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Ellen Gunning: “I’d love to start a communications movement where everyone agreed in advance that the membership and leadership would be 50% male, 50% female”

I’d love to start a communications movement where everyone agreed in advance that the membership and leadership would be 50% male, 50% female. Then, within each of those groups, we would ensure that people of different races, cultures, languages, sexual orientation would be represented and that, ultimately, no one would notice difference. Now that would […]


I’d love to start a communications movement where everyone agreed in advance that the membership and leadership would be 50% male, 50% female. Then, within each of those groups, we would ensure that people of different races, cultures, languages, sexual orientation would be represented and that, ultimately, no one would notice difference. Now that would be a movement that I would love to put my name to.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Gunning, director of the Irish Academy of Public Relations. Ellen formed the Academy in 1991 to deliver communications courses, online, worldwide, in six languages. In addition to training corporate clients, Ellen has written three books and is a regular commentator on Irish national television and an international conference speaker.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I actually never had any intention of getting into either communications or education. That happened almost by chance. I grew up in a family where both of my parents were very involved in doing charitable work, and I followed in my father’s footsteps in joining organisations like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (which helps the poor). I was always putting myself forward for officer board positions, and was regularly elected either secretary or chairman of the charities that I was involved in. Along the way, the title “PRO” kept being added and eventually I thought I should study public relations to find out what it was all about. I had no intention of changing jobs. I just wanted to learn how to generate more publicity for the charities I was volunteering with. I spent two years studying PR by night and I was addicted. I love communications. I formed my own PR consultancy and got really involved in the Irish PR institute. That led to me being asked to deliver lectures to students and eventually I was elected chairperson of the education council. By that time there was no turning back! The Institute had no interest in offering courses outside of Dublin. I saw a niche in the market and formed the Academy and the rest, as they say, is history. I started offering courses in three universities — University College Dublin, University College Cork and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. We now licence colleges around the world to teach our courses. I also developed correspondence courses initially, now online courses, in PR, journalism, event management, radio and television skills (as my interests broadened, so did the courses!). We now offer those courses in six languages — English, French, Spanish, Polish, Russian and Arabic. Along the way I’ve written three books. I now broadcast on radio weekly, I’m a commentator on national TV and I am chairperson of Dublin City fm radio station. Its been fascinating so far!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the most interesting things that happened was when I was initially contacted by Orient Planet PR Consultancy, the largest PR agency in the Middle-East, to see if we would be interested in co-operating with them in some way so that our courses could be taught in the Middle East. It was a really exciting and interesting development for us. Over the next 18 months or so, Nidal Abu Zaki, the MD of Orient Planet PR and myself had numerous skype calls and emails and discussions about how this dream would become a reality. In the end, we agreed to create Orient Planet Academy, which is a joint venture between Orient Planet PR and Irish Academy of Public Relations (www.opacademy.com). He and I finally met to sign our agreement in July 2014 in London. OP Academy now offers our courses in English and Arabic and we continue to work together to grow that market.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was contacted by a former student years ago and he asked me if I would perform the opening of a Film School for him in West Cork. He said that the actor Oliver Reed, who lived in the area, would be the other person doing the opening with me. However, they had no budget, and I would be a day and a half out of the office allowing for travel.

Sure, all I heard was Oliver Reed — I’d been a huge fan since the movie Oliver! I promptly said that I would be delighted to do it for a photograph with the actor.

I arrived on the day, as appointed, but Oliver Reed failed to show. On top of that, it was in a Gaeltacht area of Cork, so the school was teaching film through Irish. I spent most of my time before the speech struggling to create 3–4 sentences in Irish to introduce my remarks — which were all in English. And I never got my photograph with Oliver Reed.

Lesson learned? Pay attention to detail. No one expected the actor to say a ‘cupla focail’ (a few words in Irish), but it was definitely expected of me.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We thought about this a few years ago actually. We are an international company, multi-cultural and multi-lingual. We specialise in communications and work with the very best communications professionals worldwide. We are constantly changing and innovating, and every member of the team is welcome to make suggestions. The team is currently made up of Irish, Italian, American, Polish and German people. We teach in six languages and have graduates in 50 countries around the world. We challenged ourselves to figure out what it was that made us stand out, and one of my colleagues — Chris — came up with the answer, which became our motto: we educate- we empower — we connect, and that’s what makes us different.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are currently working with a national body in the USA to see how we can deliver our corporate training online. We’ve always done corporate training in person. This is a venture which will see us delivering to more people, in a virtual way, but with the benefit on interaction with professionals. That’s new.

