After 10 years in corporate communications at Northwest Airlines, Jon Austin decided to give agency life a try. He joined Fleishman-Hillard's Minnesota office and reported for work on September 11, 2001.
Needless to say, he didn't get a chance to organize his desk. He was immediately dispatched to Chicago and spent the next six days on-site with an airline client, helping manage crisis communications during that perilous time.
Austin's story is a dramatic one, but it does illustrate the fact that on-site work is a challenge that many PR pros will have to face during the course of their careers. It can range from the innocuous "extra set of helping hands" to the top-secret "war room" during a crisis, and going into such situations prepared can help smooth the way for seamless and quick integration into a client's business.
For Austin, now a Fleishman SVP specializing in crisis work, 9/11 was just the first in a long series of on-site jobs. "A lot of times it's happening in real time, and it's really urgent and pressing," he says. "[Being on-site] facilitates both you knowing what the situation is, and being helpful in terms of advice and support."
In most cases, Austin has been in the background of a crisis, helping strategize and plan. Sometimes, he's had to be out front himself. Having seen both the corporate and agency sides of such cases, he admits that tensions can arise.
"There's always a little bit of 'Geez, we could have done that for you' on the corporate side," he says. "That's mitigated by the urgency of the situation. Most people are just happy to have the extra set of hands and the extra brain at the table."
Nike tapped Portland, OR-based Lane PR, at a time when Nike was outsourcing heavily, to provide help at corporate headquarters. President Wendy Lane dispatched three staffers and dedicated a liaison between her staff and the Nike bosses.
"The advantage [for the company] is it can let you go quickly... it doesn't have to pay severances, it doesn't have to pay for a lot of the costs of hiring," Lane explains bluntly. "That's why companies typically do it."
While dedicating the personnel to Nike did put a bit of a strain on Lane's 20-person staff, she points out that it will look great on those staffers' resumes when they move on. But she does sound a note of caution: Take care if you send very green employees to extended on-site assignments, as she did.
"The people who came from my company had obviously been at a small to midsize PR shop for a reason," she says. "The culture of going to something that large and impersonal was difficult for them... a senior person is going to be a lot more experienced and understanding."
Carey Osmundson, an account supervisor for MS&L in Michigan, spends so much time on-site with General Motors that she is rarely in the MS&L office at all. "A client this large has so many resources, vendors, and programs. So we're able to get access to them [on-site]," she says.
That may be the most advantageous aspect of on-site work: the all-important level of access.
"If I were off-site - because we're working with some confidential information - people may be leery to give me that information," says Osmundson. "Here, I'm treated as a GM employee."
Build trust with the in-house team as soon as you go on-site
Firms should always have at least one senior person controlling all on-site work with clients
Crisis PR pros who work on-site a lot should keep a bag packed with all vital communications gear. You never know what environment you're entering