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When Cultures Clash

When Cultures Clash

A jaded former colleague Who Shall Not Be Named at a PR firm Which Shall Not Be Named once offered this witty riposte at the end of a particularly brutal conference call: "This job would be great if we could just get rid of the clients."

A jaded former colleague Who Shall Not Be Named at a PR firm Which Shall Not Be Named once offered this witty riposte at the end of a particularly brutal conference call: “This job would be great if we could just get rid of the clients.”

Fear not, David Sedaris, fear not.

Well, that guy was not long for that firm and with good reason. He didn’t want to conform (perhaps too strong a word) or alter his MO given who the clients were, what level of risk they were comfortable with, and how the effects of their idiosyncratic culture –in this case a non-profit led by an extremely strong-willed individual who really “got PR” (natch)–  played itself out.

This all came to mind due to a Sunday NY Times “Corner Office” with Michael Lebowitzfounder and C.E.O. of Big Spaceship.

One of his primary takeaways is that hiring the right people to create the right kind of culture is extremely important. Well, OK, no surprises up that sleeve. But it begs the larger question for all of us in the customer-service/consulting arena: No matter how excellent your culture is, what if it doesn’t match up with that of a particular client? This goes beyond such nebulous issues of “chemistry” and “fit” but to the heart of how we work with clients.

It has probably puzzled PR practitioners since the days of Bernays, but I would offer three possible solutions when cultures clash:

  1. Bring in your Empathizers – Those that can feel your pain and share your joy should be first in line to mitigate culture clash issues. They are more willing to see the purely human side of one-on-one interactions.
  2. Bring in your Sociologists-in-Training -Empathy not enough? How about your in-house analyzers. Dissecting and figuring out how to work in a vastly different environment might actually be fun for this bunch, akin to analyzing alien cultures.
  3. Bring in your Managers -i-dotters and t-crossers step right up. If the focus is on results and adhering to timetables then they may find culture-clash situations manageable.

It’s difficult enough for firms big and small to get their own cultures aligned. (Fave moment from the Times: interviewee admits to being comfortable with “some amount of chaos”).So, forget about getting the client’s culture to conform to your own.  But trying your best to work with it is within your control.

In this human comedy we call life, it seems to me we should welcome and relish the challenge of meeting new kinds of people who work in ways we’re unaccustomed to. They just might have something to teach us if we’re open to.

Tim Colbert is a Director at ABI marketing public relations. You can reach him at +1 212-529-4811 and tcolbert@abipr.com.

by By Tim Colbert