Neil O’Sullivan is an Irishman, an award-winning communications professional, National Marketing and Communication Manager and 2IC at the PRIA. He has worked for an experiential marketing agency focusing on branding, FMCG, event strategies and product development, and has spent almost 10 years working in communications for not-for-profits; now drawing on his extensive experience for PRIA members. He is also a founding member of the Light Ball Sydney, an 800 person charity ball helping tackle suicide. When not writing or running a campaign, Neil is dominating the football pitch with the Dunbar Rovers. He was also featured in Piktochart’s 2015 #userstory campaign on ‘Digital Brand Storytelling’ and B&T’s Movember campaign. Catch him on Insta @neilosul, Twitter @neilosul or on LinkedIn.
Your elevator statement – who are you professionally and personally?
The intro above gives you a flavour of where I’ve come from professionally. I’d call myself an enterprising achiever with big aspirations with my professional career having moulded me as a creative marcomms expert, a human connector, serial collaborator and budding entrepreneur specialising in communication, public relations, marketing, storytelling, leadership, strategic thinking, idea creation, problem solving, writing, relationship and event management.
I am a talker, always have been and always will be – must be because I have the Irish gift of the gab. I see myself as a bit of a social activist and big greenie. I eat well (most of the time); you will find lots of kale, coconut milk and nut butter on my shelves. As a self-confessed Bondi dreamer, I do love my morning swims in the sea and my decaf, flat white, almond milk, and extra hot coffees, in a takeaway cup – I know. I play semi-professional soccer in the New South Wales NPL3 Division and you’ll always find me in the gym. My obsessions involve fashion (more so shopping), travelling, reading books, trips to the cinema with lightly salted Cobs popcorn under my arm, MKR, Stargate and Star Wars Rebels (it’s a cartoon).
Tell us about your typical workday?
Where do I start? I am currently living the hectic, mad lifestyle that most people live these days, the ‘always on’, but I am trying to change that. It is in my nature to be active; it is where I am at my best and freakishly where I feel most comfortable. The issue is my inability to slow down, only take one thing on at a time etc. I do love keeping myself busy but don’t get me wrong, it is tiring, hence why I am currently doing my best to try a few changes (insert yoga or meditation pose).
Typically, I’ll wake at 6 a.m. (that’s when I’m actually awake – snooze finally off). During the summer it was my ritual to get a pre-work swim in and a large decaf, extra hot, almond milk flat white, in a takeaway cup – yes diva order I know but there is this little thing called MTHFR that I have (that’s a whole other story). If I am not in the gym – morning is when I do my best training – by 7 a.m. I’ll be on route to the office. Work is ‘flexible’ but being part of a small team means we all work hard and it’s rare I’ll get out of the office before 6.00 p.m. – not that I’m complaining. Getting home early has been another aspect I’m working on. Your health is your wealth, time is money, and I intend on living it. I’ve also recently started using a stand up desk. Yeah, I’m standing up as I write this piece.
When did you first know you wanted to work in PR?
Hmmm… I kind of came through the back door to be honest. I studied Business Studies and Cultural Arts at a university ten minutes down the road from my home in Ireland and then went on to complete a post-graduate Higher Diploma in Event Management and PR for a year. Part of the H Dip was to finish an eight week placement and I was lucky enough to get mine through Special Olympics Ireland. I worked there for two months and was then offered to cover a staffer heading off on maternity leave. When that person came back to the office, she moved into another role and voila, I had my first full-time role. It was awesome to be told for the first time that you’d be making X amount of EURO. For me, someone fresh out of university, it was a lot of money. It was an unbelievable place to work. I got to meet and work with some incredible people – it was just a dream if I’m being honest.’ It also brought me around the world to two international games; Boise, Idaho, USA; and Athens, Greece – the memories. After spending four amazing years there, it was time for me to make a change, cue Australia.
It had been on my mind for some time to come here and I’m often asked, ‘Why did you come here?’ Well, I had a number of reasons; the GFC, the Irish economy, a chance to travel, I was a free bird (no partner), I yearned for a bit of sun and most importantly, I wanted to catapult my professional career. I love Ireland, always will, but there was something inside of me that felt that there was something out there for me that I couldn’t get back home. I do miss it; I get homesick quite often and like most expats, I wish that all my family, friends and loved ones were here with me in Australia – along with all the Irish craic (that’s an Irish colloquialism for fun).
