My experience in the busiest press office in the country

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I signed up for placement year with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I wasn’t even sure what the role of a press officer involved when I walked into placement on the first day. 

Would I just be responsible for making tea and coffee? Or maybe I would be in charge of photocopying and printing for the Corporate Communications department?

The answer is, the year provided me with more exposure, experience and responsibility than I could have possibly imagined.

Getting a placement position in any company can be a long and difficult process, you have the initial application which takes you ages to complete, the interview which you stress about for days and then if all goes well you have the job! But things are a little different when applying for a placement with the PSNI, it’s a long process but trust me it’s worth doing. 

After you pass the interview process you are invited to complete an online assessment which involves you going through mini modules and completing tests at the end. Sounds easy right? Next you have a substance misuse test, doesn’t sound too scary until you see the amount of hair they chop out. But I promise you, no one will notice it’s gone.

The thought of showing up to PSNI HQ on the first day was daunting to say the least. It was the same kind of feeling as the first day before a new school but scarier because these people are actually paying you to do well for them and you’re also getting assessed on your work by your university so no pressure!

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I began my placement in the PSNI Press office at the start of September 2018. As we sat in reception on our first morning and waited to be collected like little children lost in a supermarket, my mind was racing with a mixture of emotions. The anticipation of what was to come, and all the people were about to meet was almost too much too take in at that stage but I was also extremely excited about the challenges this year would throw at me.

I think a first day in any job could feel pretty overwhelming? You’re introduced to so many new people and you’re expected to remember all of their names and job titles and you’re told all about the office and what role you’ll be doing. It can be a lot to deal with, but thankfully for us, everyone we met was lovely.

It took a few days for me to get to grips with my new work environment. Phones were constantly ringing, people were always running in and out and there just always seemed to be something going on. It felt like I would never get to used to the place. 

But the funny thing is, after just a couple of weeks I was doing all the stuff I thought seemed impossible not so long before. My days on placement were filled with taking calls from journalists, local, national and international and trying to write press releases to answer their queries or helping manage media facilities. 

Some queries would be straight forward and a simple telephone call to an officer would have my response approved. However, some queries were slightly more stressful and involved me making numerous calls round numerous departments, each person giving me a different name to try until eventually I got hold of someone who knew what I was talking about. The phrase ‘trying to find a needle in a hay stack’ comes to mind…

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But in the end, you would always get sorted, you would always have the press office team supporting you and you would get a response to the journalist before their deadline (or risk an earful of abuse).

Some days I was travelling all over the country, going to different policing districts and working on different projects for social media. Yet out of all the work I was involved in on placement there was one thing that felt closest to my heart. 

The students in the Corporate Comms department were given the chance to plan, film and edit a series of social media videos based on the NI Sexual Assault Referral Clinic, The Rowan. This project allowed us to learn practical skills such as how to create a social media plan, how to record videos and how to edit them on final cut pro, but we really felt responsible to make this video as informative and understanding as possible because it was such a sensitive and important issue that is too often just brushed under the carpet. We had to pull together as a team, using the expertise of the staff at the Rowan and the PSNI officers to ensure we made it a success. And although it was tough at the time, it’s still one of the things I’m most proud of from my placement year. 

There were days that you would have 20-30 calls on your book to deal with and so efficiency was key, this isn’t the kind of place that you would succeed in if you didn’t cope well under pressure. However, if you thrive when given responsibility and enjoy working in a hugely supportive team then this is definitely a placement worth looking into!

Looking back over my year I had the best experience. I was having daily contact with journalists, meeting them at press facilities, working with some of the most senior officers in the PSNI, and I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t recommend the PSNI corporate communications department enough to someone thinking about applying. 

In my opinion, placement year is one of the best things you can do throughout your time in uni! Putting your skills into practice, being thrown in the deep end, discovering you can do so much more than you ever thought possible is a great way to lead up to final year. Now, at the start of my last year in university I’m back to worrying that everything seems slightly impossible, but if I can successfully get through placement year than I can do this too.

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Shannon Walsh is a final year BSc in Communications Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter at @997_shannon or on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/shannon-walsh-8a3b08172/