‘Peace walls’ are a vivid reminder of the troubles that have affected Northern Ireland in recent decades.
Established in the 1970s, they were built in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere, segregating communities during a bitter conflict.
Many of those communities remain separated today and despite the pain endured by both communities, surveys show that the majority favour a shared future.
Last year, work began on removing a peace wall in North Belfast, an interface marred by decades of violence and unrest. Of the 80 peace walls, 21 are owned by the Housing Executive – Northern Ireland’s strategic housing authority and the biggest social housing landlord in the UK.
“Central to the work of the Housing Executive is challenging segregation. This campaign focused on our work to bring these communities to a point where they felt able to break down psychological and physical barriers,” said Michelle Canning MCIPR, Dip CIPR, Head of PR for the Housing Executive.
“Building peace at interfaces is an especially sensitive and intensely scrutinised process. Our task was to deal with the issues associated with the removal of a peace wall at the most contentious interface in Western Europe. It posed huge challenges.”
Reflecting on the sensitivities of the work, Michelle explains that the value of the Housing Executive work transcended communications and reputation.
“This was a community led campaign and we were acutely aware that how we handled the situation would not only impact on our work but on long-lasting peace within the community. One of the most remarkable outcomes of our approach and campaign was that communities set aside their fears and were enabled to have confidence to progress their shared future visions.”
Michelle’s broader responsibilities include championing the organisation’s work through traditional media and digital channels.
“l lead a team of six, managing, devising and delivering corporate communications, regional communications. My role includes crisis communications, relationship management, media relations and customer engagement.”
Prior to landing her first role in PR, Michelle enjoyed a career in print and broadcast journalism for over twenty years. It wasn’t long after she joined the Housing Executive as a Communications Officer that she decided to pursue a professional qualification.
“My first foray into PR taught me very quickly that I had a knowledge gap and it was crucial that I equipped myself with the skills and theory which underpin practice, in order for me to do the job better and to progress my career.”
Michelle decided to enrol for the PR Diploma – the CIPR’s flagship qualification.
Juggling any professional qualification with a full-time job requires discipline and Michelle concedes that studying the course online and remaining disciplined with independent learning presented personal challenges. But she’s in no doubt over whether the sacrifice paid off.
“The Diploma fast tracked my learning and skills and enabled me to secure a promotion. I’m now better qualified and informed about the purpose of my role” says Michelle.
“It also instilled in me a real desire to demonstrate the essential need for the expertise of PR practitioners in any organisation to produce real, meaningful outcomes.”
Few outcomes are more meaningful than contributions to peace-building in North Belfast. You can learn more about the inspiring work undertaken by Michelle and her team here.
Looking to the future, Michelle aspires to lead the communications function for an organisation.
“The Diploma motivated me to learn more and represent the industry in a professional, ethical and well-informed manner. It piqued my interest in learning. I have just completed a qualification in Communication, Leadership and Management and in the short-term I aim to continue learning and use my knowledge to enhance the work of my organisation”.
Michelle’s enthusiasm for knowledge has started to rub off on her colleagues. “I’ve encouraged the team to enhance their professional development and a number are about to embark on their own PR learning journey.” Her message to them and anyone else considering the Diploma is simple.
“Go for it! But be prepared for a challenge, no matter your experience or background. This isn’t an easy task but it’s worth it.”