Maria Shum was Head of Internal Communications at Coutts, providing strategic communications advice to the CEO and Board.
Maria joined the press team at Coutts in 2010, initially focusing on regional PR. Her remit developed to include internal communications and to cover Asia, India, the Middle East and Switzerland, along with the UK. Maria managed a number of PR agencies and led communications for the successful launch of a number of key pieces of Coutts research. During this time she gained an appreciation of the benefits of a holistic approach to communications, covering messaging to, and engagement with, internal and external stakeholders.
The Coutts and RBS media teams merged in 2015 and, after returning from maternity leave, Maria became interim head of the Commercial and Private Banking and Investment Banking Media team, managing a team of six.
Prior to joining Coutts, Maria worked for boutique agency HeadLand. She began her career with financial PR agency Financial Dynamics (as was) in London. She holds the postgraduate PR Diploma from Cardiff University.
Maria left RBS in 2018 and has been putting her communications skills to use in a business she runs with her husband. She will be taking on communications consultancy and contracting roles later this year.
Outside PR, Maria was a Trustee for three years for Chance for Childhood, an international children’s charity.
Describe your background in 5 words max?
Sheffield born London-loving Chinese
How did you get into PR?
After my undergraduate Geography degree, I was mulling over whether to pursue law or PR. Following my best friend’s declaration that “solicitors are boring!” I promptly signed up to the postgraduate PR Diploma at Cardiff University. From then, I chose to go into financial PR (initially agency-side and then in house) and have been in London working in financial PR since 2005.
What do you love about your job?
I enjoy meeting a wide variety of people and working on different projects whilst having insight into business strategy and seeing the bigger picture of why certain things need to be done. There isn’t really a typical day, things I’ve worked on include filming with Gardeners’ World in the Coutts Skyline Garden to supporting on sensitive issues relating to tax havens and arranging major events for Coutts. No two days are the same.
What are you most proud of?
Achieving a Director-level role as a British Born Chinese female and the first generation in my family to go to university, in an organisation (and sector) where jobs are traditionally perceived to be held by white public school-educated men!
What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?
Don’t take things for granted. For example, my experience a few years ago where a role, which at the time I believed I was the best candidate for, and which the recruiting manager had promised to me, but which I didn’t end up being offered. On the upside, the following year, a job better suited to me did come up which I got. Sometimes, things just don’t line up and I believe there are greater reasons for why. Try to see the bigger picture, even though it’s hard at the time, and take a step back to figure out what to do next.
Who are your favourite people in PR and why?
Jason Knauf, previously Director of Corporate Affairs at RBS who is now Communications Secretary for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Jason is one of the smartest communications people, able to advise on strategic communications and positioning even in potentially sensitive situations such as those faced regularly a few years ago at RBS and, no doubt, regularly by the respective royals he looks after. He’s able to cut through the noise and focus on what’s important whilst also being creative.
What skill do you think every PR has to nail?
There are many skills but I believe one of the most important is good time management, understanding how to best prioritise your workload and managing client expectations well (applicable to those in both agency and in-house). Also, somewhat stating the obvious, but being a good communicator is essential.
What is your favourite social network and why?
Facebook is the social network I favour. Yes, the platform is going through a lot of change and is receiving criticism for decisions it’s made but (me being an 80s child) it is still the one I use the most. Facebook is trying to keep up to date by buying other platforms such as Instagram and linking up with those.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Facebook manages to successfully reinvent itself so that it maintains its relevance to both individuals using it for personal use, networking and insights, along with businesses, looking to reach target audiences.
Who is your favourite journalist and why?
Lucy Kellaway, former Financial Times columnist for her smart witty, bite sized articles about life and business. I’ve always found her articles entertaining and given me food for thought. After reading the daily financial news, I saved Lucy’s column to read last and always looked forward to that.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
One of my bosses (Chris Salt at HeadLand) taught me to always strive to be memorable. Prepare well for meetings, be well informed and do something smart to stand out – which could be to have something interesting to say or being particularly thoughtful and personalised for a client. He always thought outside the box and was creative even in instances (lots of those in finance and professional services) where things can seem pretty bland at the outset.
Biggest PR campaign fail and yay of 2018?
Linked to my answer to question 6, I think the ongoing campaign for, and overall positioning of, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry has been really clever, so the public can see them as modern, accessible and approachable. For example, Prince Harry being guest host on Radio 4 (end of 2017). It’ll be interesting to see how the communications for the Cambridges compares to the Sussexs and if they can maintain this positive momentum.
On a very different note, I have a love hate relationship with the song ‘baby shark’ (thanks to my 4 year old) which, whilst not being a specific PR campaign, has been a total phenomenon and gone viral with 1.9 billion views on YouTube globally. For those of you who know it, I’m sure you know what I mean about loving it and hating it at the same time!
Finally, on the D’ word… What can the sector do to encourage diversity?
Make it the norm. More opportunities, encouragement, mentoring. Start from the top of organisations – culture comes from Chief Executives, Boardrooms and Senior Managers. Reverse mentoring / more education for Chief Executives and leaders about the importance of diversity and the benefits it brings. Let’s mix it up and at the very least increase the understanding of different cultures and diversity.
Diversity should be embraced and people encouraged to talk about their experiences and differences. Diversity enriches organisations and can make them more effective at doing what they do. Plus, the world would be a very boring place if we were all the same!
Maria is one of 18 mentors for the BME PR Pros/PRWeek Mentoring Scheme 2019.