When I got here, I was lucky to get a role with Oxfam Australia. When I say lucky, I mean it, after spending hours in the State Library in Melbourne, day after day, application after application, it got frustrating. I got used to the pre-interview question on the phone, ‘So what is your VISA status Mr O’Sullivan’, then, the phone call ends. An old work colleague from S.O. had worked for Oxfam during her time here in Australia. I got in touch, met the team and that was it. Those six months in my fixed term contract were the best. Working in the comms team around Oxfam’s Trailkwalker fundraising event blew my mind. I owe a lot to Simon Barwick and Tamsin Loy for giving me that opportunity, I learnt so much from them. Plus I can’t forget my first Australian manager there, Mariko Smits, I miss our outdoor meetings in the park, Melbourne coffee in tow.’ Who can argue with working for a company that’s helping fight poverty – amongst other things – and you’re having fun while doing it (we played soccer at lunchtime for pete’s sake!). It felt like I was working in a place where you can actually make a change and it was a sad day when my contract finished but who knows, I’d love to be back there someday.
I had a couple of months working with Special Olympics Victoria in a short consultancy role and when that finished, they twisted my arm to join their state board, again lots of fun and a great cause.
After packing all my bags, I was all set to go farming in Cowra, picking lettuce heads – my dad had a good laugh when he heard about it, “Your hands, on a farm”. That is where I have to thank Kate Johns, formerly of the PRIA. Kate called me one wet evening in Melbourne as I came back from a temp role to get me in for an interview, thankfully, she got me sponsored with PRIA, and I’ve been there ever since. It would be remiss of me not to mention PRIA Fellow, and none other than Jack Walden FPRIA. Jack was the PRIA Victorian President when I started. We shared an office on Flinders Lane and Jack was without doubt, the most influential person on my comms career as an expat living in a foreign country. Just because we speak the same language doesn’t mean you know all the cultural differences below the surface. There was a lot of red pen on my work at the beginning, but thankfully it got less and less as we went along. I simply wouldn’t still be here without his help. He’ll always be Mr. President to me.
However I digress, I should probably answer your question.
I love working in this sector because I don’t think there’s a better role in any company than the comms role. The position understands every single nook and cranny of the company and its publics. The role of the comms person is growing too and I’ve grown up in a very exciting time for comms and PR. CEOs and senior directors are now listening more and more to the comms departments, and rightly so. Every single decision a company makes should be intrinsically linked to great communication. I was always told I had the ability to talk, organise and bring people together and I can’t think of a simpler definition of communication than that.
Who’s your communication hero/mentor?
I love a good speech/talk. Alan Watts the philosopher has to be up there. He is not with us anymore but I guarantee you, if you download one of his podcasts for your next long car journey, he’ll have you quitting your job in the morning to go live the dream you had 20 years ago.
It’s also interested to read up on some major figures in the past, which to me, seemed like amazing communicators, be it good or bad. I was impressed with our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, initially, but he seems to have taken the quiet road over the past few months. Now that the election is coming soon, I have no doubt his communication will ramp back up.
President Obama is a big favourite of mine. I don’t care what anyone says, he has been an amazing president. His ability to convey a message, listen to the people and just be a man of the people and be himself is just fantastic. I truly don’t believe America understands how lucky they are with him. A major shock may be on the horizon in the coming months – Bernie Sanders has my vote.
I’m also a bit of a dreamer so listening and following people like John Lennon, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and of course Conor McGregor – well, he is Irish. On a serious note, I think we can all learn a lot from these people and how they communicated – each one had a different style in some way.
Which tools can’t you live without?
Ok I’ll keep this one short and sweet: my current CRM system, Hootsuite, FB, Twitter, Insta, Piktochart, Bitly, Isentia’s Media Portal, Hotmail, my banking apps, Menulog, Shazam, My Payday App, and Airbnb.
What are the biggest challenges in your role?
One word, prioritisation. Many people don’t believe us when we say that we have only five full-time staff at the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA). That’s not an excuse, just a reality. We’re an industry body that does so much work across so many different areas; advocacy, training, professional development, lobbying, education, etc. and there are lots of different stakeholders. Our challenge is to be able to manage the resources we have to better service our members. We have so many amazing members all across Australia and when I hear that this particular email or that event helped a member develop their career or find that new job they’ve been looking for, that’s what keeps me ticking – I have been here almost four years after all!
Tell us about the best campaign you’ve ever worked on?
PRIA’s National Conference each year is pretty darn amazing. It’s brought me to Hobart, Adelaide, Brisbane and this year it will bring me to Perth, 6-8 November. It’s always a hectic time for us but when we get there and spend the four days in the local surrounds of the host city, along with our 300+ attendees etc., it just fills you up.
