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We are delighted to welcome Ella Mason as a NoTurningBack2020 Advisor

11 October 2021

We are delighted to welcome @Ella Mason as a NoTurningBack2020 Advisor. Ella is currently interim Director of Corporate Affairs and Business Purpose at Tate & Lyle Sugars where she works across a broad portfolio of rich issues including sustainability, climate & health policy; external communication and media relations, and marketing and brand purpose.

Ella works in a part of the Communications Sector that is notoriously difficult to break into as a school leaver or college leaver if you are not mainstream Russell Group university educated, socially well connected or have an inside track on how to navigate your way through the subtle windows into entry level roles. Awareness of this area of communications is low amongst students from lower socio economic and black, Asian, minority ethnic background.

A high %  of GenZ want to work for companies that contribute to UK & global societal change, sustainability and that demonstrate exceptional corporate governance.  Ella, working as an Advisor with our NTB2020 Outreach programme to schools, colleges and universities will shine a light on how to map a career path in Policy, ESG & government stakeholder relations.

She references and thanks @Stephen Hardwick @ Tony Sophoclides and @Richard Olsews, all instrumental in mentoring her earlier in her career and seeing her potential.

 

Tell me about how you broke into the Communications industry and why you decided to follow this career path?

I studied Economics and Politics at University but didn’t have clue how to break into the sector, and didn’t know anyone who could help me either.

When I eventually worked it out, I found out you had to be in a position to work for free for 6-12 months in an NGO or MPs office in Westminster – I couldn’t afford to do that, and I hadn’t heard of the world of corporate public affairs and communications so instead after graduation, I took the first paid job that came my way as a PA at the Guardian & Observer. I stayed for a couple of years moving between various editorial departments with no one paying much attention to me as I learned all I could about the media and PR.

I quickly found that no one wanted to employ a PA as a policy or comms advisor, so I took a grad-job in project management where I stayed until I joined the Army and went to Sandhurst in the early 2000s. When I left the Army I had a much clearer idea of the sector, and what I wanted to do, but I was still faced with the challenge of having had a decade-long CV that didn’t match up with my in depth knowledge and understanding and my potential.

But then I got a lucky break. I got a job in Private Equity on secondment working directly for the interim-CEO in a large FMCG. The boss took me under his wing and gave me responsibility way beyond my job title to learn the ropes on the job, and then when he left, he introduced me to his former Comms Director, Stephen Hardwick who along with his colleagues, Tony Sophoclides and Richard Olsewski took a chance on me and gave me my first consultancy role in public affairs: we are still friends to this day.


Where have you worked?

I learned the corporate ropes at Altitude and then cut my political teeth in the Conservative Party Operations team running broadcast events and the Prime Minister’s logistics during the 2010 General Election; something I was privileged to do twice more in 2015 and 2017 albeit with an increasing sense of groundhog election.

Since 2010 my career has followed a more familiar industry path – although I have actively sought to be cross-functional moving easily between communications, policy  public affairs, and laterally sustainability. I have always had the view that these disciplines are inextricably connected, and to be a serious strategic leader in business you need to be competent at every functional specialism; even if you are expert at or prefer one over the others.

I had a stint campaigning for regulatory reform of the press; in corporate comms in-house at NBCUniversal and running various sustainability projects as a freelancer. Since then I have worked in three very different agencies – Havas running corporate PR within a global advertising agency; Maitland doing similar in a predominantly financial PR house, and at Hanover Communications where I specialised in public affairs and policy in a particularly interesting time – just after the Brexit vote, and dealing with Government’s first forays in to much more activist policy in the nutrition and sustainability spaces.

With increasing seniority and responsibility l have been able to take on more strategic poly-functional and transversal roles facing into issues that define the world today and will change the world tomorrow. And that’s where I am today: leading change under a wider sustainability; policy and communications umbrella.

 

What area of communications and pr are you an expert in?

Corporate communications, PR, public affairs, policy, and sustainability.

I’m expert at all of it – communications, PR, public affairs, policy and sustainability – but I have a preference for some bits more than others.

That preference is a mix of what I personally think is more important in the whole mix and being naturally better at certain things over others.

Getting to know yourself and what you’re really good at, what energises you and gets you out of bed in the morning is part of the process of your career. It probably won’t fall into place in your first couple of jobs – I’m still reaching for it, twenty+ years in.

 

Describe one communications project you have worked on that has had really meaningful long term impact and been a catalyst for behavioural change

This is a tough one because I’ve done a lot of really interesting and positive stuff in my career; and I’m still working on one of the things – trying to work out how to transform my bit of the food and drink sector in to a net neutral, nature-restorative, circular profitable economic sector which simultaneously sustains livelihoods; feeds seven+ billion people affordable nutritious food grown on less land; ending malnutrition; fighting obesity and saving the planet from climate change and nature loss.

It’s a big knotty problem that has moved so fast in the past couple of years; it’s only going to pick up speed, but there is also a really long road ahead. I am passionate about it, proud to be involved in it, but also still right in it. I assume I will probably still be dealing with it if I ever decide to retire.

Nothing happens without the right policy environment and incentives; no one does anything without political will; and no one understands what the hell is going on without good communications. Policy, public affairs and communications are central to the bigger sustainability picture.

 

What do you see as being the main problems for the PR and Communications sector re the lack of ethnic and lower socio economic diversity?

Significant numbers of young people don’t even really know my profession exists, and where they do the routes in are pretty opaque. We are still an insider, outsider profession where first jobs come through personal connections; unpaid or low-paid internships and volunteering, or they go to people who have attended certain Universities which themselves have a majority of students from similar backgrounds.

Age 18 or 21 or 25 if you don’t happen to know anyone who works in politics it’s pretty difficult to understand what you need to do to break in.

That is basically unfair and unprofessional; and over time it has created a systemic problem. Our foundation of talent comes from a much smaller source than it could, and then the route up is beset by patronage and privilege not necessarily competence or potential – although obviously there are plenty of talented hard-working people in the privileged group too!

There is irrefutable evidence that people from BAME or lower socio-economic backgrounds either do not enter my profession, or if they do get in, fail to stay or rise within the ranks which means we now have an endemic problem where there are very few leaders or role models from these backgrounds: and so the vicious circle of conscious and/or unconscious bias keeps on turning.

 

Why have you joined NoTurningBack2020 as an Advisor ?

My profession is supposed to be about influencing change, and yet we have failed for years to influence ourselves to change. Levelling-up requires motivated (dare I say privileged) senior people to take personal responsibility to drive systemic change from the inside out which means it’s time I stop talking about it, and actually do something about it.

I do not come from a financially privileged background, and I have travelled a different path to many of my peers to get where I am today, so I think I have something to offer.

But I’m not going to kid myself either – I have a lot to learn and I am going to need a bit of reverse-mentoring because sob story aside; I’m still a white, middle-aged, middle-class girl who went to a grammar school and Russel Group University. I might have been penniless and clueless back then, but I’m also still an insider with a head start.