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CAREERS - SPREAD THE WORD

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Sharon McKee is a former journalist who has made her way up the communications ladder after seeing a job advertisem...
Sharon McKee is a former journalist who has made her way up the communications ladder after seeing a job advertisement in LGC, says Suzanne Simmons-Lewis

Advertised 18 March 2005

Started work August 2005

Previous experience

Head of communications, parliamentary unit - Child Support Agency

Head of communications - Carlisle City Council

Communications manager - NHS Direct

Assistant press officer - Newcastle City Council

Reporter on local newspaper

Reports to deputy chief executive

Best bits about the job

'I like having to know lots of different things about different parts of the council

and feeling I am really contributing something.'

Most challenging parts

'Finding effective ways to communicate with residents over a large geographical area, and improving internal communications to 13,000 staff dispersed across the county.'

Pay bands

Counties£67,770

Districts£48,698

London boroughs£70,889

Mets£64,925

Unitaries£59,276

Average figures from Employers' Organisation for Local Government

'You can plan and prepare, but something unexpected always comes up,' says Sharon McKee, head of communications at Northumberland CC. 'That's one of the reasons I love doing this job.'

Ms McKee, who took up her new role in August 2005, manages a central communications team.

A former journalist, the poacher turned gamekeeper thrives on the buzz of the unexpected and the variety of her role which covers everything from talking to the media to handling the council's corporate identity.

The role of local government communications is now a strategic operation, recognised as crucial in helping the council deliver targets needed for driving improvement.

'Communication is seen as a really high priority now because the current agenda is about communications, consultation and community engagement, and involving your staff. So it is vital in helping councils move forward,' says Ms McKee

She adds: 'It has changed from years ago when it was just seen as a press office with a couple of people who dealt with media enquires for local papers. It is now seen more strategically - the role is much wider than just media handling and PR. Its impact can be so much greater.'

Ms McKee's main duties involve developing new ways of communicating with various audiences including residents and customers.

'We have a number of big consultation exercises at the moment. I am involved quite heavily in these and reviewing our communications.'

With a career that began in local papers, Ms McKee is no stranger to taking the rough with the smooth. She has worked in a number of public sector bodies and her previous job was head of communications in the parliamentary unit at the controversial Child Support Agency. Before this, she was head of communications at Carlisle City Council.

She says the main contrast in moving from a national organisation back to local government is the 'proximity to your customers' - in other words local residents who use council services on a daily basis.

'You are so close to your customers, literally and physically. You see them at the pub and on the streets. And councils impact so greatly on people's lives, even if they don't realise it. As a resident your whole environment is being affected by the council. So I feel that responsibility and accountability to our customers.'

For Ms McKee, the sheer variety of communications work is among the best parts of the role. I like having to know lots of things about different parts of the council and feeling that I am really contributing something,' she says.

'I love the unexpected as well. The pressure of not knowing what is coming along next is one of those things that a lot of communications people thrive on.'

People with backgrounds in PR, marketing, policy or journalism are all good candidates for senior communications roles.

But Ms McKee says knowledge and the right attitude is vital: 'You have got to be flexible and enjoy and embrace change,' she says.

Other key skills include being good at managing internal and external relationships, being assertive and resilient.

'You can get a lot of knock-backs in communications, but you have to keep bouncing back and be very proactive - you can't be a wallflower.

'Be very assertive and not take no for an answer - people would probably say that sums me up.'

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