The Observatory

Q&A with Sheila O’Sullivan

Vision 2020 Australia talks to Professor Sheila O’Sullivan about her dynamic career in strategic political communications, passion for social justice, lecturing commitments and her current role as Chair of the Vision Initiative Steering Committee.

  • Professor O’Sullivan, as one of Australia’s leading public relations practitioners you have had a varied and influential communications career, can you share some of your career highlights along the way?

My work internationally and in working towards having public relations established as a profession have both been rewarding over the years.  One international highlight was being asked to Chair the Golden World Awards, which are the awards of the International Public Relation Association. This experience gave me wonderful exposure to some of the best public relations programs that have been carried out globally.

As a Fellow of the Public Relations Institute of Australia and as the Officer of the College of Fellows I utilised my experience to lead a program to create the Code of Ethics for PR practitioners in Australia. During this time I also led a program to develop accreditation of public relations university courses in Australia and promoting the profession with a strategic communications focus.

  • In recent years your work has led you to focus on both political and health relations, can you explain what inspired you to work in these arenas and some key political insights you gained during this time?

I had early exposure to political campaigns in the UK in the early 1970s; this is what really inspired me. During the time I was involved in academic teaching in a disadvantaged area. These children were seriously disadvantaged, learning to read with no books, with often no parents home in the evening. This experience helped me to acutely learn about social justice and the role government plays in this process.  During this time I also saw the benefits of health care and when back in Australia was an advocate for Medicare while working at a disadvantaged high school.

Prevention has also always been important to me. I see saving one dollar now as saving ten dollars down the track.  I remember when the Food Safety Laws were announced by government, simple hygiene to stop infection, and the public outroar that ensued. We conducted a program to restore calm. Today it is standard practice – that prevention message worked well.

I’ve always been interested in politics, but specifically interested in helping people – the government makes policies at all three levels that either improves equity and social justice or they don’t. I have felt my role has been to highlight a range of issues where there has been an injustice and make people take notice.

  • Professor O’Sullivan you received the United Nations Communication Award for your work in 2003. What was the campaign that underpinned this award and what did receiving this award mean to you?

This was a meaningful project for me as it was developed to help the East Timorese refugees who had lived here for many years achieve permanent residency. The government was going to send back people who had fled the insurgency. The face of our campaign was the children, the little Aussie kids who had been born here to refugee parents. They were being deported from the country they were born in. In what was a new idea at the time we organised an east coast road trip to garner support from the community, creating a groundswell of community backing as we moved from town to town interacting and playing cricket with the local kids on the way to the Senate.

Our message: ‘let them stay’ resonated with the public, and media support was strong, culminating in the government granting permanent visas – a very successful outcome! My message for others—in matters of social justice governments will listen to strong community sentiment and you need to bring them with you on the journey. When I started in public relations the idea of community consultation was nonsense for many, and now it is part of many business and government campaigns.

  • For a number of years now you have been involved strategically with Vision 2020 Australia. What have been some of the highlights during your time as Chair of the Vision Initiative Steering Committee and what do you think will be some challenges for the sector in the future?

It is fantastic to see all the different professions in the health stream come together – all committed to the same goal and that is not easy to achieve in any sector, especially health.

There are challenges however, and these are to have the relevant levels of funding to actually make sure we get the communication out to the greatest number of groups at risk and to fund the cost of the screening. As I said before, health prevention will save ten dollars down the track but finding that initial dollar now is never easy.

  • Can you tell us about your role as Adjunct Professor for the Bachelor of Strategic Communication degree at La Trobe University and how your industry experience enriches this role?

As a Professor my role encompasses assisting in the design of the course, lecturing and gaining accreditation for what is essentially a new degree within the university. I also mentor students at both third year and postgraduate level. With nearly 40 years in the industry I have many experiences to share and for my students to learn from.  I have found this new role rewarding on many levels and it is a pleasure to bring my experience both here and overseas to benefit the next generation of the profession.

  • And finally, on a personal note, can you tell us something that most people don’t know about you / or would be surprised to know about you? **it could be a hobby, non-work related achievement or something similar!

I married a twin, my grandma was a twin, my husband’s cousins were triplets, while mine were twins, and so inevitably my eldest daughter had twins and my second daughter had triplets— I’m a busy Grandma!

I also enjoy travel and ended up as Chair of Destination Gippsland, a Board I created after designing a new regional tourism program for the local Gippsland council, in my ‘retirement’ no less—six years on and I’m still chairing it!  I do like travel but I don’t seem to be able to do anything, even travel, without getting involved in some way to influence policy and outcomes.

On a final note, in my university years I was also an avid golfer, although not so much these days and the golf clubs I bought four years ago have remained untouched – maybe I’ll get to them in my second retirement!