#CommsCorner – Travel, trains and teaching with Philippa Brear

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This week the #CommsCorner sits down with Philippa Brear, who is a Senior Lecturer in the Bachelor of Communication (Public Relations) based at RMIT University in Melbourne, where she has also been Program Director of its PR and Advertising degrees. Philippa is a Fellow of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and recently became a Board Member at Assisi Aid Projects.

Your elevator statement – who are you professionally and personally?

I’m a professional communicator whose expertise fuses significant experience in industry and in tertiary education. I’m a strategist and an analyst; I’m a debater and a questioner. I’m a feminist. I have a good sense of humour. I’m Australia-born with a strong tinge of Welsh. I come from Melbourne, but I lived in Sydney and London for a long time, and I still get itchy feet.

When did you first know you wanted to work in communications?

I was a finance analyst at Westpac when I was approached to join the media relations team. This was during a recession, so an issues-rich environment for financial institutions, and significant pressure for communication staff. I’d already worked with the media team on a few projects and they believed I was well suited to the work: I was interested in the media, I had good current affairs and general knowledge, and I had strong communication skills – on top of knowledge and skills I’d built as an analyst. It was flattering to be approached; they saw potential that I hadn’t even considered. It was a steep learning curve, but I discovered I could combine my knowledge and skills to play an important professional role in a challenging environment.

What’s the most important part of your role?

Today’s tertiary teaching environment is complex and dynamic. The imperative for knowledge and skills building encompasses academic and professional concepts and practices, of course, but it also addresses broader enabling skills and knowledge. Our role is about helping our students to forge connections between formal education and life-long learning, and to view their professional lives as part of their lives as citizens.

Communication is all about context, and with structural change in industry occurring increasingly rapidly, a capacity for professional reinvention is more important than ever. Our challenge is to empower students: to give them the foundations to enter industry, and to develop after that. I’ve reinvented myself during my own career, having morphed from analyst, to communication practitioner, to tertiary educator. This helps me to empathise with some of the challenges facing our students.

From what do you get most satisfaction in your job?

Our degree has strong employability outcomes. Because of its direct relevance to professional practice we have a lot of work-integrated learning in our curriculum, and it’s great when students discover how their studies mesh with real-world practice. Problem-solving and creativity are central to developing teaching approaches that are meaningful to students, engage industry stakeholders, have academic rigour and meet governance requirements. There is no such thing as a “perfect” subject – there is always something to reconsider and reshape.

I also gain satisfaction through achieving outcomes with the organisations with which we partner. For example, I’ve led several study tours to India where RMIT students interned at the Jaipur Literature Festival. It was great to help to forge cross-cultural links and to see our students embrace challenges involved in managing an event that has 300,000 attendance over five days. Back in Melbourne, I’ve seen a Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner visibly moved by student videos screened at the museum exhibition Agents of Change: 100 years of women in policing.

I’m on the board of an NGO called Assisi Aid Projects, which works on projects aimed at empowering women and their communities in India and Cambodia. This is a meaningful focus for my own professional practice, providing an opportunity to contribute to important real-world outcomes.

Tell us about the best campaign you’ve ever worked on

Not sure if you would call it a “campaign”, but I project managed the inaugural stakeholder roadshows for the privatised UK passenger rail industry. Rail is a big part of life in the UK and the privatisation was controversial. The peak body for which I worked was new, and its member companies were new. Plus there were a lot of skeptical stakeholders. It was great to plan and produce the first formal forums for the industry to engage with its communities. And I loved working in a greenfield site.

Which campaign do you most admire?

Probably one remembered only by the over-40s … Life. Be in it.

Who’s your communication hero?

There are many communication practitioners and educators whom I admire, and I’ve worked with some of them. But my heroes are people who use communication for the greater good; people who might be viewed as communication role models. This was the emphasis when I convened RMIT Communicator of the Year; we honoured industry practitioners and public figures who used communication to achieve important community outcomes, for example Michael Kirby – a great communicator as a judge, who became a vocal advocate on a range of issues after retiring from the High Court. Of course, social media has been a democratising force in the emergence of communication heroes – Greta Thunberg is a contemporary example.

What’s been the biggest change to communication/marketing/public relations since you began your career?

Without a doubt, social media. It’s hardly new these days, but it has changed professional communication forever.

Which communication tools can’t you live without?

I like to think I can live without any tool – it’s good to be a problem-solver. But for people managing a lot of information the Cloud is terrific for managing files, particularly when you work in different locations.
And I love my tablet – it’s a camera, computer and screen all in one.

If you had to cut something in your communication budget, what would it be?

Cut business travel – too much unnecessary anti-environmental travel in the age of Skype and FaceTime.

What quality do you look for in your communication team members?

Good communication skills, not as common as you think.

What tips do you wish you’d known starting out in communications?

Not many people write well.

Finish this sentence: ‘Communication is…’ something I do without thinking and something I think about a lot.

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