lot of eyes fall on Bus Éireann. How does that affect you when you have to react to an issue or emergency?

I have dealt with a lot of challenging incidents including accidents and collisions, strikes, web and IT issues, misinformation posted online going viral, incorrect media reports, and Red Weather Alerts, among many other things.

Given the fact I regularly deal with unforeseen events and emergencies it is something I am well used to. We have a major emergency response plan, which is updated regularly–and clear communication is always the key.

Firstly, it’s critical that I am quickly aware of any situation. I would be one of the first people contacted by service managers in the event of an incident or issue that may become high profile. Our high priority alert system provided by Cloud90 triggers a text to my phone and email where there is a mention of certain words or phrases–e.g. crash/fire/accident/strike–in the media/social media/online, which is also very useful. I generally have my ‘go to’ Bus Éireann staff in each of the major regions, who I call to ascertain further information from. Once I am satisfied with a preliminary account this allows me to draft a statement that can be issued publicly, and online via our social media and website.

In the last 12 months, the Bus Éireann financial crisis and two Status Red Weather warnings–which caused a cessation of all services–were some of the most challenging issues that I had to deal with, and lead all communications on. Thankfully we came through the financial crisis and are in growth again, and I was invited by the Taoiseach to a special reception in Dublin Castle last April, in recognition of my work in response to Storms Ophelia and Emma.

 

Q4: Are there any particular campaigns which you are proud of?

Yes, there are two campaigns I am very proud of. These include Bus Éireann’s ‘Women of the Rising’–which was nominated at the Awards for PR Excellence 2017–and a collaboration with ID2015 (Irish Year of Design 2015) that saw Orla Kiely, Maser, Brown Bag Films and Kevin Thornton design coach wraps for Expressway vehicles.

The Women of the Rising campaign evolved from a great collaboration between the CIÉ companies–including Iarnród Éireann and Dublin Bus–and the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) using unique illustrations and quotes from the1916 Portraits and Lives book that was commissioned to mark the centenary.

I decided to focus of the role of key females in the Rising–whose contribution has often been overshadowed–and our nationwide campaign was launched on the eve of International Women’s Day, in which we also sought out our first female heavy mechanic apprentice.

The campaign featured an eye-catching specially wrapped double-decker commuter bus (sponsored by itsforwomen.ie), and posters illustrating the stories of six women who featured prominently in the Easter Rising fitted across 650 buses nationwide, as well as in Bus Éireann travel centres, bus bays, some bus shelters and at Busaras, as well as a short video for online outlets.

The women featured were Kathleen Lynn, Countess Markievicz, Helena Molony, Elizabeth O’Farrell, Mary Perolz and Margaret Skinnider, with posters dispatched to their respective regions. The campaign coincided with a new initiative by Bus Éireann to hire more female apprentices in roles traditionally dominated by young males. It was covered by BBC World News, Swiss media, RTÉ’s Drivetime, the Irish Independent and Journal.ie, and regional and local media. It was great to put the female Rising leaders to the forefront of a unique campaign.

The collaboration with ID2015 was a really innovative campaign with each designer creating a bespoke and personal design, utilising the huge canvas of a new 2015 Expressway coach. These large coaches were seen by tens of thousands of people every day as they traversed across the nation. Colourful and eye-catching, the campaign garnered a lot of attention

 

Q.5: Do you think PR in the transport sector is different to the work that the likes of an agency do? If yes, how so?

Yes, it certainly is, as most ‘in-house’ positions in industry-specific communications roles are. While we do work with agencies and consultants on particular campaigns or events, a lot of the day-to-day work involves knowing the business very well and who to contact about a certain matter–be that the Fares Manager, Network Manager, a regional services manager, the Chief Mechanical engineer or the technical or IT team.

Bus Éireann has over 2,500 direct employees, along with 17 depots, 11 travel centres and three (previously five) distinct regions, so it’s important to know how all these parts connect with each other, and who holds the information that you are seeking. Also, the same issues tend to arise again and again–such as political outcry over school transport eligibility or unions’ pay demands–so I am well aware and prepared for these, and would know the full background.

Agencies obviously work for multiple clients and have key deliverables for them. I’ve found working with agencies to be very beneficial in most cases, as they often have expertise in areas such as event management, which would not necessarily be our strength.

 

Q6: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Social media and the 24-hour news cycle. If I had a penny for every time I saw something said or written about the company–which I know is not the case–and this is just shared or retweeted and accepted as ‘the full story.’

We would be on the back foot if it is a complaint about a driver, as that must be fully investigated which involves a process that could take a few days. One good example is where a customer claimed a driver told her she could not board the bus because she was wearing a ‘Repeal’ jumper–and the post had a very large reach across social media. When we interviewed the driver about it, he said that–not being from this country, he was not aware of this campaign–and that was not the reason; it was to do with not having the change of a €50 note.

 

Q7: The media industry is constantly changing these days. How do you feel that affects the work that you do?

I believe that reporters are under a lot of pressure to deliver ‘news’ in the digital age, and while this is understandable, it is really important to check in with a company before you publish something about them. Even if you believe it is correct, a right of reply is key for fair balance. Unfortunately, I sometimes have to contact reporters or news desks to correct things.

Not to be a cynic–or a critic of the profession from which I came–but a lot of news just seems to be very negative these days, and bad news about Bus Éireann gets a much quicker airing than good news.

Thankfully, given the important service provider, we are–and the dependency by many people on these–changes to services or announcements are reported pretty straight. There is often a misunderstanding around our Expressway business–which is commercial and receives no State funding–and it is something we have to explain time and time again.

Overall though, I have a very good relationship with the media and there are many journalists and media outlets out there doing great work, in an ever more challenging environment.

 

Q8: Do you have any pro tips for dealing with the media for any new PR execs out there?

Now that I am on the other side of the fence I can absolutely see the challenges that are there, particularly for agency staff trying to garner coverage for a client.

My advice would be two-fold–firstly why would a journalist, and more important a reader/listener/viewer be interested in what you are pitching? In two lines, what is different about this thing/person etc and what impact does/could it have? Hook them in, in one par!

Secondly, build and harness relationships. Cultivating these are key. The media world is a busy one, but if you are someone who knows your onions, has integrity, offers the odd exclusive and does not hound an editor or reporter, then you’re on the right road. Network as best you can, do coffee and lunch or make it your mission to introduce or chat to the right people at events they are attending. In short, earn respect. It can be daunting but is attainable.

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