Celine's corner: what I didn’t expect going from PR to GR


“What are you going to do with your degree after graduate?”

That dreaded question that most university students are subjected to, but it’s especially pertinent for communications and public relations (PR) students. Unsurprisingly, this question ignites a whole host of anxieties, reaching fever pitch towards the end of third year: Have I picked a useless degree? How do you even find jobs in PR? Do I have to edge out everyone in my class for that one job at that one PR agency????

The problem is then compounded by the fact that PR is extremely diverse. Virtually every organisation requires communication support and strong stakeholder management expertise. Government PR and government relations aren’t the most visible or understood areas, mostly due to a lack of understanding about the functions of the public sector (and even less the idea that businesses and government organisations interact) among young people, so naturally it’s not the first choice for students, who are instead, often drawn to the promise of glamorous launch parties and schmoozing with social media influencers.

So how did I end up here?

I found my footing when I realised I loved the writing and creativity involved in PR, and I was originally interested in politics because I saw it as a way to make progress on some of the issues I care deeply about. Those two things combined and here I am, six months out from a degree programme that I fell into by accident, developing my career in an industry that I also fell into by accident, but learning exponentially and enjoying each day.

I also often get asked how I find what I learnt in the lecture hall compared to what I’m currently doing? So I’m going to shine a light on the surprises that I’ve found in the gap between my PR studies and working in the government relations realm.

ONE. How much I’ve learnt about the New Zealand political ecosystem

I used to think I was politically inclined, just because I read the news sometimes, knew who my local MPs were and how to vote. Turns out, there were way more things that I didn’t know that I thought I did.

Working so closely with a boss whose world has been nothing but politics for the past five years and within an organisation that is in the business of explaining politics in layman’s terms, has meant I’ve acquired considerable knowledge that I would have otherwise only learnt had I taken the time to research Parliamentary procedure, legislative process, and who is responsible for which area.

While I’ve only been in this space for half a year, I’ve been astonished at the amount of information that has been embedded in my mind by virtue of proximity to where the action is.

(On a related note, I’d really like to see more some more education on this in schools. While I was still studying I took on the role of tutor for a first-year PR course and I remember having to explain to a group of 18 year olds the differences between business, state sector, and non-profits. I think we’d have a lot more young people interested in politics if we actually knew how decisions were made.)

TWO. How effective our democracy actually is

Essentially what we do as HSB Government Relations is unscramble the political gobbledygook, making it more accessible and understandable for those who are interested, and helping businesses to navigate the ecosystem. It’s complicated but once you know who to talk to, it’s not as daunting as it may seem.

The word ‘lobbying’ often comes with a weight on its back - that’s been sullied by blatant bribery under the guise of improving access to government officials. In this industry (and also the wider PR industry), ethics and morals play heavily into the motivations behind creating and sustaining relationships.

In this industry (and also the wider PR industry), ethics and morals play heavily into the motivations behind creating and sustaining relationships.
— Celine Kao

In the same way that access to government can be viewed as unethical (particularly if access is restricted or favours certain groups), it can be viewed as enhancing democracy by allowing for a wider range of voices at the table.

New Zealand politicians and decision-makers are incredibly easy to contact, and schedules are designed so that Members of Parliament do have time to meet with and engage their constituents.

THREE. This is a small industry, but I can still do big things

To be perfectly honest, I never thought I’d say that I work for a start-up. All my life, I’d assumed that I’d join a well-oiled machine of an organisation, with legacy systems in place for me to chug my way through to the next stop. I joined HSB Government Relations because I was genuinely interested in the work and mission (plus, Holly is kickass – no, she didn’t pay me to say that), and decided to place this opportunity above the long-held assumptions I had about kick starting my career.

Six months down the line, I am 100% sure I made the right choice. Working at a level where there’s only one person above me to guide me has been an eye-opening experience that has brought a lot of opportunity and shone a light on my personal strengths and weaknesses. Since I’m largely responsible for maintaining and developing my role in the business, it means I’ve had more room to be creative and innovate, to keep looking outwards and forwards, and to design my own path towards my professional goals.

It’s hardly ever talked about, but going from a routine timetable of classes that stack towards a qualification to having the future spread wide open in front of me like a giant chess board where I get to decide what happens next, has been terrifying.

Celine Kao

There aren’t many things that are certain about the future, but one thing that I have no doubts about is that developing knowledge and skills in a start-up in such a niche area of PR is going to set me up well for whatever challenge I walk into next. I’m kept on my toes, I’m staying proactive, and pushing myself each day to be better. I’m working from a small bubble, but it doesn’t mean the skills I’m developing won’t come in handy in the future.

In fact, it’s just the opposite.

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