Client Immersion: What I Learned Working On-Site

Eight years ago, I entered college with a clear vision of my future – a career in marketing and public relations, working in an agency setting (preferably in a bustling metropolis), capturing brainstorm sessions on floor-to-ceiling chalkboards, and bouncing ideas off other artistic types who shared similar passions for writing and creativity. I can firmly say that all my notions have lived up to realities – I’m working at Isom Global Strategies, a PR agency nestled in the heart of the nation’s capital, surrounded by a team of talented and innovative individuals. And yes, we have a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard for our professional (and at times, personal) use.  However, this environment has not always been my norm. In fact, for a solid two years of my career as a PR professional, I was working at a client site, fully immersed in the client environment, which was a stark contrast to the PR world I had quickly entered before being quickly removed. For nine hours a day, five days a week, I was working within one of the largest departments of the federal government – an expectation that I never anticipated. At the start, it was a cultural adjustment, but in time, I assimilated to the mentality of my client. The cultural nuances are a learning curve in themselves, and an essential component of the job is being able to understand them, plan for them, accept them (sometimes at the cost of your creative vision), and challenge them, when appropriate.

Contradictory to providing in-house PR support, my interface with the client did not end after a one-hour conference call, nor was it buffered through email communication. In most PR settings, you will speak with the client on a weekly, if not daily, basis via phone or email. The client communicates his/her expectations, and you execute from the comfort—and freedom—of your own environment, delivering the product or service over technological means, or in some cases, via in-person meeting. On-site arrangements provide a very different dynamic, and I learned it’s an unfamiliar terrain for most individuals in our field. In many ways, it felt as if I worked for a new employer—I adhered to the professional and social norms of the client; reported all key decisions (e.g., deadlines, conflicts, personal leave) to my client supervisors, and developed close relationships with an entirely new network of individuals, many of whom possessed vastly different backgrounds than my own. This was a key area of growth for me, as I was not surrounded by people who shared similar training or experiences—I learned to not only adapt my thinking and approach to the cultural nuances that ultimately decided the fate of a communication decision, but I also brought forth my “outsider” skills and vision, bringing positive changes to the organization during my tenure (at least that is my hope!).

Transitioning back to agency life after the end of those two years was in some ways a culture shock. I then had to assimilate back into an environment that was once my comfort zone. My status quo had changed, but within a week, I was back in the throes of agency life—dynamicity is critical in the PR world. 

On-site experience is rare for a PR professional – seize it if you have the opportunity. Not only do you develop a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the client, but you learn every organization requires sound communication – some may call it a different name, but the mission is the same – to tell a lasting story that is both strategic and impactful. 

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