Have to mention two other campaigns quickly as well:
- 2012 Oxfam Trailwalker Melbourne. In fact, all the Trailwalkers that year. We raised $2.6m! Moreover, to see the blood, sweat and tears that goes into it, and the time and money people invest, it restores my faith in humanity.
- 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens. This was a spectacular campaign. Not only did we successfully support athletes in terms of funding to get to the games, but we also took a team of over 100 Irish volunteers (all who fundraised their way) to work on the games. No other country in the world does this, only Ireland. Picture 100 crazy Irish volunteers working side-by-side, trying to speak Greek to the locals, too funny.
Which campaign do you most admire?
Like a girl by Always. I love this because I am very passionate about gender, amongst others. It’s a big issue in PR to see women on a trajectory during their career, then, all of a sudden, it’s lost. It doesn’t make sense to me, women are statistically better than men when it comes to leadership, yet less than 10% hold c-suite seats globally, yes globally. It’s not a male bashing thing either, it’s just about equality and picking those who are the best for the given position. Seems so simple yet so many don’t follow it.
What’s been the biggest change to communication/marketing/public relations since you began your career?
Digital, social and instant news. I even remember the dial tone noise when you went to go on the internet. I can even remember having to actually speak to a girl in a bar in order to get her number, thanks Tinder – wish it was around when I was younger. No longer are you cycling up a hill either to deliver your press release to a journo. These days, you get your news faster on Facebook than you do via Fairfax.
I also think privacy and connectivity brings hindrance as much as joy. A few years ago, I was always looking to share my details, sign up to things and swap my details. It now scares me to give over any of that data, even old photos from Bebo still come back to haunt me. The only thing I am worried about though is that I don’t think we as a society have much of a choice. Connectivity is only going to grow and unless I buy a Tesla battery and go off the grid, I will be stuck within the matrix.
If you had to cut/keep something in your communication budget, what would it be?
The ability to keep some room to try something new. Budgets and briefs are always affected by, ‘That’s not what we normally do’ and ‘Isn’t that a bit risky?. So what. Yes, it might be risky but it you aren’t going to push the boundaries you’ll never know. I am not just talking about budgets and funding either, I mean freedom, choice and trust in one’s ability to be creative and to make a change. I’ll let you in on a little secret everyone… Ssssh… YOU DON’T NEED BIG BUDGETS TO BE CREATIVE!
What quality do you look for in your communication team members?
They have to be open minded, a self-starter (I need them to push me as much as I push them), creative (I don’t mean some person with Photoshop master tattooed on their forehead), has to believe in me, the team, the brand, and what we are trying to do, if not, bugger off.
What’s your favourite brand?
I love ASOS because of their simple branding and clear purpose, plus they’re disruptive. Their hook is simple; a quick and easy way to fashion and shopping from the comfort of your seat/desk.
Oxfam, UN, UNHCR and anything ethical get a big tick. It’s great when I see PR consultancies like Straight Up PR and For The People who stick by their strong values, trust and authenticity, whilst working in the PR industry. Hannah, Nastasha and their team rock it at Straight Up and it’s fabulous to see them doing so well. You can make a big change in this world without destroying it.
Optus are right up there now as I think their customer engagement and user experience does it for me. I was able to see a free movie last month through their Optus Perks (see earlier note on cinema obsessions!). But that’s just it right? Customers have relationships with brands because of the smallest little things. I’m the perfect example, I like the cinema, they give me the cinema. Now don’t tell me that their brand strength doesn’t go through the roof when they do that?
CommBank are great too. I love the ‘tap and go’ (except when in MKR product placement shots) and sure I don’t even need a wallet anymore thanks to them! Moreover, they even had Jamie Oliver in their recent mentor program campaign – winning
Also, hat tip to Lego for surviving all kinds of paradigm shifts, their brand literally has gone through the ages keeping it relevant and arguably even more relevant than ever before. Did you know their brand value is $4.5 billion? Invest.
What book/blog do you think every communicator should read?
Anything from Gandhi.
What tips do you wish you’d known starting out in communications?
You do not need to be a dick to be successful in PR. Avoid people who are disruptive 9and I don’t mean the good Uber-style disruptive, I mean bad eggs), do not try to please everyone. Just be who you are and follow your dreams.
Finish this sentence: ‘Communication is…’
Is linked to every part of human existence, I am just glad to be enjoying the ride.