A PR & communications professional with more than nine years of versatile experience in an international environment and a proven track record in achieving extensive high-value exposure for brands through traditional and digital channels, Olivia Sandu is passionate about building bridges between the UK and Romania. BR talked with Olivia about her experience of working in a London PR agency, the differences and similarities between the industries in the two countries, as well as her advice for Romanian PR specialists interested in working abroad.
This interview is part of the series called “Romanian creatives in the UK” started with Maria Nazdravan and followed by Bogdana Butnar, Stefan Liute, Andreea Nastase, Alina Pirvu, Teodor Cucu, Mihnea Miculescu, Raluca Voinea, Anda si Dragos Teglas, Diana Vasilescu, Mihai Coliban, Viorica Gheorghita and Ana-Maria Olaru.
By Romanita Oprea
When was the first time you realized you wanted to work in PR and why?
I always had a passion for writing, organizing themed parties for my friends, reading about brands and putting my creativity to the test, but the real moment came when I first started asking myself big questions about 10 years ago, when I had to choose my University course. To become more familiar with my options, I contacted people working in journalism and the media and they suggested I explore the world of PR. After reading more about it, I realized that it was exactly what I was looking for and just couldn’t wait to take the first steps towards it.
What was your first contact with the real PR industry?
While studying, I was eager to learn as much as possible about the industry and the creative minds behind it, so I signed up to every conference, training course and competition I could find. That’s when I became familiar with many creatives who I’ve followed ever since. Shortly afterwards, my first practical experience in PR was working for an NGO that promoted and supported positive initiatives in Romania, a new concept at the time with a much required “can do” attitude.
How do you think the Romanian PR industry has changed since you entered it in 2010?
Looking back, I think that the relationship between the media and PRs is much more established now than when I first started in the industry. Both parties have a better understanding of the benefits of working together, and PR is no longer an underdog. The content of the campaigns has changed as well; there is more focus on storytelling and authenticity, and messages are built to inspire positive change and action.
Your first contact with the London PR industry was with Ash Communications in 2013, as an intern. What were your first impressions?
Although at the time I joined the agency I had about three years of experience – of which over six months was working on the agency side – it was a completely different environment for me. The media landscape was so diverse; there were tens of specialized publications for each type of niche sector and the competition for a journalist’s attention was so fierce that I had to learn a new set of skills to survive in the market. But luckily I also had plenty of professional tools to assist me along the way. If you add to this the fact that this was all taking place in a foreign country, you pretty much get the picture of how big this challenge was for me. But I was committed to making it work and had plenty of support and training from my colleagues.
What made you come back to Romania?
My internship in London, which I managed to secure in 2013 through an Erasmus Placement, was meant to last only three months. I wanted to make the most out of it and although I created a project of “100 things to do in London” – one new experience for roughly each day spent there – at the end of it I still felt like there was more for me to do there. So I went to a few interviews in an attempt to get hired in an entry-level position but was constantly told that I needed more international experience and media contacts to be able to secure a job. This didn’t sit well with my “calculated risk” approach so I decided to return and continue the search from home, as I was discouraged by the high living costs in London.
What about going back and still being at Ash? Why not another agency? (Please tell us more about the offer and the decision)
After I returned to Bucharest, I started working in-house in a corporate environment, and three months in I received an email which changed the course of my career. Ash Communications was getting in touch about a job opening and I was among the candidates considered for the role. The agency was looking for a junior account executive to help with some large projects commencing in about a month’s time. I spotted the opportunity as the boutique size of the agency meant that I would be very hands on and able to make a mark within the team. It was my dream to live and work in another country as well and the UK fascinated me from early childhood. With less than 30 days to hand in my notice and relocate, I jumped at the opportunity by asking myself “What story do I want to tell?”.
Were you forever a fan of the British style of communications?
I didn’t experience it first-hand before moving there, but I was aware of the cultural abundance in the UK. I was also a fan of how they’d built their country brand and how they positioned themselves. In terms of progress and development, I knew it was the right place to be.
What were your first challenges in the new position and how did you tackle them?
I had to reach a high level of understanding of my new clients’ businesses and the environment in which they were operating. This challenge developed skills that come in very handy when you work across multiple sectors. I managed to rise to the occasion by doing plenty of background research, being genuinely curious, asking the right questions and knowing what publications to read to have the finger on the pulse. I also had to keep an open mind when it comes to cultural differences and learn that different doesn’t mean wrong; all inputs are valuable if used properly.
