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NI Digital Expert interview: Leanne Ross

It’s time to resume our NI Digital Experts interview series – there’s still plenty more awesome talent in the Northern Ireland digital scene to highlight.

This week we’re speaking with Leanne Ross. I first heard of her a few years ago when people I followed on twitter kept tweeting posts from her blog, A Cup Of Lee. I started following her myself and quickly realised she is one of the few people in NI who were truly on their A-game when it comes to digital PR.

Leanne has established herself as one of the local PR industry’s brightest stars, and is a strong advocate in Northern Ireland for businesses to properly embrace digital PR. She even wrote a book about it!

Unfortunately she will be departing for New Zealand soon where her husband, retired Ulster Rugby player Bronson Ross, is originally from. Northern Ireland’s loss will be New Zealand’s gain, and it won’t be long until she’ll be rocking the Kiwi PR industry just as she has done here.

So let’s now hear from Leanne and her adventures in the digital industry:

Tell us about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover digital PR and become so involved in it?

I had worked in generic Communications/PR for about 6 years when I had to take a Part-Time role with Action Mental Health to balance my career with looking after my son who has Autism. It was there that, with some spare time on my hands and yet another new website CMS to learn, I started my blog. I was only able to do that after being sent on a course about managing the content and design of the new company website which just happened to be WordPress-hosted.

I thought blogging would be a good way to practice the WordPress and SEO skills I was learning, as well as starting an online portfolio for my writing. But I didn’t know what to write about so I started blogging about my industry, because I loved my job! And because I read lots of UK-based PR sites but no-one here was doing it. I came to be known as “the digital person” at work, while simultaneously reaching out to industry people to interview on my blog, which helped me network.

Then I volunteered to serve on the CIPR’s committee in Northern Ireland for my CPD. Part of our role there was to organise training events to meet local professional needs. It became apparent that we needed to up-skill in digital terms, so I threw myself into that area, hosting events like Meet the Bloggers and Blogging for Business.

My research and writing led me to find best practice that was emerging across the water in terms of Digital PR and how it was successfully bridging the gaps between Digital Marketing and Communications departments/agencies so I began to focus more on that in my own work and blog. Although they received the award just after I’d left, Action Mental Health’s Best Integrated Campaign win from the CIPR was special for me because we’d proved you could incorporate digital on very little budget and track tangible success, like changing government policy (which we did!) Once you start becoming the only name in a field putting yourself out there on a specific topic, very quickly you find yourself speaking at conferences and lectures, and here I am I suppose!

You’ve got a degree in Communication, Advertising & Marketing, which is just about perfect for your current role. If you could go back, would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether?

I loved doing my degree, which was really practical and creative, and I had worked hard to get a place (it was so popular I needed 3 As at A Level to guarantee acceptance). However, hindsight is a wonderful thing and, looking back, the industry degrees were – and still largely are – too reliant on theory. The full module on the history of Public Relations is a perfect case in point. Universities can’t change curriculum at the pace necessary to keep up with digital advancements in particular and too many academics have been out of the industry for too long (if they ever even worked in it).

I know from guest lecturing back with the current Undergrads and Masters students that it is the digital and social media strategy skills they feel least confident in. As the industry merges more with other Communications disciplines, they are right to be concerned because they will need to be proficient in these areas.

But it would be easy for me to write off my degree in favour of something more practical that I ended up having to pay for myself in later life; like the Diploma in Digital Marketing.

What I would say though, is there were elements of that degree that I couldn’t have found anywhere else, that truly prepared me for this work. The final year 24-hour exam is just one example seemed painfully into our memories. We were handed a client brief at 11am and had just 24 hours to research and write an entire year-long campaign proposal including lobbying, media relations and marketing/advertising. None of us slept. And to be honest, that adrenaline and stress was probably a pretty good insight into what agency life in particular might feel like! It was a unique experience and one that I feel I would be poorer for missing out on.

I think in general PR is one industry where a degree is pretty far down the list of priorities when it comes to judging whether a candidate can do the job in the real world.

You’re most well-known in Northern Ireland as a digital PR expert. Tell us about what you do, and how digital PR is different from traditional PR.

Digital PR is still a relatively new term and, not surprisingly, is a service offered more often by SEO agencies rather than traditional PR agencies.

Old-school PR (which there’s still a place for, for some businesses, by the way) is really about traditional media relations and other types of communications between brands and their audiences. It will include things like social media channels. Essentially it differs from Digital PR in two ways; Digital PR will still involve media relations but the media will be solely online and will encompass much more than news and commentary to publishers and broadcasters. It may mean pitching features to very niche industry outlets online, or it could be GIF listicles to pure entertainment websites or blogs.

But the media outlet won’t just be chosen based on reaching the right audiences like traditional PR. They will be chosen based on technical elements such as Domain Authority because the goal is to achieve not just brand awareness, but backlinks to improve a client’s website search ranking. As well as increasing the likelihood of social shares.

The other element of Digital PR that makes it different is lesser-known (the type that I’m always most excited to do) and that’s about using data. So at the moment I’m working on projects where we’re taking government statistics and turning them into an interactive map that we will pitch into global popular culture media. It means I’m knee-deep in spreadsheets most of the time but the content we create with these and the stories we can tell are just on another level compared to your typical PR pitch!

We can then use a lot of programmes to measure the online PR activity and its impact on the client’s website, social media, enquiries and eventually sales. Being able to track that is very exciting, too.

Your self-published book “Talk Is Cheap: The Digital PR Your Startup Needs (But Can’t Afford)” is a great primer on digital PR. What made you decide to write it, and how hard was it to write?

