Copper Consultancy’s Senior Account Manager, Fiona Woolston, reflects on another successful year supporting aspiring public relations and communications professionals studying at Birmingham’s major universities and what it can teach us about recruiting future talent.

 Unlike professions such as journalism and law, public relations (PR) does not have a widely understood, established training route or career path. PR specialists often come from diverse educational and professional backgrounds and subsequently use those skills to enhance their client offering.

Although PR associations have made efforts to promote the sector and define its key attributes, for many university students, PR remains off their career radar. Even those who have some idea of what a PR role may entail are often unaware of its range of sub-specialisms, as well as its applications across various industries.  Recruitment flexibility in the sector is advantageous in many ways, but without proactively championing what PR is, we risk a shortage of talent entering the profession.

To prepare their students for the world of work, the University of Birmingham (UoB) and Birmingham City University (BCU) run career mentoring programmes each academic year. Fiona applied to support both universities’ 2019 to 2020 cohorts, and will soon complete her mentoring with two aspiring PR and communications professionals, Scarlett Ellis and Esme Wilson.

For first-year UoB English Language BA (Hons) student Scarlett, providing reassurance that it is normal to not know what you want to do for the rest of your life at 18 years of age was crucial. That said, employer expectations on graduates’ skills and knowledge continue to grow. Fiona worked with Scarlett to identify the skills and knowledge required in PR and reflect on what actions she would need to take to build those over the next three years. For Scarlett, her key takeaways were:

… learning a lot about the personality traits that are valued [in PR], the types of roles and the different types of companies, and these are valuable sources of information that cannot be found solely through reading. Fiona has given me the confidence and guidance that I needed to pursue a variety of other courses, work experience, and just build my knowledge of the field… I have really valued the mentoring experience as Fiona has been so supportive and inspiring.’ 

For third-year BCU Public Relations and Media BA (Hons) student Esme, complications in recruitment because of coronavirus have meant adjusting some of her graduate expectations. Fiona and Esme have taken this slowdown as an opportunity to thoroughly review and enhance Esme’s CV and portfolio to help her stand out when recruitment resumes. For Esme, her key takeaways were:

‘Being mentored by Fiona has been an incredible opportunity to gain insights into the PR industry. I have been able to gain beneficial help for CV and cover letter writing, structuring my university assignments… I feel as though my perception of PR has become more realistic… Construction PR was not originally an interest of mine, but learning about Fiona’s work and this creative, complex and challenging side of PR, has made construction much more appealing.’

 In late 2019, Fiona was also invited to deliver a guest lecture at BCU to its third-year Public Relations and Media BA (Hons) students on repairing and reframing reputation. Once more, the lecture demonstrated the realities of PR to help prepare our next generation of colleagues:

‘I particularly found the workshop given by Fiona Woolston from Copper Consultancy really interesting, as I had never imagined some of the difficulties encountered when trying to effectively communicate a government [construction] project… Although this can be a challenging sector to work in, I did enjoy taking part in the workshop and found it quite exciting!’ (Anonymous third-year BCU Public Relations and Media BA (Hons) student)

With strong relations to BCU’s School of Media through obtaining her Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), Professional PR Certificate in 2018, Fiona looks forward to returning to speak with a new group of budding PR professionals during the next academic year.

As Birmingham’s ambitions continue to grow, the city needs a strong cohort of talented graduates entering employment. Regardless of your sector, professionals across the city have a responsibility to champion the city and its career opportunities to retain highly skilled graduates and avoid the traditional exodus to London. Only with a pool of quality employees will Birmingham demonstrate its national significance.

At Copper, we operate in a niche sector within PR. Promoting the value of communications in construction has to start early in a student’s journey to ensure that these enthused, accomplished and knowledgeable individuals support the city’s regeneration objectives in the future. What Fiona found most inspiring during her mentoring journey was the genuine drive among students to make a difference during their careers. Therefore, if our sector is going to attract the best, we need to tap into this mentality and demonstrate how PR and construction can lead to inclusive social and economic prosperity.

Are you thinking about mentoring? If you want guidance and advice on how to get the most out of your experience, please contact