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A Day in the Life: Porter Novelli's Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams is the managing director of Porter Novelli, a public relations agency based in Freemans Bay, Auckland. She shares how she gets through the day, how she organises her time and how she handles the madness of business.

What time do you wake up?

The alarm is set for 5.35am which is a failed attempt to trick myself that it’s not really that early – 5.30am is early, 5.35am not so much.

What’s the ideal way to start your day?

Exercise – either the gym or walking our SPCA rescue puppy Tui. We knock out a 7km walk together before 7am.

Do you have any morning rituals?

More a routine than rituals consisting of exercise, getting my 10-year-old daughter up and nagging her to hurry up, breakfast, checking the news, emails and my calendar, then school drop-off, collecting coffee on the way to work.

How soon do you begin doing work-related things, i.e. checking phone or emails?

As soon as my feet hit the floor. I have a quick peep when I get up to see what’s landed overnight. I have an unwritten rule of not emailing the team before 8am or over the weekends unless it’s an urgent client issue. If I accidentally hit send out of hours I feel really guilty – and usually send another email to apologise.

What’s your media consumption or interaction like from the morning onwards – do you listen to podcasts, radio, watch videos, read books and magazines, visit new sites?

Media consumption is pretty constant through the day, dipping in and out of the main news apps and at home or in the car the radio is locked on RNZ. I’m old school in that I read actual books and take magazines home from work to check out in the evenings.

What kind of work do you do?

I’m the managing director of the PR agency Porter Novelli. I also lead the Clemenger Group (which we are part of) Inclusion and Diversity Group, which is hugely important for us and our sister/brother agencies.

What’s unique about your line of work?

We get to be in the trenches with clients through the best of times and the worst of times. As a consultancy, we are exposed to the most wonderful, and sometimes weird, industries and sectors. I have learnt to watch my unconscious bias about industries that may not seem the most dynamic from the outside. It’s often the quiet ones that are the most fascinating.

What responsibility does that involve in a typical day? What takes up most of your time?

My time is split between working with clients, new business, and the nuts and bolts of running an agency.  The days I love the best are the ones when I don’t see my desk at all. The buzz of seeing ideas turn into reality for a client or watching the team knock a project out of the park is hugely energising.

Who do you see/talk to?

Amazing people every day! We are a small enough team that we actually talk to each other every day and there is never a dull moment! We have a lot of laughs as well as taking the work seriously. Who else I talk to varies from day to day but it might be other MDs from the Clemenger Group if we are collaborating on a project or talking to clients, potential new clients, aligned businesses or students about what PR actually is. 

Where do your best ideas come from?

Team work. Sounds cliched but it’s true. We’re a collaborative lot and ideas build on ideas, it’s never one person’s solo brilliance that nails it for a client. For me personally, I often crack ideas when I’m walking the dog and then frantically share the idea with one of my colleagues in case I forget it.

As a consultancy, we are exposed to the most wonderful, and sometimes weird, industries and sectors. I have learnt to watch my unconscious bias about industries that may not seem the most dynamic from the outside. It’s often the quiet ones that are the most fascinating.

What are the most important tools or programmes you use for your work?

Good old-fashioned Outlook, a pen and notebook (a real one with pages), smatterings of short-hand which is a hang-over from journo days, and my mobile, with its precious stash of contacts.

How do you juggle all your responsibilities?

Sometimes it’s just through hard slog and long hours. But if I stay focused on clients and the team being the reason our business exists – then the juggle falls into place pretty quickly.

What kind of breaks do you take throughout the day?

You mean like a smoko? Yeah nah. If there’s a dog in the office then a five minute pet-therapy break is gold. SPCA is our charity client, so dogs in the office is actually work right?

What’s the most enjoyable part of your day?

Helping someone crack something gnarly. Whether it’s a client or one of the team, that’s the best part of work for me.   

What about the least enjoyable?

Witnessing corporate politics. Let’s just do the work and do it well people.

Do you procrastinate? Is it good or bad?

I’m deadline driven and am much better run off my feet. Yes, I procrastinate but it’s not dire so don’t see it as good or bad.

Do you measure your accomplishments or productivity? If so, how?

Happy clients and a happy team. The rest will follow.  

We do timesheets but they don’t tell you anything about the quality or value of the work.

What’s your interaction with friends and family throughout the day? Can you be both a successful entrepreneur and a good mother/partner/friend?

I fully subscribe to the belief that it’s not an either/or when it comes to being successful at work and being a good mother/partner/daughter/friend. The expectation that there’s a perfect balance at all times is setting you up for disappointment. PR and communications is not a job where you can expect set hours because the unexpected happens at any time. Early in my career I went through a period of resenting the interruptions out-of-hours and then the blinding flash of the obvious dawned on me that I had to find another career if I wanted regular and predictable. I don’t.

Do you get stressed? If so, how do you manage it? Do you practice any mindfulness or meditation?

Yes I do get stressed. I internalise a lot and am not someone who can ‘easily let things go.’ I’m pretty competitive and have an intense sense of justice so if either are out of whack – then so am I. Saying that, I recognise it and so try to manage it by talking with people I trust to get thoughts out of my head.  My daily exercise is as much for my mind as my body.  And remembering that stress is different to pressure – without the latter I think I’d shrivel up.

What do you do once you get home? Can you switch off?

By the time I get home it’s usually all about getting dinner sorted and catching up with my partner and daughter on what happened in their days.  Dark crime dramas on Netflix, followed by reading, usually a dark crime novel, help me change gears.

What time do you go to sleep?

About 10.30pm, all going to plan.

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