Keeping it professional

January 3, 2020

Deb Sharratt has spent the past 24 years building an impressive CV in an industry that’s often trivialised. Here, she talks to Alison Cowie about her varied public relations career and how the growth of professional qualifications is helping to combat misconceptions

The image of Absolutely Fabulous’s Edina Monsoon (created and performed by comic genius Jennifer Saunders) spending her days drinking, shopping and generally making as much mischief as she could – all in the guise of owning a public relations (PR) company – has endured in the memory. But the high jinks of this award-winning series have done little to promote the reputation of an industry that has become ever more critical to companies and organisations of all sector, size and location.

Deb Sharratt studied media, culture and society at the University of Birmingham and trained to be a probation officer before changing tack and becoming fundraising and PR manager at local children’s charity Children North East in 1996.

“I think I got the job because I had the social work background from my probation training and the media from my university course,” she reflects. “That was my route in.”

Deb was drawn to the PR side of the role and she helped develop the Sandcastle Challenge in association with RIBA – the popular North East fundraising event that is still held annually. She also sat on the board and reported directly to the trustees.

It was the charity’s supportive chief executive who encouraged Deb to take her first professional qualification – the CAM (now CIPR) Certificate in Communications, Advertising and Marketing.

“The course was brilliant,” Deb recalls. “It gave me that wider knowledge, especially around the ethical practice of PR. I also got to meet other people in the industry, which helped me to start developing a network.”

Deb stayed at Children North East for two years, before becoming a press officer at Pubmaster, which ran an estate of 3000 pubs across the UK.

Deb, who was promoted to PR and event manager, delivered a variety of responsibilities at the company.

“There was a lot of media relations, investor relations, event management, community engagement and internal communications,” she explains.

The PR specialist – who is originally from County Durham – also recalls producing scripts for the chief executive, which were recorded onto cassette for Pubmaster’s business development managers to listen to in their cars while they were on the road.

“Today, it would be a podcast that you’d send electronically but we had to work with the technology that we had,” Deb adds.

At Pubmaster, Deb continued her professional studies – completing her CAM Diploma – which she reports further bolstered her PR knowledge and support network.

Having worked in the charitable and private sectors, Deb moved to the public sector, taking up the position of PR specialist advisor at the regional development agency One North East in 2004.

It was the first time Deb was part of a team of communications peers.

“It was great because we could bounce ideas around and learn from each other,” she recalls.

Deb initially worked in corporate PR before moving into tourism. She delivered extensive cross-sector partnership work and played an instrumental role in developing the ‘Passionate People, Passionate Places’ campaign.

“It was one of those campaigns that people were instantly interested in,” says Deb. “There was a lot of investment happening in the North East at the time and people wanted to shout about that – especially outside the region.”

While at One North East, Deb took her professional studies to another level – completing an MA in Marketing at Northumbria University. It provided her with an in-depth academic grounding in the subject, and increased confidence.

“I’m not a natural salesperson; I have to understand and truly believe in something to convince others about it,” she explains. “Professional and academic qualifications have helped me achieve that in PR and marketing. They’ve given me knowledge and confidence. I find that if you’re confident, people are more willing to be influenced by you.”

When the regional development agencies were disbanded in 2010, Deb – and the rest of the One North East team – were made redundant.

With two small children, Deb decided to set up her own PR consultancy while she looked for a role that would provide the work-life balance she craved. But a decade later, Deb is still working independently.

As DebSharratt Communications – the PR specialist has worked across the public and private sector in technology, tourism, travel, sport and leisure and hospitality.

“People use my services for the public relation gaps in their own organisations,” says Deb. It was while she was consulting for a gymnastics club that a chance encounter kick-started her teaching career.

“The organisation was run by a lecturer from Northumbria University who asked if I would deliver a guest lecture in grassroots sports marketing,” Deb explains.

“I’d never considered teaching before but I thought, why not?”

Deb now lectures at the University of Sunderland and Newcastle University. She also teaches professional qualifications at Gosforth based nesma (North East Sales and Marketing Academy).

With her teaching, Deb can impart the knowledge and support that has proved so beneficial to her career.

“PR is one of those professions where you don’t need a qualification to do it, however, as professional practitioners, we have a duty to make sure we’re giving strategic counsel and the best advice that we can,” she says. “One of the ways to ensure that is by completing qualifications, which can be gained in a number of different ways now.

“You can do undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in PR or you can go down the professional qualification route. CIPR now offers three levels of courses, which are the equivalent to A level, degree and postgraduate, as well as specialist diplomas in communications, public affairs and digital PR.”

Deb also maintains that her teaching is a twoway process.

“I learn from students because they’re working in PR too. One of the things I love about PR is having that debate; people from different organisations coming together and chatting, discussing different ideas and solving problems.”

This idea of community is important for Deb, who has been a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) for the past 22 years and is currently a council member.

“It has really benefited me by being part of a network of PR practitioners who I could engage with and learn from,” she says.

Deb is also vice-president of CIPR North East – the voluntary regional committee of the professional body – and in 2019 she helped establish the Strategic Communicators’ Forum.

“The forum aims to engage these people who are operating at a very high level,” Deb explains. “We held four events in 2019 where we invited experts from Heathrow Airport and Iceland Foods to discuss how they deliver PR in their organisations and overcome challenges.”

Deb – who remains committed to her own continuous professional development – achieved Chartered status in October 2019. This comprised taking part in a demanding assessment day where she was required to demonstrate high-level strategic PR advice.

While Deb admits the assessment was tough, she’s keen that more regional PR practitioners follow her lead. ”

At CIPR North East, we’re very focused on promoting the Chartership and we’re proud that now almost ten per cent of our regional members are Chartered.”

Looking to the future and Deb believes that PR must continue to work to shake the shackles of the industry, which has been misrepresented in the media for years.

“PR isn’t always looked upon fondly because people don’t understand it,” says Deb. “As an industry, we must demonstrate that PR has a value to organisations.

“It’s not just about getting coverage in the newspapers or getting likes on Facebook; it’s much more than that.” Deb believes that professional qualifications are an important way to achieve this clarification.

“Professional qualifications demonstrate that we’re committed, that we can have an impact, that we understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

DebSharratt Communications

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