Interview with Jane Johnson, Executive Director of FEEL Communications

Determined to prove you could build a PR client team that was based on the team members’ availability and service, not the hours they worked, Jane Johnson launched FEEL Communications.

She tells us why flexible working is so important to her, and why she believes businesses should do more to attract and retain talented mothers.

What’s your career background?

I began my career in a PR agency, 21 years ago. After a few years I went in-house and did PR for a provider of outsourced services. I got a lot of crisis management experience there, from raunchy dinner ladies to striking hospital staff, there was never a dull moment.

Fifteen years ago I moved into Financial Services and internal change communications. I left my role as Head of Employee Communications at a major global bank, to set up FEEL Communications last year.

How did your career change after having children?

I went back into a job share role. I was highly skeptical as to whether I could make it work, being a bit of a control freak, but I needed the time with my son as well as my career so decided to make a go of it.

The thought of walking out the door half way through the week, to leave someone else to pick up where I’d left off filled me with dread, but we absolutely and totally made it work. In fact my job share partner is one of my closest confidantes today, because we trusted each other with our respective professional reputations.

What is about the PR industry that appeals to you?

I have always loved language, literature and storytelling. I think a corporate reputation is really about the story you tell your audience.

Finding the right stakeholders and engaging with them to show you understand each other, whether they are your employees, your investors, the press or your customers. To me, that is what good PR should be about. Things go wrong for companies when their story no longer resonates with people.

I also firmly believe therefore that good Communications drive real business results. And to be able to influence that, is hugely appealing.

Where did the idea for FEEL Communications come from?

I went back into my job share role for a year. And while I was extremely lucky to have such a supportive organisation behind me, I started wondering why the PR industry, which is so heavily dominated by women at entry level, is so under-represented in Executive Management roles.

I don’t see any reason why, it isn’t possible to build a client team, based on the team members’ availability and service that client in the same way as any other agency would do. The client gets the benefit of our collaborative thinking, we use cloud based technology and good old fashioned calls to keep in touch and get to know our clients.

Amazingly I have never, ever had a single client ask me what hours I work or complain that we weren’t responsive enough.

And more recently, based on client demands, we now also recruit working mothers into roles in Corporate Communications for clients, where we negotiate some form of flexibility for the candidate.

What makes FEEL Communications different?

We all work flexibly, and manage work around childcare commitments. Our ethos is that if you have the right experience and skills, then we should be able to work around your childcare commitments.

All of our team members also have at least 15 years’ experience in PR and Communications which I think sets us apart from other agencies.

Why was enabling flexible working within it so important to you?

It’s been said before, but our generation has seen the most incredible leaps forward in communication, technology and science, yet we still can’t work out how to keep highly educated and skilled women in the workforce after they’ve had children.

We invest in girls’ education – girls are outperforming boys at almost every stage of the education system, and gaining more places at university than boys. And yet after 10-15 years in a career that uses that highly educated brain, we can’t normalize flexible working.

We have just run a survey among working mothers and they 83% told us that they want to work. Not just for financial reasons, in fact a fair salary was one of their lowest priorities. What matters most to working mothers today is the intellectual challenge and showing good role model behaviour to the next generation.

What’s your vision for FEEL Communications?

I want to become one of the UK’s leading PR and Communications agencies but entirely staffed by working parents. I want to attract talent that appreciates our ethos and clients for whom it is simply not an issue.

You recently launched research relating to working mums. What was it?

We set out to see what matters most to working mums in 2017, as briefly mentioned above. Of course there is a lot more work to be done, but the surprising thing was that the overwhelming majority of the women who replied told us they want to work. They would not swap their jobs to stay at home full-time.

And furthermore to the employers out there who are reluctant to consider part-time or job sharing, 88% of our working mothers said they put in up to 8 extra hours a week, out of their contracted hours in order to get the job done.

So they may be watching the clock to make the school run, but they will be back online at weekends and evenings in order to get the job done.

How do you think more businesses can attract and retain talented mothers?

I think there has been a lot of talk about what working mothers want and need but we need to change the debate a bit and do more to show employers the value that working mothers bring.

Campaigns like Hire Me My Way from Timewise and are doing some great work in campaigning larger organisations to look at part-time workers in a different way. But so much more needs to be done to highlight the business case going forward.

And why should they?

Experience, talent, commitment and loyalty to name but a few. If you were the right person for the job when they hired you all those years ago, why does your suitability change because you have children?

Our research shows that women place huge value on their careers, especially after having children. It may even be more cost effective for smaller businesses to take on someone who is more experienced and can deliver the same in part-time hours as a less experienced person on a full-time contract.

Why do you believe working is so important to mothers?

I think it goes back to my earlier point about education. If someone had said to me, straight out of university, “Sorry, you can only have a career now for 15 years, then you’ll have to do something that doesn’t really use your skills,” I would have told them where to go. But that is effectively what we are doing. It seems crazy to me.

I also think financial independence is an important factor.

And finally, what are you three pieces of advice for mothers who aspire to launch their own businesses?

  1. Tell as many people as possible, before you launch and seek their input and feedback. I was very lucky to have a number of mentors and they really helped me to arrive at something I knew I could do
  2. Make sure you know (or have an idea!) where your first client is going to come from. This is something I didn’t do, and had to learn. It was a very nervous first quarter!
  3. Get yourself some great PR…we’d be delighted to help!

You can find out more about FEEL Communications on their website.