What does it take to get-ahead in the field of PR and Communications? Deepa Dey of GlaxoSmithKline tells us today.
Deepa Dey, Head of Communications at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Heathcare speaks to us about a career in the field of communication and what it was like returning to the workplace after her maternity leave. She shares some pertinent tips for those wanting to opt for a career in this field. Let's get to know her story.
What made you opt for corporate communications / PR as a career? Did you always want to be in corporate communications?
My love for all things written and spoken was inculcated in me by my Dad at a very early age. Communication was a natural choice - I always wanted to be in a profession that had elements or creativity and communications. I started as a journalist, a stringer, with a pink paper in Calcutta. While I was trying my hand at it, I also tried to get into Advertising. But I never sought out opportunities in PR – lets accept it - no one really knew much about PR at that time in Calcutta.
But life had other plans. The change happened almost overnight. While I was still a journalist, I got a call from a headhunter mandated to find a PR head for a Calcutta based hotel chain. During the interview itself I was offered the job and that’s when my career in PR started. The interesting thing was that I started in PR without knowing what it entailed – no theories no mentors – it was a complete leap of faith! It sounded like a great opportunity to learn and unlearn. And when you are about to begin, a well appointed office with a bud vase with a rose in It – was hugely attractive! I have never regretted that decision I took in September 1994.
Today, when I look back at my career, I realize that in this job I have been able to contribute more strategically than many other functions can actually do. I have done more in a year than what people do in their entire career span. It has been a wonderful ride where I have done marketing communications, internal communications, leadership communications, media relations, advocacy, online reputation management, crisis and issue handling, corporate identity creation and so much more. From being a single contributor to leading team of over 20 people across multiple geographies – it has been a wonderful learning.
What qualities would you say someone wanting a career in communications should have or focus on acquiring?
1. Stay Curious
Curiosity in our business does not kill the cat but it ‘bells’ it. It was this curiosity that drives me even today - about the profession, the businesses, regulators, media, government, “consumer insights” and technology as an enabler. There is so much to learn.
2. Stay close to your world and the written word
It helps if you have a passion for communication and are articulate. While you don’t have to be a grammar Nazi, but you must know your Wren and Martin tolerably well. Again you don’t have to be a Major in Geo politics – but will help if you know how the world around you works.
3. Stay a storyteller
Communication is not rocket science. But it helps if you develop empathy for people and their stories. Understand their stories and tell it in a way that it occupies a space in the head and the heart.
4. Stay strong
Challenges will come in forms of crisis, allocation of resources, difficult stakeholders requests, lack of a standardized ROI modeling with clear last mile attribution, brand managers who don’t care about your problems – there will be many! We navigated them all as well. It helps to keep the faith and believe in yourself.
5. Stay Networked
Knowing the right people opens many doors and creates the perfect platform for your story to land. This is crucial to our business. So network; network, network. Don’t be transactional. Help others when you can. Make them feel that they matter. Provide information and access that they don’t have otherwise. They will remember you. For a long long time.
Many members of our community are mothers who are returning to work. Did you take a break from working full-time after having a child?
Motherhood brings changes that often we are not prepared for. For me I had to move cities within a month of becoming a mother. I moved to Mumbai with this gorgeous tiny person who did not come with a user’s manual! And my world was in a complete chaos! There were late nights and early morning and a one and a half hour travel to get to work into the upscale south Mumbai office with a demanding mandate of launching a bookstore and a Cha Bar on shoe string budgets to take on the local giants !
The Company was hugely supportive and after I joined back, post the maternity breaks, I was still able to maintain a work life balance by working from home and enjoying flexible hours. Some of my best work I believe was done at this time – Oxford Bookstore was the go-to place in South Mumbai within a year of its launch. It was helpful that my husband is very supportive and we were able to get good household help as back up. I also learned that it is important to give up some control. Everything will not happen your way and that is fine.
In less than 3 years from this move, we packed our bags again and moved to Delhi. It was challenging to find a house, new help, new school that my son would adjust to. But we managed to get all this going while I was working full time. Being a mother to a 3 year old was lovely but I realized that I was not able to give him much time. I had a long and a honest conversation with my most amazing boss who is also the owner of the company. She signed off on a sabbatical for me at a time when corporate India did not exercise that option! It was a great bonding time with my son. I was refreshed when I got back to work, contributed more and grew. And I remain indebted to my dynamic boss who has always been a role model. She taught me that so much and continues to inspire me every day.
Once you returned to work post your maternity leave, what were the major challenges you faced?
Being a mother alters you in many ways that you are really not prepared for. My biggest challenge was to be able to stay awake and focused at work – mothers don’t get much sleep - do they? Add to this the usual issues of having to go to work on a day when you child needs you. Or you need the child. And you don’t want to leave him with anyone else. These moments are rather challenging and you are guilty for prioritizing work over home.
While we were not staying with our families, my husband and I shared the load. Our friends pitched anytime we needed them and we have been blessed to have good help in the house. I always say that my son was lucky to have them around. Look after your household help well - respect them and include them as much as you can in your life. Apart from looking after your home they are taking care of the most precious person in your life – your child.
Share your parenting load with your husband. It took my husband a while to understand what it meant to be a Dad ( even I took time) and he has been a great Dad and a truly supportive life partner. But the problem is not just about coming back and rejoining – you can work through the immediate issues somehow. The greater challenge is to stay on, learn grow and keep going up the ladder while going back to a happy home. You have to work harder at being both a professional, a mother and a wife.
Be realistic with your children. I have always told my son that I am a better mother cause I work and bring the outside in for him. I think he agrees to some extent and someday he will understand what I meant. One of the toughest things was to learn to live with the guilt of staying away from the child. You need to be fine with the fact that you will make mistakes and you will learn from them. Its okay.
Do you think maternity leave policies in most companies in India need to be improved? And if yes, how?
I don’t think it is just about abiding by the articulated policies – it is how a corporate is interpreting that. When I took my sabbatical in 2005, not many companies were progressive enough to consider that- but the company that I worked for did. Things are changing and that is good.
The flip side is that with great benefits come greater responsibilities. The employees need to recognize and appreciate the benefit when given to them and not take it for granted.
Do you feel that corporate communications and public relations are one of the few careers where there are as many as there are men? Or do you feel, that today most careers see equal representation of both genders?
Communication is industry and gender agnostic. In the past, more women came into this profession as it required the softer skills. I see that is changing and we are getting really good talent into this profession. A case in point is my husband who has joined communication after his MBA. Large part of this change will be driven by the options that are made available. If the opportunity is challenging and pays well it will attract good talent – gender is irrelevant.
Is there any specific advice or learning that you would like to share with women hoping to enter corporate communications and wondering how to grow in this field?
1. Your life’s experiences help you as a communicator – keep them coming. Classroom study can only take you that far.
2. A risk taker will always achieve that extra bit. Take a few risks with fall back options in place. It will surely pay its dividends.
3. Having a point of view gets you respect from the right people. Even the bullies!
4. Remain authentic in thoughts and actions. Let your personal values be your guide
5. Be kind to yourself. Sometimes you win and sometime you learn. And that is fine.
6. And no matter who you are – work smart and party hard