PR pro takes the reins

FIONA ROTHERHAM
Last updated 05:00 16/02/2014
Jane Sweeney
PETER MEECHAM/Fairfax NZ

EMPOWERING: PR pro Jane Sweeney has the same reputation as Beyonce.

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Shoe entrepreneur Kathryn Wilson calls her the "Beyonce of Business".

Apparently PR pro Jane Sweeney has the same reputation as Beyonce for empowering women to be strong and confident and to feel good about themselves, Wilson says.

But then Wilson - as is typical for many of Sweeney's clients - ended up a friend. Sweeney confesses to owning "many" pairs of Wilson's shoes.

It's all about connections.

Sweeney is already pulling in work and will have a moving in party in May for her full service PR agency (the name is still being worked on), which will be based in the innovation precinct in Auckland's Wynyard Quarter.

The 53-year-old is an industry veteran having run agencies in New Zealand and the UK and she's well-connected across government and industries.

Most business journalists would love to get their hands on her phone contacts.

The NZ Listener described her last year as "the doyenne of a small cadre of PR women with serious clout" and she was a finalist in the board and management category of the 2013 Women of Influence Awards.

Sweeney claims to have always had a hankering to run her own agency though that was something she kept to herself when running Clemenger-owned PR agency Porter Novelli for nine years until late last year.

She says she planned to start her own business after leaving agency, Consultus, but was instead wooed to run Porter Novelli by former Clemenger boss Roger MacDonnell.

The agency hadn't been trading that well and MacDonnell says the driven Sweeney had a difficult start.

"It was a wee bit behind but she very quickly got the business on to a good footing, got it to be profitable. She has a decent commercial edge to her and she needs that when giving commercial advice."

MacDonnell says Sweeney is also extremely likeable and builds strong loyalties from staff and clients alike.

"Once they meet and like her they tend to stick around. There's not a bad bone in her body."

One of the things he used to chide her for was being too hands on.

"I would encourage her to let go of the reins a bit more. I'd say hire people better than you and give them some freedom."

She's also taken advice from around 20 or so "C-suite" executives - those with "chief" in their job title - to determine what services and style of operation they'd prefer (see box) and incorporated this into her business plan for the new agency. Her first hire has been former Porter Novelli staffer Carolyn Kerr and although Sweeney is the agency's sole shareholder, she plans long-term to give senior management a stake.

One of the key parts to her business plan is creating what she calls "job heaven". That's a PR way of saying somewhere people want to work.

Under her reign Porter Novelli twice won top best small workplace in New Zealand and given the freedom of her own agency, she wants to build a culture that includes upskilling staff and offering flexible and mobile working options, extended leave and sabbaticals.

Some people have been employed by her three times in different agencies and one told her recently he was "up for a fourth", she says.

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Other planks to the plan include using other agencies with specialist skills to supplement what clients are offered and setting up a regional communications hub in China focusing on supporting Kiwi businesses that want to collaborate in-market and on Chinese businesses wanting to invest here.

The UK-born Sweeney has spent just under half her life outside of New Zealand. At the age of nine she went to school and boarded at a convent in Berkshire for a couple of years which is when she had a relevation about God.

"I had an extraordinary sense of God's presence in my life and have never looked back," the devout Christian says.

She's not committed to any particular religion though and has attended "every flavour of church you could imagine". Her family currently attend the Life Church.

She emigrated to New Zealand when she was 16 because her father, formerly in the Royal Air Force, became concerned about the reforms to the UK defence forces and thought the family would have a better future here.

She thought her father had a point after she and house husband, Mark, headed back to the UK with the first of their three children in 1990. The country was in the grip of a major recession and one of the first articles she read was a Financial Times story about 2,000 senior PR people having been laid off.

Not one to say die, she walked the streets of London for three weeks until she found an agency job. Within six months she'd become a director and ended up running it.

Her one move outside PR was a three-year stint as trade commissioner to France for NZ Trade & Enterprise.

Fluent in French, Sweeney found the role "addictive" and remains a self-described "exporting junkie". But the constant travel proved too tough on her young family so they came back to New Zealand.

Quality of family life bested career ambition.

Her work in the not-for-profit sector though is part of her desire to continue doing things that have a macro-benefit to New Zealand. A breast cancer survivor, Sweeney is on the board of the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation and Global Women and on the governance group for DiverseNZ Inc, an initiative to shift the dial on New Zealand's diversity in leadership.

Foundation CEO Van Henderson values Sweeney's presence on the board because of her empathy with those with breast cancer and her strategic skills.

''She has a large perspective on things, is very intelligent and cuts to the chase."

One thing the red-head does get fired up about are questions on industry ethics and the accusation that PR practitioners are paid liars.

"I completely and totally loathe that thing about paid liars. I have never lied on behalf of a client and never will," she says.

Taking a deep breath she adds. "PR is about the truth well told, you have to have an authentic back story especially with social media."

Sweeney sees herself more as the "people's conscience", persuading clients to do the right thing.

An example she gives of that is the Need to Know campaign insurer IAG ran last year. The campaign was aimed at helping people calculate their insurance needs when the industry switched to sum assured from open replacement cover.

Sweeney convinced IAG boss Jacki Johnson that it would be better to be the brand leading those industry changes and helping its 800,000 residential customers on the journey rather than just sending them a letter saying prices were going up.

Although Johnson says her board gave a collective gulp at the high cost of the multi-media campaign, it has proved successful on every metric.

"We felt we had a duty to those customers and Jane had a pivotal role in knowing how to invest that money wisely."

What Johnson finds most compelling about the PR pro is her sheer energy.

"We could all do with even half of that."

- Sunday Star Times

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