Gemma is a media relations and public affairs professional with nearly a decade of experience working in London local government. She was born in north London to Mauritian parents and grew up in Ipswich. After receiving a Scott Trust bursary to study journalism at the University of Sheffield, she worked for the Observer New Review before securing a junior role in a busy London borough press office. In 2015 she started working as a press officer at London Councils, the cross-party group representing the 32 London boroughs and the City of London Corporation. She has worked there for seven years and is now Head of Media and Public Affairs. Career highlights include securing national media coverage for a campaign to influence the National Funding Formula for schools, becoming responsible for the organisation’s parliamentary engagement function and playing a role in London local government’s communications response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Describe yourself/your background in 5 words max?
Optimistic Londoner with Mauritian roots
How did you get into PR/communications?
I stumbled into a job as a press and promotions assistant for my local council while looking for work experience to support my application to journalism school. I will never forget how surprised I was when my manager showed me a news article based on the first press release I ever issued and I saw how much of the content I had written was in the final piece. It began to open my eyes to how the relationship between the council’s communications team and the media worked.
What do you love about your job?
Learning about different policy solutions and interventions. From delivering an effective welcome and support package for Ukrainian refugees to improving the adult social care market, local government’s on-the-ground perspective and insight is invaluable. But the sector’s contribution is too often overlooked, so I also enjoy representing the underdog. The public service element of my job is great too. I find it really rewarding to play a part in keeping London local government in dialogue with voters and taxpayers.
What are you most proud of?
My mum and dad are both in the nursing profession so growing up there was a lot of pressure to train to be a doctor. I know fellow kids of immigrants in the medical profession will be able to relate! I went as far as studying all the right AS Levels for medicine. Looking back, I can’t specifically remember how I resisted that pressure and chose to go down the path that felt most exciting and authentic – studying English Literature. I think the advocacy of my teachers helped a lot, as well as the fact that I was still aiming to go to university, which reassured my parents. But I am still incredibly proud of 17-year-old me for taking that step.
What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?
I’m still learning not to be a people-pleaser, checking my need to be liked by everyone and figuring out how to be true to myself. It’s been a journey but the payoff has been more than worth it, leading me to forge more meaningful relationships with others as well as enabling me to build credibility at work.
Who is your favourite person in PR and why?
I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for the work of Professor Kevin Fenton CBE, who is Regional Director for London in the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) – essentially he is the lead public health professional for the London region. His leadership on communicating key public health messages to Londoners and being open to questions and challenge during the Covid pandemic in order to build trust was impressive. It helped to ensure critical information reached communities across the capital, complementing the work councils and the NHS were doing locally. Also his and his colleagues’ focus on researching health inequalities provided a vital evidence base not only for immediate work to improve vaccination take-up but more broadly as well.
What skill do you think every PR/comms person has to nail?
Listening without your own judgement or bias getting in the way of hearing the other person.
What is your favourite social network and why?
WhatsApp. It’s the social network that I am most active on and that best reflects my real social networks, enabling me to keep in touch with the people I care about the most.
What’s your favourite podcast and why?
Feel Better, Live More with Dr Rangan Chatterjee. It’s a really accessible health podcast with an enthusiastic and thoughtful presenter. I like its wide-ranging and holistic approach, as I agree that an individual’s health and wellbeing is influenced by so many factors, from how much sleep you get to how many good friends you have.
Who is your favourite journalist and why?
I always read Amelia Gentleman’s investigations on social policy issues for the Guardian, which take the time and space to examine an event or issue and are well written and sensitively handled. Her recent story about how the death of Sheila Seleoane went unnoticed by the authorities for over two years was a good example of this – a tragic occurrence that could have been a passing news story was given the journalistic attention necessary to uncover important themes.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Be more solution-focussed. While it’s important to acknowledge something’s not quite hit the mark, and to feel your feelings, I’ve found that shifting my focus to coming up with solutions always leads to a more constructive outcome long-term. I like going for a walk or listening to a motivational playlist which helps me with making that shift.
Biggest PR campaign fail and yay of 2022 so far?
YAY – The Netflix campaign for the launch of season 2 of Bridgerton was a good time. I am very much the target audience for this show – a period drama fan of South Asian heritage who was completely won over by season 1 – so if I hadn’t been buzzing with anticipation, Netflix should have gone back to the drawing board. I liked reading advance reviews by journalists of South Asian background which definitely increased the hype, as well as seeing images and clips from the series ahead of launch.
NAY – Prince Andrew agreeing to a reportedly significant out-of-court settlement to end the civil case brought against him by Virginia Giuffre was another negative development for his public image. You could argue that his reputation is so damaged that another blow barely registers, but I think in the context of his earlier messaging saying he would go to court to answer the sexual abuse allegations being made against him, this was unhelpful and does nothing to resolve outstanding questions about his character and actions.
Finally, on the D’ word… What can the sector do to encourage diversity?
I’ve found that it is powerful when people within institutions and companies organise in pursuit of specific, measurable actions and secure the support of senior leadership to effect change – at London Councils we’ve done more of that internally over the past couple of years and it is starting to bear fruit.
Connect with Gemma on Twitter.