Bridging the gap

Ann-Marie O'Sullivan, founder and CEO of AM O’Sullivan PR, discusses her close ties to UCC and representing the university's global alumni community through her role as Chair of the Alumni Board. In conversation with Jane Haynes.

18 Nov 2021

In the midst of the joy of the recent on-campus graduation celebrations for those UCC graduates virtually conferred during the pandemic, when caps were happily thrown in the air and the Quad once again came alive with the buzz of celebration, it was a more unassuming moment that captured Ann-Marie O’Sullivan’s imagination.

Having addressed graduates and their guests in her role as Chair of the UCC Alumni Board, representing the UCC Alumni community, Ann-Marie’s attention was caught by the sight of a line of graduates queueing up to collect a memento from their special day: a UCC Alumni pin bearing the university crest. On such a highly-anticipated celebration with loved ones, classmates and staff, the significance of each graduate setting time aside to pick up this small but significant token tying them to their alma mater, sent a powerful reminder of what it means to be part of the UCC family.

“It’s great to see that the feeling I had towards UCC when I left in 1988 is still on the faces of the graduates today,” says Ann-Marie.

“It’s wonderful to see that, through the lens of whatever your college experience may be, you are coming out with that sense of connection – that’s hugely important.”

Ann-Marie is the founder and CEO of the Cork-based public relations firm, AM O’Sullivan PR. An award-winning PR professional, Ann-Marie’s ties to UCC go back to 1984, to the beginning of her undergraduate studies in Commerce (BComm). She looks back with fondness on her “four fantastic years” as a UCC student who fully embraced all aspects of university life. An active member of the UCC Choral Society, she recalls her society days as “the best fun” and has carried that passion for music with her, to this day still singing in a choir.

Ann-Marie O'Sullivan pictured on the Alumni Bridge, beside the ceremonial gates of UCC

Having always had an interest in PR, Ann-Marie majored in Management & Marketing before graduating in 1988. Despite having previously dismissed the idea of coming to work at her father Robin’s PR firm, O’Sullivan Public Relations Ltd., a summer stint in the office proved auspicious for Ann-Marie’s career path.

“I went in to do a summer job with him for a couple of weeks and ended up staying put,” she recalls.

“That’s how I got into PR and, 33 years later, it was the best choice I ever made in terms of my career path.”

Ann-Marie’s career thrived in tandem with the business, and she went on to take over as managing director in 2005. The business continued to evolve and, with “many twists and turns” along the way, in March 2015 O’Sullivan Public Relations became AM O’Sullivan PR.

“Six-and-a-half years later, I’m delighted to say that all of our clients came with us,” says Ann-Marie.

“I have clients that I work with today that we have worked with for the bones of 30 years. That’s a huge vote of confidence, and a huge endorsement in terms of what we do and how we engage with our clients. They’re very happy to continue to work with us and that’s something that I never take for granted.

It is not at all surprising that Ann-Marie – a recipient of the prestigious Public Relations Institute of Ireland ‘Life Fellow Award’ – was approached to lend her expertise to the UCC Alumni Board. The board serves as both an advisory committee to UCC and the representative body for UCC alumni all over the world. It acts to support the Alumni and Development team in furthering UCC’s mission and strategic plan, while also serving as the umbrella organisation for Alumni Chapters, Special Interest Groups and Regional Representatives.

Ann-Marie was originally invited to join the board by previous chair, Shemas Eivers. She admits to being “delighted and honoured” by the invitation. She was officially elected as vice-chair at the 2019 AGM and worked closely with Chair Patrick Quinn over the following year, pivoting to virtual meetings and rising to meet the challenges presented by the pandemic, before herself being elected chair in October 2020.

“It’s great to see that the feeling I had towards UCC when I left in 1988 is still on the faces of the graduates today” Ann-Marie O'Sullivan

While the board has yet to meet in-person under her tenure due to ongoing health and safety restrictions, Ann-Marie admits that, by now, everyone is used to dialling in via video calls. And although COVID may have put a stop to physical events and gatherings, the board along with the Alumni and Development team has embraced new opportunities for bringing the global UCC family together.

“Projects like the Global Speaker series were a real highlight over the last couple of months. There was huge traction with that project, right around the world. Michael Dowling, President and CEO of Northwell Health, for example, didn’t have to make the journey home – he was in New York, and connected in with a couple of hundred people who attended his conversation with Professor Mary Horgan,” says Ann-Marie.

She also acknowledges the milestone achievement of setting up the Alumni Online Platform, a central database and point of information for the global UCC Alumni community.

“There was a huge piece of work around that – from making sure we have a robust database in terms of contact details, to how alumni actively engage back in with UCC,” Ann-Marie explains.

“At this stage, we have 200,000 members in the UCC Alumni community; 200,000 of us scattered across 67 countries around the world – that’s a huge community to be able to connect in with. I think the new online platform is a fantastic addition to what people are doing.”

With campus life slowly beginning to return to some sense of normality, Ann-Marie is enthusiastic about what comes next for the university and its global community.

“The board is delighted to be able to support the work of the Alumni and Development team and I think with the new online platform, a really good foundation has been built in terms of engagement with the 200,000 members of our Alumni community"Ann-Marie O'Sullivan

“It’s a very exciting time. The appointment of a new president is always a milestone in UCC, and I’m delighted for Professor O’Halloran. We have a really good working relationship with him; he’s been hugely supportive of us as a board and he has a real vision for UCC’s future,” she says.

Among the exciting projects on the horizon, is the recently launched UCC Mentoring Programme. An exciting new initiative for the university, the UCC Mentoring Programme will enable current students to avail of one-to-one mentoring with alumni from a range of professions and industries. It is anticipated that the programme will equip UCC students with invaluable insights, advice and information as they make the first tentative steps in their own careers.

“A number of board members were very involved in the planning around the structure of the scheme and how it was going to roll out. Most of the board members have also volunteered as mentors in this first pilot phase and, again, were delighted to do so,” explains Ann-Marie.

Following the successful launch of the Dublin Alumni Chapter earlier this year, Ann-Marie has already turned her attention to the formation of the next chapter – this time, much closer to home.

“I’m a huge advocate for the establishment of a Cork Chapter for UCC,” she explains.

“That might sound like a bit of a misnomer – UCC is here, in Cork, so why would we have need for a Cork Chapter? But actually, we did a survey a couple of years ago as a board, and something like 67% of all alumni that were on the database at that stage were based in Munster. So, absolutely, there’s a reason why you would establish in New York, Boston, London and Dublin; but, my argument is: why wouldn’t you have an association in Cork, that broadens the opportunities for graduates in the Cork/Munster area to connect?

“I think there is a big opportunity there. We have spoken about it as a board and, certainly, for the coming year, it’s something that we’re going to be putting focus on.”

Ann-Marie reserves high praise for Kate McSweeney, Director of Communications, UCC Alumni and Development, and her team for the “fantastic work” they have achieved, particularly in the past 18 months, and is especially looking forward to seeing where the new Director of Business Development and Advancement, Kerry Bryson, will steer the ship.

“Kerry is on board since August and has very strong plans for the future,” says Ann-Marie.

“The board enjoys working with the Alumni and Development team and I think with the new online platform, there is a really good foundation to further expand our activities. The future is very positive in terms of ‘where to next’ for UCC and the UCC Alumni Community.”


Please visit the dedicated UCC Alumni and Development website for further information.

Photography: Diane Cusack

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