We have also created online training for radio journalists and mobile journalists which is an innovative development. We are now teaching journalism — written, audio, visual and technology skills — online in single courses. That’s exciting.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I believe in empowering people. Get the right person for the job. Brief them thoroughly. Let them do it. Be open to their suggestions. You won’t accept all of them — but explain why some suggestions were not actioned. People at the coal face come up with great ideas and offer terrific insights.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

There have to be checks and balances in the system, always, but I‘m in favour of as much self-management as possible. I don’t need to know where people are (they can remote) and I don’t need to check if they are working (I will know if the tasks are done). If they each support each other, the team is managing itself.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Undoubtedly that person is my mother. I am the eldest of four, and my mother encouraged every one of us to do anything at all that we were interested in. I could come home from school and tell her that I had decided to be an astronaut and she would say: “my daughter. An astronaut. You’ll be the first in the family and probably the first woman and definitely the first Irish astronaut. That’s wonderful”. If the next day I came home and said that I wanted to be a ballerina, she would say: “that’s marvelous. We’ve never had a ballerina in the family that I know of. Its such a graceful thing to do and of course you’ll see the world and be surrounded by wonderful music….” She was incapable of bursting our bubbles or limiting our aspirations.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

That is an enormous question. I’m not sure that I have — yet! I do my very best to accept every invitation that I get to speak at schools (whether to young people or college students) to encourage them to set their sights high — especially the girls — and believe that they can do it. I was asked to speak with a potential student some years ago. I rang him to talk to him about our Print Journalism course. He said that he wasn’t sure if he should do it, because he was probably too old. I immediately agreed and said that he probably was. He was horrified and asked me how did I know what age he was? I told him that I had no idea of his age, but if he believed in his head that he was too old to do something, he had already decided. In the end, he did actually study our course and he was in his mid-60s when he achieved his ambition of becoming a theatre critic.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1.Trust your gut instinct. I was recruiting some years ago for a new accounts person. Everyone attending for interview was qualified. One woman stood out from all the others. I told her afterwards that I knew she had the job before she walked into my office. Why? Because I could hear the laughter outside and I knew she would work well with the team. She retired at 65 years old, and we are still friends.

2. Do what you enjoy doing. Its true. You’ll never be working. I honestly wonder some days where work ends, and hobbies or interests begin. Everything I do is in the communications area. Studying PR led to lecturing, which led to me forming the Academy. That in turn gave me the opportunity to write books and interview people in the business. ……

3. Work with people you like (colleagues, students, service providers) life is too short to do otherwise. I have friends who started out as students of mine 25 years ago and we are still in touch by email, I meet former employees for coffee and chats, some of my best friends started out as service providers to me.

4. Ask everyone what they think about a new idea. You’d be amazed the perspective people have. Some years ago, my husband and I bought a cottage. I was working 1–2 days a week in the area, and regularly arrived there late at night. I explained to him that it was driving me crazy trying to reverse into the drive. I couldn’t see where I was going as the lights of the car were facing the road. I asked him to organise for someone to install a light. Without even stopping to think, he asked why didn’t I drive into the drive-in with the lights in front of me, at night, and reverse out in the morning when it was bright. Lightbulb moment!! It had never dawned on me.

5. Never forget that the buck stops with you. So, whether that means having to call someone aside to tell them to get focused, or having to explain to someone that you don’t want to be blinded by science you just want the job done, it is your job to do it. If it fails, it will be your fault for not grasping the nettle. Some years ago, I asked a friend of mine if she would lecture politics to our students in University College Dublin. She hadn’t lectured before and was keen to do a good job. She rang me one day and said, “what happens if I’m no good at it”? and I said “don’t worry. I’ll fire you, but it won’t affect our friendship”. She was delighted with that. This was business. I believed that she would be brilliant — and she was — but she wanted to be sure that our friendship would not cloud my judgement. We are friends to this day.

Help people along the way. It costs you nothing but will mean a lot to them and man, you’ll feel good each day. I am constantly amazed by the number of people who think I am their mentor, or have launched their career, or have been incredibly helpful to them. It’s a lovely feeling.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d love to start a communications movement where everyone agreed in advance that the membership and leadership would be 50% male, 50% female. Then, within each of those groups, we would ensure that people of different races, cultures, languages, sexual orientation would be represented and that, ultimately, no one would notice difference. Now that would be a movement that I would love to put my name to.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

If you believe you can do it — you can. Surround yourself with positive and supportive people. First my mother. Then my husband. The worst thing in life would be for your tombstone to read “she had great ability and some wonderful ideas, but she was afraid to try”. Yeuch!!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My websites are: www.irishacademy.com

www.irishacademytraining.com

www.ellengunning.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ellen-gunning/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/IrishAcademy

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/IrishAcademy/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/IrishAcademy

Thank you so much for these inspiring insights!

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