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Letter from Sydney

by Alan Smith

In a homage to Clive James' famous TV series "Postcard From..." from some years ago, this Letter from Sydney is one practitioner's observations about how public relations "works" here. My wife and I moved to Australia in 1994 for a change of lifestyle. Right now I'm an independent consultant.

Most recently I was head of corporate communications worldwide for electronics design software company Altium, and before that, head of communications and marketing director, at Unisys Australia. So I've been in-house since October 1999, and worked for PR consultancies in Sydney between 1994 and 1999.

At Altium my role was worldwide and covered all aspects of corporate communications in a business-to-business context in the IT sector. This is unusual for an Australian-owned company. Many PR remits for Australian companies are probably focused here in Australia (and New Zealand).

However, much PR is with local subsidiaries of overseas multinationals. In my career here, this obviously includes Unisys but also clients such as Oracle, Volvo and IBM.

Working in public relations in Australia very often therefore has a global context. You may well work for subsidiaries of international companies, perhaps more often than is the case in the UK or Europe, where many of these multinationals are based.

The public relations sector will be broadly familiar to any PR practitioner currently based in the UK. One characteristic of the market, though, is its size: the PR sector is smaller than the UK's. Our population here totals 22 million and there are simply fewer PR professionals here for that reason alone.

The peer body is the Public Relations Institute of Australia (pria.com.au). If you're considering the move, the Registered Consultants Group of the PRIA is the group to look at, being the list of consultancies adhering to the PRIA code of practice.

Australia provides exposure to, access to and a proximity to Asia. We're a long way away from everywhere, but we are closest to Asia. Many international companies manage their Australian operations through Singapore or China, so that PR budgets, programmes and reporting lines often route through these countries. This places Australia in an exciting geographic and economic context which is different to Europe's. And Asian operations are often also managed from Australia, so you have the reverse effect as well.

I think the media's relationships with PR professionals are much the same as in the UK, certainly as I imagine them to be (my role at Altium brought me into contact with media across Europe, albeit at a distance). It seems to me that if the basics - good relationships, availability, authenticity, honesty, responsiveness and a complete lack of spin - are applied, all is well.

Government relations, investor relations and internal communications are all alive and well here, although I think there are fewer specialised roles covering each of these.

Journalists here hate the same sort of things they hate in the UK: so don't chase up media releases, be relevant, and know your stuff.

Look out for the challenge, "how well do you know the Australian media?" This question is fair enough, but also somewhat simplistic. When I arrived 17 years ago, I obviously knew little about the individuals. You learn quickly, and the web makes research easy.

The media landscape here can be almost as harsh as the UK's, especially in the mainstream media. There are fewer specialist media here for many vertical sectors compared to the UK or Europe (my old sector, electronics design, being one example). Our media here are not as tough as, say, the UK's tabloids, but they are not a push-over by any means. We have fewer pay TV outlets, and fewer quality news outlets. The ABC (our equivalent to the BBC) now has a 24-hour news channel, but this is a recent addition to the roster.

Arguably there's not quite the same 'hustle and bustle' as you'll have in the UK or Europe. So lifestyle and other personal considerations play their part in any thought of moving Down Under. But it's mid-May, our equivalent to mid-November, the sun is out and it's currently 22 degrees Celsius and sunny - not bad for a 'November day'!


Alan Smith is an independent communications consultant based in Sydney, specialising in business-to-business communications and ideation. Follow him on Twitter at @AlanSmithOz.