This month marks 20 years in business for Marcomm, a training and coaching business established by Una McSorley. We asked Una for her personal reflections on two decades of helping clients to communicate better.
How did it all start?
I held a senior position as Head of Communications within the Health Service, and I enjoyed what I did. However, several factors came together then, which prompted me to want to do something different.
I had two young children, a husband who had a senior banking role, which involved a lot of travel, and most importantly, I had a desire to do something for myself. I naively thought that setting up on my own would give me a lot more work-life balance – what was I thinking?
My background was mainly in communications, and I could see that many of the issues within the workplace came down to poor communication, particularly during periods of change. I could see that many people, including very senior people, just didn’t know how to communicate their messages and bring others with them.
When I worked in-house, I also struggled to find suitable training courses for my team, so I started to design and deliver in-house programmes. Then, through the Leadership Centre, which was the training unit for the Health Service, I started running training events for other parts of the Health Service. These courses got great feedback. I started to receive requests to run training programmes outside of the Health Service, and I felt there was an opportunity to set up my own business.
Where did the name Marcomm come from?
My husband Gerry was in Marketing, and I was in Communications, and even back then, we had this long-term aspiration to work together. A friend suggested Marcomm as a way of bringing the two disciplines together. It only took my husband another 14 years to join me! He was, however, always there in the background as a source of advice.
What have been the memorable highlights?
I started literally as a one-person band with an office in our home and a couple of PR contracts for Community Pharmacy. My first consultancy was with the National Pharmaceutical Association, which was quickly followed in 2012 with a contract with Community Pharmacy NI. I was asked to run a public affairs campaign to influence decision-makers in Stormont to resist implementing the recommendations of an OFT report, which proposed the deregulation of the community pharmacy market in NI. I was responsible for coordinating the campaign, including all communications and engagement activity with community pharmacists, politicians and the media.
The campaign was a success, with the Minister for Health stating that the OFT recommendations would be rejected in NI. The campaign was also recognised with a PRII award and a Chartered Institute of Public Relations silver award. For someone starting a new business, that was a big deal.
With the growth of the business, I needed someone to run the office; I found the school gates the perfect recruitment location for young mums who wanted a flexible working arrangement. My good friend Anna McDonald was my first recruit, and the craic we had over the next couple of years was fantastic.
The next memorable highlight for me was the growth in demand for our training programmes, which saw Marcomm shift from PR/Public Affairs into providing training consultancy and change management services. When the Health Service moved from 11 Health Trusts to 5, I was approached by the Leadership Centre to provide additional support for this significant change programme.
In 2013, I became involved in another significant change programme within Local Councils with the merger of 22 local councils to 11. That was a major communications exercise with a substantial training programme to support it. It was the largest single programme that I had been part of. I created the training and had six associates employed to assist me. That required a lot of planning and coordination.
Another memorable highlight was co-authoring the book “It’s a Zoo Around Here – New Rules for Better Communication” with Nigel Risner. I was fascinated by the different behavioural styles I was observing and the impact of individual styles on communication in the workplace. “It’s a Zoo Around Here” brought it all together in a fun but informative way. By understanding our individual style and its impact, we can become more effective communicators.
Around this time, I received more enquiries from private organisations and industry groups, particularly in professional services for conference keynote speeches and more extensive group training activities. It was a new departure, a bit scary initially, but one I really enjoyed. I found myself presenting and facilitating at conferences right across Europe. The journey from our backroom office to a 5-star conference suite in Rome was not something I could ever have imagined.
2017 was significant; we moved from our rented office space to our purpose-built office. My husband Gerry also joined the business. As a qualified coach, he delivers most of our 1:1 executive and career coaching activity. Having someone to travel with and share training delivery has made things easier.
2020 and COVID had an enormous impact on the business. All face-to-face events were cancelled. We had never delivered online training before, and the pivot was massive. During the early months of COVID, as our clients adapted to the new world of remote working, we offered free training support to our key clients to help them manage their staff engagement activities. It forced us to develop our programmes for online delivery. Covid changed the perception of how training could be delivered. Organisations now see the positives in online training; it can be more cost-effective for many training activities. Our clients have now adopted a hybrid approach to training, which is definitely here to stay.
From Marcomm’s perspective, I am happy where we are at. We specialise in a number of core areas - leadership communication skills, pitching and presentation, interview skills coaching, personal effectiveness and media skills training with the brilliant Siobhan McGarry. We focus on delivering programmes that are tailored to our clients, and we aim to provide training that is practical and immediately applicable.
What have you learned?
After 20 years, I am still learning, but what I have learned is, firstly, the importance of having loyal clients and building long-term relationships. I am very grateful to our clients, who have been so loyal over the last 20 years. They continually come back to us when they have a training need. I count many clients as friends, people within Councils, the Health sector, Invest NI, Intertrade Ireland, Women In Business and professional groups such as DFK. I cannot thank them enough for their support.
Secondly, I believe there is always a place for quality training that is built around the needs of the client. We like to take the time to understand precisely what the client needs and then design programmes around those needs. We know this approach works when we continually deliver the right solution for our clients.
Finally, there is nothing quite like the buzz of seeing participants leave our programmes energised, enthusiastic and with the tools to become more effective in what they do. Hearing feedback from participants who have made a breakthrough in their communications challenge, who have delivered a winning pitch or who have landed the job they always wanted makes me so pleased.
That’s why I have enjoyed the challenge of establishing and running Marcomm.