Culture experiment

I lunched recently with four former PR students who work in Atlanta. Much of our discussion focused on organizational culture. Two of the young professionals were delighted with their work cultures, but the other two were seeking work elsewhere, largely due to cultural issues.

I lunched recently with four former PR students who work in Atlanta. Much of our discussion focused on organizational culture. Two of the young professionals were delighted with their work cultures, but the other two were seeking work elsewhere, largely due to cultural issues.     

We agreed that organizational culture isn't everything, but it has a lot to do with how PR is viewed and practiced, and the extent to which practitioners and other employees feel motivated and engaged on the job. So we talked about some cultural markers or indicators that students can look for when they interview. Here are three markers that can be used for a quick, nonscientific assessment of culture: 

First, what do you see and hear in the organization? Are doors open or closed? Do people appear pleasant? Do they smile? What's hanging on the walls? Do you hear voices? Are people laughing, planning, or arguing? Is it too quiet? Is there music? How do people interact with each other? Does the environment seem supportive and inviting, or something else? 

Second, how do the people you meet talk about the organization – and especially each other? Are they enthusiastic and inclusive? Do they laud others in the company? Do their non-verbals match their verbals when they talk about others? Do they talk mostly about themselves? Do you hear traces of cynicism, criticism, or complaints?

Third, how do people respond to your questions? You can probe for cultural markers with such questions as: What kinds of two-way communications opportunities do employees have? How visible and accessible is the CEO or president? How does the company celebrate employee and team accomplishments? What are people most proud of in the organization? What is the role of PR in the company? What is the vision for PR in the future?

Culture is certainly complex and there are many ways to “read” a culture, so these small steps will only help you form a first impression, which might or might not be accurate. And don't forget that culture isn't just a “top-down” thing. It is constantly evolving. Everyone in the organization, including you, helps construct culture through what they say and do, and how they do it on the job.

Bruce Berger, Ph.D., is Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama and a member of the board of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Previously he was VP of PR at Whirlpool Corporation. His column focuses on PR students, young professionals and education. He can be reached at berger@apr.ua.edu.

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