What surprised you most about the London PR industry and why?
What I didn’t expect was being able to attend monthly meetings between the media and PRs, where key journalists offered insights about their readers and their editorial strategy, while PRs had the chance to tailor their pitch and make it as relevant as possible. This was something I didn’t foresee and it spoke volumes about how advanced the industry really was.
What do you believe to be Romanians’ main qualities that differentiate them on the London PR scene?
We’ve learned to be resourceful the hard way and this is a quality required in any type of role, especially in a creative business where you need a fresh approach for the campaigns you run or the stories you write. To add to the mix, we also have great motivation to learn, strive and prove our value, and can become assets to a business.
What are the main resemblances between the Romanian PR industry and the UK one? What about the differences?
They both have the same goal; to generate as much earned media as possible, preferably in a positive tone of voice. But the ways in which this is achieved can differ. Take social media channels, for example. Twitter is usually the go-to platform for a business in the UK, while Romanian brands can be found mostly on Facebook. Same as their consumer users. This can also shape the type of messaging and values you put emphasis on. While Twitter is useful for trending topics, opinions and news items, Facebook helps to connect with people and build memories together.
Another example is the role that PR plays within the business structure and the metrics available to report its impact to senior management. While in the UK this is now an established practice, I think that locally it is still an area to be mapped out, which brings about exciting changes.
How hard is it to crack the UK PR industry?
Things are as hard as you believe them to be. Rather than looking at this experience as a daunting one, I chose to measure every little step made towards a better understanding of the industry and my career progression. Looking back, I would say that it takes a lot of work and determination, but after five years I’ve built solid relationships with all media sectors by being reliable, offering quality, newsworthy content and being sensitive to their needs. Being able to work hand in hand with the likes of The Times or The Daily Telegraph gives you an amazing feeling of accomplishment; one that clients appreciate as well.
You are now working both from Bucharest and London. How is that working for you? Please tell us more about the process.
It’s a very flexible arrangement where I can now live and work mostly in Bucharest, but travel to London or the rest of the UK on a monthly basis to meet with our clients, to spend some time with the office team and/or to attend the events we’re looking after. All this requires a certain amount of planning and a passion for travelling and exploring, but it does offer diversity on a regular basis and it helps me be connected with both countries at the same time. Distance-wise, it’s just three hours away on the plane so I call what I do “commuting” because it’s typical in the capital city for people to be travelling for more than two-three hours to work, if they live outside London. Of course, the time difference helps as well as I have two hours to my advantage.
As far as work is concerned, everything I do remotely is consistent to what I was doing while being in the office. I have the same responsibilities as before, but the way I deliver them is different. Along the way, we’ve put in place systems to ensure we collaborate online as effectively as offline and we rely heavily on technology to achieve this. If anything, I’m gained more freedom and I give back in return increased efficiency, a better focus and a broader perspective.
In this context, the next step for me is to put the connections I have to the service of businesses that need to build a bridge between the UK and Romania, as it’s a valuable experience worth sharing.
What made you decide to work in this manner and what are the main advantages?
I missed being able to plan long term my personal life. Renting in London made me feel very much like a tourist, and the trips home became more and more frequent due to commitments with family and friends. There was a feeling of missing out, but at the same time I wasn’t prepared to give it all up. The agency’s motto is “Everything is possible” and yet again, it was proven to me that these are more than words as the company worked with me to find a solution for my situation. The advantages are immediate; I’m spending more time with the people I care most about, I’m finding stability in the midst of change and I’m creating my own lifestyle while still contributing towards the growth of Ash Communications and its clients.
What advice would you give to a Romanian PR consultant who wants to move to London?
To follow their passion, wherever this might take them. They might require patience and flexibility but, by having confidence in their dreams and skillset, they can achieve anything and will be given a fair shot at it. And I would advise approaching the recruitment process with the same creativity that they would dedicate to their campaigns. Although it’s a crowded market, take your chance to stand out and make the most of it.
What do you wish you knew before embarking on this journey?
That everything has its own way of working out in the end. This journey was full of surprises and at times when it seemed that there were no solutions, opportunities just came my way. My main lesson from this is to be clear on what the end goal is, but not necessarily on how to get there, because where there’s a will, there’s a way.