Introspections of a c21 Intern Part 1: Find Your Niche

This is a blog series by me, Emma Smith, c21’s 2022 former intern, now an account manager at c21. These entries combine marcom lessons with my daily tasks I started recording in the early days of my internship. It’s my hope that these thoughts and lessons may help another person just starting out in the whirlwind industry of PR and marketing.

Marcom Lesson 1: Find Your Niche

Getting a master’s degree in mass communications was not originally the plan, but then COVID hit — and my projection of the next few years was unpredictable anyway — I thought I may as well use that time getting another degree. It was a last-minute kind of thing since I had never thought about grad school before. It had seemed like something really smart people did, or for people who wanted to become doctors or professors. I wasn’t one of those — but COVID didn’t leave me many options.

So, I looked into communications. My dad had gotten his master’s and encouraged me to also pursue that direction. I had always enjoyed writing, so journalism seemed like a logical step. Though I would have preferred to continue my Chinese studies, I didn’t want to apply to another school, and the University of South Carolina didn’t offer much else in the way of humanities — so, communications it was!

Going in, I suppose I was too focused on the journalism aspect. Idealistically, I thought it was going to be more writing-heavy – like how to write everything from journal articles to blogs (ironic, ha) to social media posts, as well as how to make it as a writer in the real world or how to communicate anything and everything. I was surprised that this degree was not like that at all.

The program was more about communications as a whole — for marketing, yes, but also for academia and legal and organizational structures. This was far from anything I thought I would learn about, let alone pursue. It was not what I thought I had signed up for — and in the beginning — I hated it.

It just didn’t feel very me. I was the only one in my program without an undergrad degree in an adjacent industry. I was surrounded by marketing, PR and journalism people, who used slang I had never heard and had a list of internships that ran a mile long. I felt like I did not belong at all. The classes just weren’t what I had expected, and I was very clearly lost during the assignments. I always felt like I had no idea what I was doing. This isn’t me being modest, this is just me being factual. My whole life I had to try hard to understand things that came easily to other people. And even when I put hard work into things, it never turned out quite as well as those that just seemed to instinctively get it. Having a different background gave me hope that I could have a leg up in some respects, but it didn’t. Not really — not at first.

To gain a new perspective, I decided to take a research class. And although it focused on stats and graphs, it also emphasized diversity and ethics. How can we make research more accessible? How can we use these skills to help other people? We were able to do our own research project and I focused mine on the differences of American and Chinese censorship. That was what made me feel like I was actually learning something. Could I remember those formulas now? Probably not, but if I look through a journal article, I’ll know how to read the graphs.

It just felt nice to use what I was learning for something I liked. It was hard to feign interest in a lot of the subjects. I didn’t care much for advertising or strategic campaigns. The legal side of communications was difficult sometimes. I really wasn’t interested in becoming a media manager. And don’t even get me started on stocks.

It did make me realize how many things communications has its hands in. And it seems silly to type that out because, duh. Everything involves communication; how else will we share information? But all my classes were so different. They were only loosely related to ‘communications.’ Somehow it seemed I had so many options and absolutely nothing to choose from all at the same time. What I really wanted to do wasn’t being taught in a classroom. And to be honest, I couldn’t articulate exactly what that was anyway.

I tried to make do with what I could. I liked reading, writing and researching, so I doubled down on those things. When I interned at an agency, everyone wanted to be an account manager. I was totally fine with being on the research team. I will gladly give you all the info on a topic for a two-hour meeting. It was nice to just pass the information off and be done with it. And generally, it was easy to find what the clients needed. It wasn’t much different from writing a paper and I liked that.

But not every internship or communications position is like that. My past internships were writing-heavy but they didn’t really take a lot out of me. That’s not to say I was too good for it, but it was simple stuff, and I liked simple. But even with that experience, it was very different from how c21 approaches communications. In my past internships, it was ‘write this, edit this, etc.’ At c21, my work is part of a larger process. It still involves writing and editing, but it also includes building the newsletters that the writing will be used for. Scheduling the social media posts with captions and graphics. Making the graphics. Creating media lists. It is nice to see things from beginning to end instead of editing a piece, shipping it off and never seeing it again.

It also introduced me to things that I never thought about. Admin work takes up more time than I thought, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but I never put much stock into it. As it turns out, communications is spending half the time organizing things in hopes they’re in the right place and the other half looking for them. Joking!

But seriously, content is what most people zero in on while working in communications, marketing, advertising, etc. because that is what people see, right? That is what the clients want and what we strive to provide for them. However, there is so much unseen work and strategy that goes into being able to provide them with that content.

It’s different for every client, of course. Some know exactly what they want and we just have to worry about putting it out there. Some give suggestions but leave the bulk of the research on our end. And, circling back, I like researching things. So that’s not too bad. And c21 has a robust approval process before anything is released to a client, so it all evens out in the end.

The internship made me realize that there is more to the communications industry than what we did in school, and for that, I’m grateful. I don’t want everything I ever knew about it to come from the ivory tower of academia — what a way to live!

Check back for part two of this blog series coming soon.



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