Pippa Lain-Smith: PR isn’t all ‘Ab Fab’ - it’s about doing good
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Pippa Lain-Smith is a modest woman. A Norfolk girl through and through, the 53-year-old has many hidden talents – including being a skilled flautist – but she’s not that keen on talking about herself. Pippa’s business, and whole being, is about helping others...making sure they’re seen and heard. She, like many others in the PR world, is a kind of Wizard of Oz. The person behind the curtain, pulling strings and making the magic happen.
But as she rattles off a list of career highlights, given to her by an insistent friend, as we chat Pippa (who celebrates 15 years of running Plain Speaking in 2021) realises she’s achieved quite a lot in a decade-and-a-half.
Not least being one of the most forward-thinking employers in the region, having championed flexible working before all the hype.
Tenacious by nature (as you’ll read it took a lot of perseverance and hard work to get to where she is today), Pippa says naturally the last two years of her career have been challenging to say the least – but they’ve also given her time to reflect on the agency, to take a step back and think about what she really wants for the future.
“In the three months leading up to the lockdowns we had one of our busiest times ever,” Pippa says. “It was really full-on. And then we suddenly started hearing things were changing. Businesses were shutting down. Events were being cancelled.”
When the first wave of a succession of lockdowns hit, Pippa spent much of her time advising clients, helping them re-strategise, ensuring they got across the messages they needed to. But in soon became apparent that Plain Speaking PR would need to fight hard to survive too.
“I said to Hannah (Freeman who’s worked for Pippa for five-and-a-half years) that, whatever happened, we’d be fine. I watch a lot of zombie and apocalyptic films and shows so I’m all about preparation,” she laughs. “I’m not the kind of entrepreneur who takes wild risks with money so I knew we had the financial resources to get by for a while. As it was, the furlough scheme was introduced and Hannah focused on home-schooling her two daughters and I kept things ticking over.
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“Intu Chapelfield, our biggest client for about 12 years, obviously closed for the most part, so I worked with the marketing manager to support the essential retail open there – most staff at the centre were furloughed – but...then the entire Intu group when into administration.
“Everything changed from that moment. We went from having this large client, to finding they had new management that didn’t want a dedicated PR agency any more. We lost the account, and it was out of our hands. That was difficult. But you get through it.”
For Pippa, getting through it meant continuing to support her clients whilst taking on a temporary, part-time role at Norfolk Community Foundation. “And that was a wake-up call. I was speaking to a lot of small charities, seeing how things really were. That people were only just getting by, and then they couldn’t go to work, their kids couldn’t go to school, they couldn’t feed their families. The way social enterprises and charities stepped up to help was just incredible. It made me realise ‘you know what? We’re OK’.”
Come February 2021 though, Pippa decided she had to refocus. “I needed to put my big girl pants back on and think about Plain Speaking PR again. At the beginning of the year it felt so hard to come back. People were still very nervous about committing money to projects. But we did it. And we’re still standing.”
Pippa wasn’t always destined for a career in the world of PR. Born in Norwich and brought up in very rural south Norfolk, as a youngster when she wasn’t being ferried to school from the sticks by bus, Pippa says she was a massive tomboy, and loved building dens and riding her bike.
She was also encouraged to play the flute from the age of four, practising every day and reaching grade 8 – going on to play in orchestras and groups. Today, she chuckles, she still gets the odd request to perform at a wedding.
While attending sixth form at Wymondham College, where she got more involved in the performing arts , a careers questionnaire suggested that Pippa should be a teacher or prison officer...slightly at odds then with her creative brain.
“I wanted to go to drama school, but my parents thought it wasn’t a proper job, so we agreed I’d study teaching, majoring in drama.”
Pippa attended St Mary’s College, part of the University of Surrey in Twickenham, but admits she’d had enough by the beginning of year three, dropping out and returning to Norfolk, where she took up various roles at Norwich Union – at the time an international power house.
“While I was there a job came up in group corporate affairs – largely PR. I’d never heard of it before so I read the job spec, thought it sounded fun, and applied.”
She didn’t get the position.
“I ended up speaking to the lady who headed up the department at that time who told me I needed to get out of Norwich Union and do something different. I saw another job, working as a PA, and I’d taught myself to touch type, so that’s what I did.”
After working as a PA for two Norfolk firms, including an engineering company and solicitors, a PR role she was very excited about became available. “I thought ‘this is it’,” she says. “And I got the position!
“But when I got home, carrying my leaving presents from my other job, there was an answerphone message waiting for me. The agency was making everyone redundant. There was no job for me to go to.”
They say all roads lead to Rome, and after a few false starts, it was at this time all the work experience and skills Pippa had learned over the years since leaving Norwich Union came to fruition. She called the organisation again and was given a shot in the PR world by Donna Barker- who later went on to form Tribe PR and who now (as Donna Chessum) runs Chessum Communications with her husband.
“Donna taught me all the basics of public relations that I needed to know. And we did some really exciting things. Norwich Union sponsored a mail coach and horses driven by the legendary John Parker. One of my jobs was to coordinate its visits around the region. We also organised a world record breaking mail coach journey from London to Norwich which was was amazing. It was the best place I could have learnt the craft of PR.”
After a few years Pippa went to work for a beauty PR agency in London (with clients including Wella she never went without shampoo), but the lure of living in Norfolk proved too strong – and so back to Norwich she came, taking a job with Shorthose Russell and becoming head of PR.
Then, she admits, her career went a bit ‘random’.
“A friend told me her husband (who was a large format digital printer) was starting up a vehicle wrapping franchise. She asked if I wanted to run the pilot scheme in Norwich. I literally knew nothing about vehicle wrapping but I decided to take a chance and became a partner in the Norwich business and ran it for year. .
