Work in PRogress – Issue #8 – Shannon McGuirk

My Work in PRogress this week is the wonderful Shannon McGuirk, who is the Head of PR and Content at Aira.

Some of you may already know that I started my digital PR career at Aira, straight from university, almost two years ago when I moved back to my parents’ home in Milton Keynes. Shannon was one of the key people at Aira who taught me all there was to know about digital PR – from what a link is, to how to pitch to journalists, and how to develop a ‘spidey sense’ for all things campaigns and media relations. But what a lot of you may not know is that Shannon and I grew up in the same town, went to the same secondary school and both annually attend our neighbouring village’s Sausage and Beer festival (big up).

With a team of over 20 digital PRs, designers and creatives working under her, Shannon has led the Aira PR and Content team to huge success over the past four years, as well as regularly speaking at huge industry conferences such as OutREACH, BrightonSEO and Mozcon.

Shannon is fierce, confident and underneath her incredible professionalism and career successes, she is a true Newport Pagnell gal at heart, and it’s for this reason that she will always be one of the people I look up to most in this industry.

In this issue, we chatted about making mistakes, when to give up on a campaign, and what we can learn from those around us…

What is your ultimate shower song? (The song you can give a 10/10 Grammy-worthy performance of in your shower on a Saturday morning)

Ohhh this is a tough one, it depends! Soz, classic PR answer. 

If I’m getting ready for a girl’s night out it would have to be “Beyonce – Flawless” so I can shout out ‘I woke up like dis, I woke up like disss’ at the top of my voice whilst my hair is scraped back in towel, I’m bare faced and looking my best (not!). 

Did you always know you wanted to be a PR? Why do you think you’re good at the job? 

No, not at all. I went from wanting to be a lawyer and trying to get a law A-level, to then turning to a journalist with internships in London and then finally got into PR in my second year at uni when I realised journalism wasn’t for me. I was lucky enough to have amazing tutors at Oxford Brookes that simply said to me; ‘have you thought about PR?’ and the rest is history! 

I think my personality lends itself well to the industry. Naturally, my brain works at 100mph and I’m a worrier so I can spot risks, rewards and opportunities for brands. I loved the creative side of things too so that helps.

What mistakes did you make early on in your career and what lessons have they provided you with that you use in your career today? 

Probably far too many to name…

 I’ve always been quite hard on myself when I’ve messed up and can take things pretty personally which isn’t always a bad thing, but can mean those mistakes stick with you for a long time. 

I once attached the wrong social image to a post and had a typo in it for a leading automotive brand we worked with and I’ll never forget it. I remember nearly being in tears walking to the tube station over it and having to have a word with myself! Luckily enough, I had an awesome line manager at the time – Nina Sawetz – that helped me out of the situation. Quick time. 

Under Nina’s  watchful eye, I learnt all things traditional PR and made plenty of mistakes whilst doing so. They mostly centred around attention to detail (typos in emails and forgetting to attach documents), so I learnt very quickly to double-check everything, make sure things were always my best work and get it right the first time, where possible. 

“Now, I’d say I’ve got a beady eye for the finer details as this sets you apart from other competitors.”

In my early Aira days, I had a few tricky campaigns that I was leading on the outreach for (you can find them in this deck) and should have really paused the launches due to things going on in the press – like the presidential election in the US.

At the time both Paddy and Matt (the co-founders of Aira) could have been seriously annoyed – and would have been well within their rights to be – with the results and the approach I’d taken. But they weren’t, and Paddy specifically (as always!)  helped me get things back on track. 

The biggest learning I’ll take forward from that situation is how to support your own team through a campaign struggle, or allowing them to fall (we’re human, it happens!) but making sure you’re there as a support network to pick them back up. Something that is ingrained in Aira’s culture now, is that we all have each others backs no matter what and I had to fail a few times to see that happen for myself. 

You’re a huge advocate of shattering the expectations in our industry of expecting every campaign to go ‘viral’ or receive 50+ links each time. If someone has launched a campaign that flops first time round, what advice would you give to them to approach turning it around?

With my [OutREACH] talk,  I wanted to challenge the need or want to go viral when it comes to digital PR campaigns, and help us do better as an industry by sharing more stories of consistency and campaign struggles. Because we know those steady performing campaigns can impact businesses bottom line and important SEO KPIs and if we share struggles, then we might stop others from making similar mistakes. 

I want to be super clear with one thing; my aim here isn’t to poke and prod at others by saying stop sharing successes.

