Tracy Playle

2002 American Literature and Culture

Alumni of the Month March 2011   What I am doing now:
I work as a marketing-communications consultant specialising in the strategic use of digital and social media. I do this through my own company, Pickle Jar Communications Ltd, which I set up in 2007. A lot of my work is with the higher education sector so I stay very close to the university world, and this has nicely helped me to maintain my links with Keele. I also spend a lot of time these days speaking at conferences, and I’m also Chair of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Education and Skills Sector Group, working on a voluntary basis to represent the voices of all PR professionals working in the education sector.

How did you get to where you are now?
When I left Keele I had a taste for further study and initially thought that I was destined to become an academic. I started a part-time PhD at the University of Warwick and found myself working in their communications office to support my studies. I quickly realised that I was enjoying my job more than my studies so I decided to focus on building a career in communications. In 2005 I became Head of Research-TV, a broadcast PR service for the higher education sector, and started to look more and more at the potential for emerging ‘new media’ platforms such as iTunes, YouTube and Facebook for university communications. This led to me setting up my own company in 2007 to focus fully on emerging technologies  - and the rest is somewhat history.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?
There’s no one single moment that stands out but starting my own company at the age of 27 and seeing year-on-year growth ever since is one that I’m particularly proud of. But one of my biggest achievements has been to discover a talent for public speaking and engaging and motivating people. At school I was always the bright kid that would sit at the back of class knowing the answers to questions but always too shy or afraid to raise my hand and answer. I wasn’t much better when I arrived at Keele, but I think the small group seminars during my MA helped to bring me out of my shell. Now, I’ve taken that to a whole new level and I run workshops and give conference presentations to large and small audiences all over the UK and overseas too. I’m pretty excited to have had my first invitation to deliver a keynote session at a conference in the USA in June. I’m chuffed to bits - having a MA in American culture points to my fascination with and love of all things American!

And your biggest mistake?
I’ve stopped believing in the word ‘mistake’ and instead think of everything as learning experiences. Something that can feel like a negative experience or ‘mistake’ at one moment in one’s life might later prove to be the best thing that ever happened to you. However, if I’m really pushed then I would refer to a moment very early in my career when I was first put in a position of managing a team. I don’t think I approached it with the open and collaborative, sharing attitude that I have to everything now. I saw myself as a leader but I didn’t have the credibility to back that up. I didn’t consult with my ‘team’ or recognise their strengths and see my own weaknesses. It was a very steep learning curve, but I struggle to see it as a mistake because if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t now have the much stronger skill set and approach that I have now.

What are your ambitions now?
I am told that a lot of people in the higher education sector consider me as one of the leading thinkers in the use of social and digital media in universities. This is flattering and, of course, something that I aspire to. But being a social media ‘specialist’ (nobody can call themselves an ‘expert’ in this field) has a shelf life of only a few years before the bubble bursts, so the challenge for me is to stay on top of whatever the next big thing will be, to spot emerging trends, and to diversify and grow my business. I wish to raise my profile overseas, which is great (and a lot of fun) but there’s also part of me that has a deep desire to move more into the academic/thought leadership side of what I do and perhaps even pick up a PhD or try to publish on the subject. I have some strong insights and beliefs about what is right and wrong about the way that the higher education sector approaches communications so I would really like to be a leading voice in changing some of our approaches for the better. Although the PR industry is where I am most closely aligned, there are many things that I dislike about it and people’s perceptions of it. I would love to be part of changing that – raising the professionalism of PR, for example. My work with CIPR already helps me to make small steps albeit with a very quiet voice at this stage.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in a similar field?
I think it’s very easy for people who work in communications to build and develop skills in outward communication without fully appreciating the value of listening and knowing when silence is more appropriate and powerful than noise. Our clients might pay us to create content and to make noise on their behalf, but appreciating the value of reflection and listening to others is probably the most powerful skill a communications person can develop.

Alumni of the Month March 2011   What made you choose Keele University?
The university for my undergraduate degree was campus-based and I liked that environment, so when I found out that Keele offered the masters degree that I wanted to study, I was interested.  I hadn’t heard of Keele until then but Keele got the edge because of the reputation of the American Studies department and because I could study a very specific module.

What kind of a student were you?
I was a fairly quiet and studious student. I tend to focus quite hard on things, and I’m quite a slow reader too, which isn’t great when you study literature, so it meant lots of long hours with my head buried in books!

How has Keele influenced your life?
My time at Keele marked the beginning of my coming out of my shell and growing in confidence. I was supported there to be brave with the things I thought and said, and this is something that I very much carry into my current role.

What is your favourite memory of Keele?
Most definitely hanging out with my small group of close friends at the KPA… many a happy night there! Such a great place to really build a close-knit postgraduate community and a place where postgrads could also socialise with research staff.

What is your impression of Keele now?
I’m still very fond of Keele but I think, like many universities, it is going to have to work really hard in the next couple of years to stay competitive. I don’t think Keele is quite there yet, and I think it has a way to go from a marketing and communications perspective, but it has a lot to offer and it won’t take much for Keele to make a mark as offering something distinctive to students.

Anything else you would like to add?
I was very privileged to have studied with the late, great Charles Swann in my time at Keele. Charles was eccentric, but an incredible inspiration and everything that you want a tutor to be – knowledgeable, passionate, approachable, and ever so slightly mad!