Authored by Blackwell Thomas
In public relations, we work for the client. Their immediate wants, mid-range goals and long-term desires, translate into our marching orders.
This world is typically set up in one of two ways. You can serve your employer as part of their in-house PR team or you can work at a PR or similar agency. In the former arrangement, you work with one client; in the latter, you can work with a multitude of them.
I’ve been on both sides of this dynamic. While each boasts its strengths, I’ve got a preference – and it’s a strong one.
My experience with in-house PR includes work for two multi-nationals, one in consumer packaged goods and the other in financial services.
At each of these organizations, my colleagues and I helped define and then codify its brand, its voice, and its image through style guides or brand bookmarks. Prescriptive guidelines ranged from the big picture to the granular:
“These are the types of words we use.”
“We never use a serif font — like, ever.”
“Our voice is young, hip, and playful when we’re on Twitter.”
“We try to sound like a wise, old teacher, no matter what media platform we’re on.”
This was how it was always done, we were told. These were the rules and for too many outside our department, they seemed etched in stone. Attempts to build on that voice and ensure that it continued to evolve proved challenging. Our efforts to push voice, to respond to the ever-changing external realities of markets and media, were regularly met with resistance.
I recall many conversations with communications colleagues desperately spitballing ways to persuade an external partner to see a different perspective so our company’s voice could punch through.
Too often, I found that style guides, brand voices, and communication practices were viewed as boundaries instead of the guideposts they’re intended to be. It seemed we’d taken valuable options off the table, that we’d boxed ourselves into a corner. A consequence of this was a voice that was smaller, watered-down and diminished the value of our brand.
I am now on the agency side of this dynamic, working with multiple clients each day. Tapping into different histories, audiences, and voices is a part of the job I absolutely love.
Clients are still extremely protective of their brand but I’ve found they’re more likely to give leeway and defer to the expertise of an agency. The result is more creative work that, while not perfect, can often be honed to a finer point that hits an ambitious target as opposed to work that looks and sounds like a continuation of previous efforts.
This is just one person’s experience. But the lessons I’ve learned from this stark change go beyond me and tap into something I mentioned earlier: voices evolve, whether we like it or not.
Marketers and communications pros are fond of saying that we need to think of our companies and all their manifestations – printed materials, website, logos, and typefaces – as people.
Working with one client week after week — and now multiple clients a day— has been a bold reminder that people change. Change doesn’t have to mean a client has strayed from the foundations of what they are. Evolution doesn’t imply being adrift or lost.
It can suggest capability, skill, and savvy. The right agency can help you find the next step forward in your company’s evolution — if you let it.
Blackwell Thomas is a career communicator. His experience includes marketing and public relations work in consumer packaged goods, health care, financial services, and eight years as a reporter covering state politics in Illinois.