FEATURE: How Eileen swapped her high-powered PR job for counselling in countryside
It’s hard to imagine a more stressful and driven world than the one where Eileen Wise spent much of her working life.
Top-level public relations is a high-powered unforgiving place. To succeed, as she did, you need not only talent but nerves of steel.
Clients may be celebrities, politicians, or massive global companies – all desperate to polish their image, blast out the good news, and bury the bad.
Get it wrong and there will be hell to pay
For decades Eileen’s life was frenetic. She was head of media for the Tory party, managed publicity for Andrew Lloyd Webber, and worked for major news and publishing empires.
But everything changed when she quit her last job as head of global public relations for Reuters newsagency, went to university, and emerged a qualified counsellor.
“It’s a massive change from what I used to do,” she says. “It’s almost like a different world.
“I loved my career and worked very hard. At first I felt withdrawal symptoms ... but only for a few weeks.
“I’m a very different person now from how I was 10 years ago when I was working in a very fast-paced, mad environment.”
But a change of pace was not the only reason for her decision.
Watching her mother battle depression left her with a lifelong respect for the power of counselling.
And many years before making it her career she trained to be a Samaritan.
Now her workplace is a cosy consulting room in the cottage in west Suffolk – a stone’s throw from her childhood home – that she shares with her partner, author and ex-BBC journalist Roger Hermiston.
Inside, clients are likely to be greeted by two more members of the family, cats Milton and Garby.
Outside is a paddock where pony Stanley and Yollo the donkey graze on lush grass. Beyond that, rolling fields.
The pets may soon play a bigger part in her work because she hopes at some stage to practice animal-assisted therapy.
And the rural setting means people can choose to talk over their problems during a stroll through the countryside.
“Some find it intimidating or difficult sitting in an enclosed space making lots of eye contact,” she says.
“And because were are in such a lovely location I can offer walking and talking therapy.
“I love being in nature. There might be times when you are silent just looking around at the trees. With some people it helps them open up.”
Moving back to Suffolk after 30 years in London seemed an ideal time to reassess her life.
“Having been in a media career for so long I didn’t want to do that any more, and began to think more about counselling.
“I’d trained as a Samaritan in the 1990s, and also volunteered for a time at a homeless centre in London, which was quite an eye-opener.
“It taught me a lot, and maybe planted a seed. But what was in the back of my mind was my mother, who suffered from manic-depression.
“I don’t think I coped very well with it as a teenager, but when I got older I understood more what she was going through.
“There was a sense I wanted to help, though it came out later.
“I did an introduction to counselling course and realised this was really what I wanted to do.
“I talked it over with Roger, because we both knew it would be a big change and if I went to university we would have to pull in our belts a bit.”
She decided to go ahead, and did a degree in integrated counselling at University Campus Suffolk.
After qualifying her first counselling work was as a volunteer with Suffolk Mind.
“I saw people of all ages with all sorts of different problems inclduing anxiety, depression, bereavement and addiction,” she says.
“I’ve also counselled students at West Suffolk College, helping them develop and see how to cope with their own lives.”
This year she set up her private practice seeing clients aged from 16 upwards.
“My oldest so far was 84, and when someone comes to you in their 80s I find that really encouraging.”
She feels there is still a lack of understanding of mental health problems because unlike a physical illness there are no visible symptoms.
“If people don’t understand they might say ‘you have a good life, what have you got to be depressed about?’
“But I think they are becoming more aware partly because of celebrities like Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry talking openly about it.
“One in four people in this country will suffer mental health issues at some stage.
“But I feel there is still a stigma attached to it, and there shouldn’t be.”
She takes part in regular workshops to keep up to date with the latest thinking in counselling and psychotherapy.
“My view in life is you can never learn too much, and it’s useful to see how others approach things,” she says.
Eileen grew up on a farm near Clare.
But some of her most vivid schooldays memories involve her time at Hengrave Hall convent school near Bury.
“It was a beautiful Elizabethan house in stunning grounds, and needless to say as a child I did not appreciate the beauty of it as I do today,” she says.
“There were 365 lime trees, one for every day of the year. Every autumn the students were made to climb up the lime trees and prune them.
“We were each assigned three trees which we had to climb wearing our uniform skirts, with our fingers numb with cold.
“I would often get told off for talking in the dormitory at night and sometimes for having midnight feasts, and that would result in the nuns making me stand outside in the corridor for an hour before being allowed to go back to bed.”
She once caused mayhem by letting loose rats from the biology lab in the gym where an elderly nun called Sister Winifred was giving ballroom dancing lessons.
“I remember how funny I thought it was when the nun climbed up the exercise wall bars, with her habit rucked up around her waist, with all the girls screaming and laughing.
“Sometimes some of us would climb over the school wall and walk a couple of miles over the fields to Culford where the boys’ school was, in the hope of meeting boys. But as they were in class that never happened,” she added.
Eileen’s PR career began as a press officer at London store Selfridges.
“I did fashion, and some wonderful book signings with people like Harold Wilson, Muhammed Ali, and Joan Collins.
“After that I was a press officer for Walt Disney, which was very exciting.”
In the early 1980s she moved to New York and supplemented her PR work with business journalism before returning to London.
She experienced the glossy world of musical theatre managing publicity for Andrew Lloyd Webber, who at the time had five shows in the West End and three on Broadway.
Next she fulfilled a long-held ambition to work in TV by getting a job as a researcher.
Her work was mostly documentaries, but included a spell on Surprise, Surprise with Cilla Black.
One job, for Crime Monthly, included a real-life gruesome drama when officers she was shadowing for an piece about speeding were diverted to the scene of a triple gangland killing.
Then came another key move. “I was always a bit nerdy about politics – I’d take time off to go to the party conferences.
“A journalist I knew became director of communications for the Tory party, and asked me to join them as head of media.
“I wasn’t sure because I didn’t know my way around the corridors of Westminster.
“But I did the job for 18 months in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. The hours were gruelling – 6am to midnight seven days a week – but it was fascinating.”
The Tories, led by John Major, went on to a crashing defeat but Eileen shares most people’s view that it was inevitable.
“They had been in power for such a long while it was time for a change,“ she says.
“I was learning on my feet and found it quite intimidating at first because I was working with the people who run the country.
“Some ministers were difficult and unforgiving and others really supportive. Michael Portillo once finished a press release for me while I got on with answering the phone.”
Eileen was head-hunted to join the publishers of Cosmopolitan and Harpers and Queen, then went on to the job she probably enjoyed the most – seven years doing PR for The Economist magazine – before joining Reuters.
Though her two careers are very different there are aspects of the first that underpin the second.
“My previous job was very much a people profession,” she says, “I was meeting and talking to people all the time.
“Although it was not the same, I learnt a lot and bring that to the counselling room.”
Eileen can be contacted through her website, www.wisecounselling.co.uk and by telephone on 07712 674040.