“I met a lot of great people, and we did cool things like wrapping Titleist’s European Tour vehicle, which was the size of a house, but I knew I couldn’t do it forever. I left after a year and pretty much founded Plain Speaking PR overnight.”
She was supported in the move by husband Richard, a former colleague at Norwich Union who she reached out to via Match.com in 2006, went for a drink with, and moved in with a few months later. “When you know, you know.”
What was important to her when starting her own business?
“The career I’d had so far taught me so many things. I knew the way I wanted my business to be. I’d seen a lot of bosses – some brilliant ones, some not so brilliant – and I knew I didn’t want this to be all about money for money’s sake. It had to be about offering a really, really good service.”
While preparing for our chat, Pippa’s friend reeled off a list of things that make Pippa and Plain Speaking stand out. She’s almost reluctant to mention them...but I insist.
“One thing that I take for granted is the network I have now. A lot of people in our community do great stuff, and I’ve met a lot of them.
“Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing is one of these. That’s a passion of mine. I got in touch with them because my husband works in the care sector and I’d see these pictures of tiny donkeys going into care homes. Just before lockdown I got in touch with Sarah who runs the social enterprise and asked if I could help – maybe with PR, or even just mucking out the stables.
“We didn’t meet for about eight months, until after lockdown, but I now count Sarah as a friend and I love to help the organisation when I can.
“And we’ve been involved in so many other things people wouldn’t know about. Like the Break Charity art trails for our clients. This year we’ve helped Dipple & Conway get involved with GoGoDiscover, sponsoring the 2021 Learning & Community Programme. We’ve been escorting dinosaur sculptures around Norfolk and visiting local schools to help them get involved. We’re proud to work with the Sue Lambert Trust, who support victims of sexual and domestic abuse. For many years I worked with The Benjamin Foundation, a fantastic charity that supports children, young people and family. I met its founder, Richard Draper, by chance whilst we were both on the Stephen Bumfrey Breakfast Show on BBC Radio Norfolk. I asked him what the charity was about and found myself quickly ‘drawn in’, eventually becoming a trustee
“When we worked with Intu Chapelfield I was involved in an award-winning scheme to bring serving prisoners into the shopping centre, helping them to get real life work experience, so they’d be ready when they were released.
“I’m also proud that we’ve given time to things like Porkstock, a food and music festival run entirely by volunteers that raised money for Nelson’s Journey."
Right now, Pippa and her team (of Hannah, and new starter Sally) are looking back to look forward, at what the future holds for Plain Speaking PR.
They definitely, says Pippa, learnt so much throughout the pandemic. One of the ‘lightbulb moments’ came after watching a webinar with a woman who runs a digital PR business.
“All she talked about,” Pippa remembers, “was the importance of web-links. Of sending out stories to journalists, getting them to publish them, and then using the links to direct people to websites in order to generate sales. I thought it sounded like the end of proper PR as I knew it. But at the end someone asked her if the days of traditional PR were over and she said no, they just had to be more digitally savvy. She said her business was not about reputation, it was about links.
“And that really sparked something in me. At Plain Speaking PR we’re ALL about reputation and helping clients build what we call a ‘halo of awareness’ - so people know about them, want to work with them, buy from them and support them. It really did help us focus on the rest of the year ahead.”
The rest of Pippa’s focus has been on family. And time. As a working mother herself (her son Fletcher was born in 2009) Pippa knows only too well the challenges women face in the workplace.
“I had a one-to-one with a business coach who asked me to write down on a piece of paper what 2021 was the ‘year of’. I don’t know where it came from, but I put that it’s the ‘year of valuing our time’.
"We’re going to hold onto that. It doesn’t mean thinking about our day rate or hourly rate. It’s more about making sure every hour is time spent well. So it could be that instead of Hannah sitting worried at her desk for an hour, she takes that time out and has a break with her kids.
“It’s not easy being a working mum and I felt I had to create the environment I wanted to work in. Hannah joined five-and-a-half years ago. She’d handed her notice in to another agency, and we were introduced by a mutual friend.
“She told me she didn’t want to commute to Norwich every day. I said no problem. She needed to work part time around her children. Again, no problem – she’s so wonderful and great at what she does. I’d rather have fabulous Hannah part time than someone else full time.
“Sally, who’s recently joined us, doesn’t have school age children but has other interests. She runs marathons. If she needs to start late or leave early to train, or go run a marathon, she can do that. Why shouldn’t she as long as the work gets done?”
“Flexible working, and working from home, isn’t right for every business or everyone, but I do think everybody needs to be treated individually at work, there’s no one size fits all. I’m so lucky to have the team I do.”
Valuing the team’s time extends beyond flexible working hours. “So much of what I’ve learnt is that we offer genuine value. And we need to remember and have confidence in that. We work with some incredible companies such as Castle Quarter, Totally Dynamic, FW Properties, Teknomek, Raynham Estate and Camplings Laundry. They understand the long term benefits of investing in PR and we’re proud to shout about what they do.
“I really believe PR has the potential to do a lot of good in the world. When you tell people you’re in PR they think it’s all Champagne lunches – that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Whether it’s doing good for businesses, or for a social enterprise or charity, we spend a lot of time thinking about who we want to work with, what we can do for them, and whether that allows us to do good where we live.
“It’s been a tough two years, but I’m really proud we’ve lasted, grown and adapted. You’ve got to be resilient in communications because the world has changed so much.
“I feel hugely honoured that we’re still here, getting recommended and working with brilliant clients.”