'Absolutely no regrets': Director of Communications at Concern Sarah Martin on Love Your Work

Women are making their mark in the world of business like never before. In every industry and at every level, we look to women who've made it their own as an example for us to do the same. For our latest series, entitled 'Love Your Work', we ask women who have achieved stunning success in their field to tell us how they got there, and their advice on how we can join them.

While travelling the world is the dream for many careers, doing so to visit some of the world's poorest countries and most vulnerable people takes a special type of person. Sarah Martin is the Director of Communications with Concern, Ireland’s largest humanitarian aid agency, focusing on issues like emergency response, promotion of gender equality, education and nutrition. In this week's Love Your Work, we chat about frustrations, inspirations and working for Michael D.

 

What was your favourite subject in school?

My favourite subject by far was French. I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs O’Malley, in Salerno Secondary School in Galway and I was lucky enough as a teenager to spend time in Brittany in France during the summers. 

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As a result, I went on to study languages in NUI Galway. In first year, I chose German, Latin, Spanish and French and I remember being hauled into the office of the Dean of Arts, who told me I was taking on too much. ‘Taking on too much’ has always been a bit of a pattern for me!

What was your first job, and what other jobs have you had since?

My very first job as a teenager was as a sales assistant during the summer in the Connemara Marble shop in Moycullen. We used to get busloads of tourists so I got a chance to practice my French and German.  

I’ve also worked as a barmaid in London’s East End; as an automation manual translator in France; picking grapes in Bordeaux; as an English language teacher in Prague and a customer relations manager in a five-star hotel on the Red Sea in Egypt.

My career in communications started 17 years ago when I started working as a public affairs executive in Fleishman Hillard in Dublin. It was a fantastic grounding, as I got to work with clients as diverse as BT Ireland, Advanced Environmental Solutions and Rehab.

From Fleishman, I went on to work in communications for RTÉ. I spent seven years there, most of which was in the radio centre. I absolutely loved my time there, as there was always someone engaging to have coffee with and the work was interesting. During my time there, I managed the communications around the closure of RTÉ Radio 1 on medium wave and worked with a super team on the launch of the digital radio stations.

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From RTÉ, I went to work as Communications Manager for President Higgins. It was quite unexpected. I was on maternity leave with my second baby and had been looking to maybe move into freelance consultancy when I got the call from the Áras to see if I’d interview for a full time role.  

For over three years, I worked side by side with the Higgins’ and the fantastic team in the Áras. The combination of travelling the world meeting heads of state and then interacting with communities from across Ireland was really special but of course, what really drove me was President Higgins’ commitment to social justice and equality - which led me to joining Concern Worldwide as Communications Director.

What does your daily routine look like?

I get up about 6 am and do a half hour of yoga, then I get the kids up and we have breakfast together. I drop them to school and I walk or cycle the 5k to work. I listen to Morning Ireland on the way in (not when cycling!) so that I’m up to speed with headline news and then when I get in, I do quick scan of national and international news.

After that, every day is different. I have management meetings where we look at the strategic priorities and resources of the organisation or engage with our board around governance. I also interact daily with my team, who work on website redevelopment, content strategy, media relations strategy, analytics, brand development and planning content for our critical public fundraising appeals.

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What’s your favourite part of the job?

Where do I begin? The main thing has to be our unwavering commitment to changing and saving the lives of those who are living in extreme poverty in the most fragile places in the world, like Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Haiti.

I’m incredibly lucky as I get to travel and meet with our beneficiaries, which makes every moment at the desk worthwhile. Just recently, I travelled to the fastest growing refugee camp in the world in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. While I was there, I met with Rohingya families who fled from violence in Myanmar and encountered a mother of three who was attending the Concern nutrition centre.  

As I spoke to her, she lifted up her burka and showed me a bullet wound in her leg.  She had walked for fifteen days with her children, foraging for food along the way and sleeping in the jungle to get across the border into Bangladesh. She was so courageous, resilient and inspiring and grateful that Concern was looking after her and her children.

Bringing those stories to the public and creating awareness of these hidden crises is probably my favourite part of the job. Otherwise, for a single working mother on a senior management team, I have a relatively good work life balance. Concern is very supportive on that front.

 

What’s your least favourite part?

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My biggest frustration and challenge is trying to get the spotlight on the appalling humanitarian crises happening all over the world, such as those in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A couple of years ago, when I came back from South Sudan, I was determined to get it on the radar. I went and met with a current affairs producer who agreed it was catastrophic but said ‘we won’t cover that story because there is no public interest in complex crises’.

I feel that, in Concern, we have a responsibility to tackle that paradigm so we are very focused on innovation. For example, we recently developed a communications strategy around a 360-degree video that told the story of Nyakoun - a South Sudanese refugee living in Gambella refugee camp in Ethiopia. We’ve also used artist Marc Corrigan to illustrate stories of our Syrian beneficiaries.

 

What are the key skills you need to make it in your industry?

I feel that, while you can have all the analytics and consumer insights in the world, you need to have an innate sense of what motivates people and changes behaviours to work in communications. That, combined with socio-economic awareness and being a strategic thinker, is critical. There is no doubt that you need to be an extrovert and a people person.

 

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned for success in your career?

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I’ve learned to be assertive. It’s a skill that I’ve learned through trial and error but I could not do without it now when sitting at the management table.

 

Any regrets?  

Absolutely no regrets.

 

What do you wish you knew when you were starting your career?

I wish I knew how critical work-life balance is to mental and physical health. It’s something that should be part of our education system and I’ve learned the hard way that it has to be a priority.

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What’s the number one piece of advice you would give to young people starting out who want to follow in your footsteps?

I would say ‘slow down’. I was quite bullish and determined early on in my career, always in a rush to get to the next rung on the ladder, and I feel sometimes I didn’t listen enough to those who were more experienced than me.

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