Lecturers always plug extra-curricular activities, don’t they?  It’s easy to nod along in agreement, making a mental note to respond to the university’s countless invitations by email but when they land there’s a deadline looming and you’re left weighing up the value of said event versus research/writing/reading.

We have the rest of our lives to learn from other PR & Comms specialists, right?

As a mature student, trust me when I say there is always something looming, that’s life. However, there won’t always be a queue of industry experts willing and ready to meet you and share their expertise.  With that in mind, I’m very glad I took @ConorMcGrath up on his invitation to attend a discussion with Alex Aiken, Head of the Government Communication Service (GCS).

I expected two things on the day of the discussion: firstly, for the event to be cancelled in lieu of the Prime Minister’s highly anticipated announcement that evening; secondly, I assumed that if it did go ahead, our guest would be sticking to a strict script, deflecting any difficult or Brexit-related questions.

I was wrong on both counts…

Alex was extremely down to earth and spoke to us candidly for over an hour; he laid out a compelling case for communications to be seen as an integral lever for transparent, responsible governance and a hugely important function within public services.  Good news for those of us that are too aesthetically challenged to make a living out of Instagram, even better news for those of us that are constantly wrestling with their conscience when it comes to considering graduate jobs outwith the voluntary sector.

Over the course of the evening we gained a fascinating insight into the GCS and crisis management – yes, that included Brexit.  We learned of the difficulties surrounding the GCS’s response to the Salisbury ‘Novichok’ attack – namely the difficulty in disseminating information to the press and public without jeopardising classified sources; we heard about previous campaigns – ‘the good, the bad, the ugly’ – and we we were privy to the contents of national address! We were given advice on GCS strategy and the modern importance of creating a story with characters and a conflict, stories that audiences can connect with, as opposed to the historical ‘who/what/where/when/why’ of the traditional press release.No alt text provided for this image

Most importantly, we were awarded the opportunity to put questions and observations to Alex; I had a list as long as my arm but settled on raising the dilemma of ‘spin’ – do communicators run the risk of fuelling tensions in society, especially in this climate, by creating a ‘story’ for their audience?  My understanding of the answer is ‘no’, providing the intentions of the author are not to mislead or misrepresent.

Alex laid out 8 key challenges for the GCS in 2018, one being to “maximise the role of government comms in challenging declining trust in institutions through honest, relevant and responsive campaigns”.  I felt that parts of the discussion were a rallying call to humbly acknowledge public mistrust and harness its existence as motivation to prove the positive impact that communications can have in our society; as someone that is leaning towards a career in some form of public service, but often cynical about the integrity of certain institutions, the call was welcomed and now that I’m writing this, I’m reminded of an exchange that has resonated since.

A small group of us headed to the Harp Bar after the discussion, and along the way, Alex praised Police Scotland’s tackling of knife crime via the campaign to treat violence as a public health issue.  Well this obviously sent me off on a tangent about whether it’s appropriate for police forces to use social media tools (yes, the laughs never stop when I’m around).  I was giving it big licks about certain public services ‘cheapening’ their reputation by endorsing PR tactics, when it was put to me that any measure with a proven ability to reduce the numbers of people being stabbed on our streets was a positive one.  Who could argue with that?

So take it from me: if anyone is reading this and thinking about skipping a relevant talk or event in lieu of a library session, then catch yourself on.  We are extremely privileged to have these opportunities and the confidence that comes from making your voice heard among the current leaders of PR & Comms, and learning from them, is more valuable than a book chapter.*

Don’t just rely on invites from your lecturer, either.  Find out for yourself what’s on offer.  For those in or near Belfast, !MAGINE! FESTIVAL has a fantastic line-up of events and discussions between 25th to 31st March 2019.

*don’t @ me for any academic decline

Fay Costello is an MSc in Communication & Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter: @fay_costello. 

Dia Duit

Well it’s been five weeks since I relocated from Dundee to Belfast and in my quest to make friends/acquaint myself with local culture/stop binging on rubbish BBC shows, I enrolled on an Irish Language course for complete bunranas.

I never learned any Scots Gaelic when I lived in Scotland and I never felt an urge to.  I have vague memories of visiting my great auntie as a child, on the Isle of Skye, and feeling suspicious of people speaking in Gaelic; I can also remember feeling bored out of my mind as I was made to watch Machair, a Scottish Gaelic soap opera that would have been at its peak over the years that I holidayed on the island.  I don’t know if the show tied in with some form of punishment, eg I had been fighting with a sibling and made to stay inside while they got to torment the sheep outside, or if it aired at the same time as we were forced to eat dinner (a welcome break for the sheep) but I seemed to harbour a surly intolerance for the show and subsequently the language.  On one hand, I feel really bad admitting that; on the other, the video below makes me want to groan!


Thankfully I’ve grown up and realised that there are a lot of benefits to learning a new language: as well as cultural engagement, studies have shown that it improves our memory; also, data indicates that due to increased professional opportunities, bilinguals are more likely to have a higher income.  Most importantly for a self-respecting PR student, though, is that learning a new language helps to improve communication skills and spark creativity.

Finding a class in Belfast was very easy; for many reasons, there is a huge demand for learning the language in the city.  I chose An Drocheid, a welcoming cultural centre off Ormeau Road and found that approximately sixty others had decided to do the same.  Our tutor,  Clíodhna, was very informative and encouraged us to repeat aloud the greetings and phrases we were learning.  Once upon a time, I would have felt too shy to say it loud and proud but the beauty of moving to a new place and looking for a job, a room to rent, and like-minded individuals that make a habit of drinking gin (not an exhaustive list), is that you learn not to sweat the small stuff.  So, I called out the phrases with intent, trying as hard as I could to perfect my pronunciation and the two hours sailed in – I can safely say it’s one of the best things that I’ve done with my time since moving here.  Very reasonable too, at £50.00 a semester (10 weeks).

For more information on learning Irish with An Drocheid, go to:

Alternatively, if you would rather be schooled from the privacy of your own home, there’s an abundance of free tutorials on YouTube. I tried this one but found the instructors quite hard to take seriously:

I don’t know that I’ll ever become fluent in Irish Gaelic but I’m looking forward to learning more.  For now, I’ve mastered basic greetings and can talk about the weather – I guess whether in English or Gaelic, the same primal human need to comment on the weather applies.

Go raibh maith agat.

Fay Costello is an MSc in Communication & Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter: @fay_costello.