Our interview with Beth Hurran, Communications Leader at Arup

19 Sep 2016 by Miriam Hanna.

Could you give us a brief overview of your comms career so far – how did you get to where you are today?

After completing my degree in English Literature at UCL, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. Television appealed and I went to work in commissioning at the BBC. This was fantastic experience, and my understanding of broadcasting and commissioning comes in useful on a regular basis, but while I was there, I realised I had a passion for communication that I wasn’t able to fully use in the world of commissioning.

So three years into my career, I took a significant pay cut and started again, at the bottom, in a PR agency. It was the best move I could have made as the agency gave me excellent training in PR and a great understanding of how to work with a diverse range of clients, allowing me to realise my passion for communications.

While at the agency, I realised I wanted to feel better informed about the issues faced by my clients, many of whom weren’t PR professionals but had a broader role in marketing. I undertook a CIM qualification which broadened my horizons significantly.

My next step was to move in-house. I had what I realise now was a slightly stereotypical idea that if I was in-house, I would be closer to the decision making and that aspect appealed to me. I had an interview with Arup, and took a role as a senior press officer in 2007. Nine years on, I’m still working at Arup and my role has broadened significantly. I’m now responsible for both the press office and internal communications for the UKMEA region in Arup.

How would you say the professional services industry has changed in the last five years?

Partly thanks to the economic downturn of 2008, the professional services industry isn’t alone in having changed significantly in a number of ways. Overall, competition has grown more intense – companies are getting more innovative about engaging with clients and how they work to establish a positive image with external stakeholders.

But it’s not only about having the best client interactions and PR. In our sector, people are our main asset so attracting, retaining and developing the best talent is absolutely vital to success and communications has a significant and exciting role to play in that area.

It perhaps goes without saying that technology and how people want to access information and news has also made a difference. Ensuring all your communications channels – from social media and your website to client communications and press releases – work seamlessly together is increasingly important in such a fast paced environment.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your PR career so far?

Learning to deal with conflict and not see it as a negative has been a learning curve throughout my career. Early on in my career, I would shy away from conflict and sometimes take the ‘easy route’. I’ve learnt to trust my instincts as I’ve gained more experience and realised that usually, if handled in the right way, conflict both in terms of business and the more pastoral side of managing a team can be good as it gets issues out into the open and often makes for a better working relationship or work outcome in the long run.

What is the most important lesson you have learned as a leader in professional services?

When I first started at Arup, I felt both thrilled and slightly overwhelmed to be surrounded by an entire population of people who are, as a rule, brilliant and innovative geniuses. It took me a little while to learn that while they may excel in their field, they likely have very little understanding of PR.

As a member of a small, in-house team I quickly learnt the lesson that my expertise was critical to ensuring PR results and not to be dazzled by feeling that I would never be able to achieve what a geotechnical engineer could do. We all have our own skills and that’s a very good thing! While I’m not a ‘fee earner’ my contribution and the impact the communications team can have is absolutely vital.

What are the top three essentials you look for when you’re hiring for your team?

It’s a cliché but number one would have to be a positive attitude. When you’re working as a team, if you don’t have the right attitude and you can’t gel with the team, particularly in times of stress, it can have disastrous consequences.

Critical thinking would be my second essential – I expect my team to ask questions and to analyse and interpret the information they have to ensure the best angle for any story – both from an internal and an external communications perspective.

Finally, I always look for strong writing skills and the ability to communicate effectively. It’s not just about writing press releases – it’s about being able to communicate on a multitude of platforms, both written and verbal. You must be able to communicate a strategy or approach to others in the business who may have no understanding of PR or communications whatsoever.

In one sentence what advice would you give to someone starting out in Communications?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – I always say to my team ‘there are no stupid questions – ask, ask, ask’ otherwise you’ll never learn.

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