“I wanted to encourage us to share the full picture because if we focus on just the wins alone, then this could have a detrimental impact on goal/KPI setting, managing expectations as well as the mental health of people in our industry.” 

I suppose I’m greedy to an extent because I want to see and be inspired by big shiny campaigns with 1,000s of links, but I also want to see the really niche campaign for an SME that got 15 high quality and relevant links, has bumped up keywords and is adding revenue to their company. 

If things are starting to go horribly wrong then I can’t stress enough that you’ve got to take five minutes and remember the classic phrase “it’s PR, not ER”! 

It’s so easy to take it personally when campaigns don’t quite go to plan and the links don’t come rolling in right away, especially if you’ve pushed the idea forward, been the one that’s presented it to the client and had involvement in every step of the creative process. I know I definitely have felt battered and bruised at times.

“Do not beat yourself up over a struggling campaign for too long, if you spend too much time and energy on that, you’re not ploughing it into pivoting things and bouncing back.” 

Try and keep in mind that your team members or other company stakeholders won’t be looking at you thinking “oh it’s their fault it’s not worked, not mine”. If they are making you feel like that, my biggest advice would be to join a team that doesn’t. Quickly. 

You’ll likely know within the first few days of outreach if the campaign is going to be a toughie because you won’t even have warm leads to report to the client on, and whilst I’m a fan of ‘steady performers’ and ‘slow burners’, you also need to listen to your gut here, and if it’s saying something’s not feeling right, it’s time to take action. 

You can find out more about campaign comebacks in a Moz Whiteboard Friday I did a few years ago here

It’s definitely hard to give up on a campaign that you’re emotionally invested in, which is why its so hard to know when (if ever) to give up – but do you think some campaigns should reach the point where you say enough is enough, or is there always a way to re-pitch and salvage? 

The short answer is; no, not always.  

There will come a time when it’s time to down tools on a campaign and move onto fresh content to generate links and coverage. It doesn’t make business sense to keep going and going if it’s just not working, but the main thing to show your team and the client is that you’ve explored all viable options of pivoting the campaign and trying to make it work.

For example, if you’ve done a campaign on Christmas, you’re very unlikely to get any traction past December 25th so if it hasn’t gone to plan, put forward a solid case to pick things up with a fresh approach the following year and illustrate how you’re learning from the challenges you faced too. 

Who in your life gives you the most inspiration, and who have you learnt the most from in the past few years?

THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE I DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START! HELP. 

Abi, you know me well enough to know that my mum is up there as one of the biggest inspirations in my life – much like your mum to you! For a long time, it was quite literally me and her against the world as our family home broke down, domestic violence was a stark reality and we battled with money struggles trying to get by. She never gave up, never settled and managed to turn things around for us which set the best example for me in life. 

On a professional level, I’d say that in the past four years at Aira, I’ve learnt more than being in an agency in the city for 10 years thanks to the opportunities that Paddy and Matt have given me. They’re not your average bosses, they’re mentors and I can’t thank them enough for having faith in a girl who had no idea what the difference was between a follow and no-follow link in 2016. 

Mark Johnstone has also been a key figure in my development as he’s helped with so much from speaker decks through to implementing processes  – check out his new project Content Hubble if you want to learn how to come up with awesome content ideas. 

It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t shout out the kick-ass women in our industry that have always inspired me too. 

Areej Abuali is making serious waves challenging diversity, stereotypes and pushing us to do better with her community: Women in TechSEO. I have never laughed as much, cried with happiness and felt so inspired by a conference as much as I did back in March when I went to the full-day event. Please don’t ever stop doing what you’re doing! 

When I first started Aira, there were also a number of women who’s speaker decks, blog posts and campaigns I quite literally studied. I’ve always thought Stacey MacNaught, Kirsty Hulse, Hannah Smith, Brittney Muller,  Gisele Navarro, Lisa Myers and Laura Crimmons are the definitions of SEO, digital PR and content #GirlBosses. I love that I’m still learning from these guys! 

Also my team, you rock. 

Finally, what does being a ‘work in progress’ mean to you, both professionally, and personally?

I’ll always be a work in progress, both professionally, and personally.

“I’ll never be perfect or “complete” and I’m good with that. In reality, who wants to be?” 

For me, it’s about never settling and always pushing yourself to learn and grow more whilst giving back and lifting others up as you climb. Kicking on when things are tough, admitting that you’re struggling when times are hard and turning your weaknesses into strengths. 


You can keep up with the lovely Shannon on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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