Thank you. The book was a strange, very fast, idea that is probably mostly down to my husband’s influence! I’d obviously been writing the blog for almost 3 years at that point. As I started to freelance and sometimes deliver training to businesses, I was increasingly being asked for links to articles I’d written on certain topics that people had missed or couldn’t find when they searched for the advice. I kept saying “I should pull some of this together in a sort of how-to document.” My husband just said never mind an eBook, why not a whole book?

It seemed crazy at first but the more I thought about it I realised I had two things other people didn’t; a bank of content to make the writing process easier and a good friend (Wayne Denner) who had trodden the self-publishing route before me so I could call on him for help. I gave myself 3 months – starting on Boxing Day – to pull the whole thing together.

It turned out to be harder to write than I thought, simply because a book doesn’t flow from just a bunch of blog posts pulled together. It requires editing when you’ve repeated yourself, and then entire new chapters had to be written on topics I hadn’t covered in-depth before.

Then I needed to hire a proof-reader and a cover designer… and I needed a week formatting it on the online system so it would print correctly. It was a baptism of fire alright! But when it reached its category bestseller list, albeit not in the book store of my dreams, it was still a momentous achievement for someone who essentially just loves to write.

The ‘why’ I wrote it is something I get asked a lot, mainly because it was quite a controversial thing to do, to give away an industry’s secrets. But the fact is that I don’t believe a lot of PR is hard to do. Certainly not for accomplished business owners, entrepreneurs or startups. There are skills we do possess like writing, creativity, strategy and simply speed that comes with experience. However, finding a journalist’s email address is fairly easy nowadays thanks to the internet! The industry doesn’t rely on relationships anymore, it relies on creative content and pitching – something most business people are much better at than me!

I simply got fed up watching small businesses being charged thousands for retainers that amassed to a press release and a photo every few months, achieving little tangible business benefits and usually zero SEO benefits. It was making a mockery of the profession and after serving for 2 years on the NI committee for the Chartered Institute of PR, becoming the only Accredited Independent Practitioner in Northern Ireland, that was something I wanted to change.

I believe if you show people the process, allow them to try it, then they may begin to understand and value it, bringing back some of the respect that the industry has lost over the years.

*Sheepishly steps down from soap box*

You’ll be heading for distant shores in the near future, emigrating to New Zealand with your family. It’s a loss for NI but a huge gain for NZ. What do you know about the local digital industry in New Zealand, and have you made any plans to make a running start there?

I’ve started my research here, although it’s been difficult because we spent the last few months bogged down in visa paperwork with little free time! But I’ve been building my contact lists, engaging in their blogger Twitter chats, following their events online.

I’ve obviously tapped into my own networks too, so there’s a Young Enterprise there like the one I volunteered with here and during the course of my work here I’ve met people from companies like Podium Apps who have offices in New Zealand too and they’ve all offered to introduce me to people there.

But their industry is different to ours in little ways. For example they have much more of a culture of hiring digital people internally rather than outsourcing to agencies, so you’ll find big cities like Christchurch with not even half of the number of marketing companies in Newry. Similarly, we’re big into Twitter for our networking here, whereas their industry is more active on Instagram.

I did send my CV to some specialist recruiters there to get feedback on my skill set and it was encouraging to hear that they would generally consider the UK and Ireland to be slightly ahead on the knowledge curve in tech fields specifically, so my experience would be highly sought after.

Overall though, I’m not nervous to start again. I get asked that a lot, because it’s hard enough to build a successful business persona without the thought of choosing to leave it behind I suppose. But I can practice what I preach in my book and just begin again to network and put myself out there, and genuinely just enjoy experiencing a new way of doing things, meeting new people and learning from them.

However, initially, as the family settles, I’m just going to concentrate on taking outsourced content work from agencies like Glaze Digital that I’ve worked closely with here. It helps when their Dubai clients won’t suffer the 12 hour time difference, too!

Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office?

I don’t have hobbies as such, perhaps because I spend my spare time writing, and that’s very much like my work, so it gets confusing! I love family time to be honest. Bronson and I were only married a year in June and so family time is a relatively new experience for us all. “Family movie night” on the sofa is a simple pleasure, although Star Wars makes too regular an appearance for my liking.

We make the effort when the weather is good to take day trips to history geek destinations (because that’s what we are!) so we loved the Ulster American Folk Park and the Navan Centre and HMS Caroline. Bronson is from quite a young country (New Zealand) so he has made me appreciate how spoilt we are for things like that to do here.

But we also just like getting outdoors for walks, throwing stones in the sea, eating ice lollies. The simple things really. I think that’s quite common for people who work in a fast-paced industry and spend a lot of time in-front of screens. So that was one of the very big lures of emigrating for us, to warmer climes and bigger outdoor spaces to explore, during those precious weekends we get together.

Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience.

I need to get better at researching and utilising apps actually, I’m often behind the times but I know from using ones like Parkmobile, when done well that can literally improve your life!

As for websites, you will probably yawn because this is not new to tech people, but I only recently learned about and, for PR purposes, it is fantastic. I’m pretty sure it’s not that well-known in my field as I’d never heard of it before. It’s not only a great research tool for students on the journey of brand publishing and brand-blogger partnerships, but also from a personal point of view, it’s a great self-esteem boost to look back at some of our most successful business people and bloggers and remember that everyone started somewhere (near the bottom, usually!) I use it quite a bit now and the history geek in me enjoys it every time I visit…

About Leanne Ross

Leanne Ross

A Cup Of Lee, which was also a finalist in the 2016 Irish Blog Awards, and her Amazon Top 5 Bestselling digital PR book published in April 2016.

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