"The time I spent at Exeter was one of the best periods of my life"

Volunteer in the Spotlight - Tim Gay

Volunteer in the Spotlight is a regular feature that highlights the alumni that help current students achieve more. Tim Gay (French 1974) works in marketing and PR in Devon. Read about his career and why he volunteers at the University.

Tell us about yourself and your career journey.

I studied French at Exeter and then did a year’s research into modern French literature before spending a year at Dijon University as a Lecteur in English. It was a terrific job (possibly because I was earning money for the first time) which gave me the chance to explore France, as the hours I worked were frankly not very demanding! 

I came back to the UK without a clear idea of what to do, so I applied to do a PGCE in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). I started my working life as a teacher in the East End of London, but ended up splitting my time between teaching and public relations. 

Chance had me moving back to Devon in the early nineties and I got a job in a small college where I absolutely loved teaching Communication and Media. Being a small college, staff had to be adaptable, so this led to me joining the college’s Marketing and PR team.  

What aspects of your working life have you enjoyed the most so far? 

I still can’t forget the irresistible touch of stardust when we met people like Boris Johnson, Al Murray, or Sue Perkins. I used to organise an annual trip to media industries in London and one abroad, which I did by cold-calling companies in New York, Berlin and Amsterdam. I found that generally there were some very, very helpful people out there who gave their time without any obvious return. 

One of my roles was to produce the college’s print communications, particularly the promotional newspaper, news releases and writing the prospectus. I had to select what photography was needed and advise on graphic design. Open days for new students and their parents were the ‘meet and greet’ events that brought in the new ‘business’, without which we wouldn’t survive. The interpersonal skills I had acquired as a teacher were very useful here. 

I am a bit of a performer if given an audience, and as a teacher I really enjoyed the challenges and new ideas that young people brought up every day. One student challenged me over my lack of a specific media qualification, and as a result I signed up with the Chartered Institute for Public Relations to do the Advanced Diploma. It meant travelling up to London several times, but it was great fun to do.

While mostly facing the public, I also had a role with regard to our own staff.  Internal communication is its own specialist area and often underestimated in an organisation. It’s really important to take the staff with you when initiating new developments or implementing a response new government regulations. Meetings, notice boards, how email is used, even the décor of the internal environment can all help contribute to how well people feel about where they work. 

If you weren’t in this sector, what do you think you would be doing instead?

My career has been an accident and I know a lot of other people whose trajectories have been driven by no better reason than happenstance. I found Public Relations relatively late in life but it was a dream career move for me and if I had my time over……I would get started in it right away!

What advice would you give to current students, and how can Exeter graduates get into your area of work? 

Well, any degree is good for working in PR but you do need excellent language skills, personal presentation, and people skills. There are also avenues if you are good with social media, and every business needs financial and IT expertise. My advice is to read anything and everything, from serious novels to the print on the back of cleaning products! Get yourself used to the idioms people use to talk about things as it saves time if you can articulate ideas in the target communication channel.

I found my membership with the Chartered Institute for Public Relations was very useful in developing a network of contacts that helped me in my job. Affordable student memberships are available too - and it’s never too early to start filling up your contact book. CIPR also offer qualifications such as the certificate in PR which helps at a practical level in writing PR plans, press releases and the like, while the Diploma offers a more strategic approach to how PR underpins the positioning of an organisation in the public eye. 

Think seriously about campaigns you know of, and be able to offer criticism of why they work or why they fail. You will need to have some concrete examples to talk about at interview. Know about what’s happening politically and how parties present themselves to the public. Know about what is happening in the rest of the world.  Any practical experience you can do will be helpful, from helping with a local fete to working for a charity. Get involved in the University TV, radio and print media, or offer to help out the marketing department of a small local business for the summer. These days many PR companies offer internships which are fantastic experience, and although most of these are based in London, other centres include Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol. For those based outside London I recommend the Drum, or the CIPR which has regional associations. Individual PR companies’ websites are also great resources.

Working in PR offers a choice between agency work, where you have the excitement of promoting a wide range of businesses or institutions, or working in-house (as I did), which is more specialised as you are developing one particular organisation. The former offers great excitement, but has long hours and isn’t necessarily well paid, while the latter has better conditions (usually) but perhaps less variety. When I left college and set up as a sole trader, my clients included a training company, a restaurant and a team of psychologists. I have always been interested in branding and this gave me the opportunity to work with clients on their public presentation. As this work was much smaller in scale than when I worked in-house I was able to really get involved with the development of their individual businesses. Getting them to pay on time was another matter!

And finally, what inspires you to volunteer so much of your time to help Exeter students?

The time I spent at Exeter was one of the best periods of my life but you wouldn’t believe how primitive it all was back then! These days you have a very professional set up helping you get ready for work. I hope that helps you avoid my rather lackadaisical approach to getting a job. I found working with young people to be really stimulating and worth all the accompanying bureaucracy. I can’t say my degree subject played any direct part in my career, beyond teaching me to think and to express myself. That’s really not a bad start.

Date: 17 September 2015

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