There’s something to be said for work experience – it’s a big thing. The industry craves it and everyone who cares scrambles to get it.
I wanted something more – to work overseas and with a little effort and a placement agency called BRGwork (and thanks to Ovidiu and Alexandra) I spent the summer working as a communications officer for a financial consultancy called Taxback.com in Romania – specifically Transylvania – one of 18 countries in which Taxback.com operates.
My arrival coincided with an expansion of the Romanian division; the core team had recently moved into new offices and staff numbers were being expanded from five members to 60. So my time there was very hectic and there was a lot to do. Amongst my duties were customer relations with foreign clients; market research on the student population of Cluj-Napoca (there are about 100,000); internal communications between our office and the main accounting branch back in the UK and the odd press release (though please don’t get me started on the Romania media).
One unexpected benefit of working in an international company was getting to use English with international clients. It encourages you to be very careful and does wonders for your telephone manner. There was even the occasional oddity – like calling a man who was utterly convinced that I was not only from Singapore but a member of the FBI. This keeps you on your toes.
I also had to learn to speak some Romanian; you cannot simply ‘get by’ in English. Those who have grown up since the 1989 revolution with English language television generally have no problem but the majority of those over 35 don’t understand English. By the end of my stay I could order food in Romanian and some television was making sense – but conducting business there would be a different matter.
Compared to the challenge of living in another country, the office work seemed so mundane. There was so much to do, so much to see. Living in another country, rather than visiting on holiday, you see the lowlights as well as the highlights and I found Romania to be a very different experience.
Even with all the modernisation that joining the EU is bringing you still see communist-era tower blocks and the husks of bombed out factories in old villages. It’s a country in flux: an older generation who lived under a repressive regime and a new one that’s quite happy to see the European Union help the country to adapt and improve.
I met one man during a train trip who claimed to be a cultural activist and admitted to committing tax evasion because he said the government didn’t deserve his money! He was very pleased that Romania was being dragged – kicking and screaming – into the wider world.
Being in another country heightens your cultural sensitivity; you notice how your surroundings are unfamiliar, from the architecture to the salamander I saw. You start to realise what your home country does differently. It gets you thinking about how and why. Take the internet for example: broadband exists in Romania, yet the country doesn’t seem to take advantage of it.
I couldn’t simply bring up the local cinema listings and there were very few hotels I could book into online. On one trip I had to send my room deposit by post.
If you plan an overseas placement you need be aware of the likely stresses: packing for the trip; impressing your employer and your new workmates. I’d lived abroad before (for three years in America) and it still got to me; my roommates were stressed to breaking and early on tempers did flare.
It won’t always be easy, but moving never is and despite it all I recommend going abroad if you get the opportunity. Take the risk, experience the fantastic things another country has to offer and expand your knowledge of how to communicate. It’s a key part of PR after all.
Lastly consider what you might offer your overseas host company. Not only will you bring your enthusiasm and flair but you will also offer a different perspective; a different way of doing things. My limited impression of PR in Romania is that it is all about marketing and below the line promotions broadly in line with the Global Alliance profile of Romania.
But I brought a different understanding of how PR can be used. To give an example: Taxback.com does excellent, and much needed, charity work – it’s classic PR. I provided the company with a brief on how to formulate a PR and marketing campaign centred on strategic partnerships and stakeholder management influenced in part by my work for Barnardo’s. I’m not sure what they made of this, but I am happy that in my time with Taxback.com I put a bit of bite into their PR.
Photos supplied by the author