Dress codes can send a key nonverbal message to clients

Whether suits or jeans, a PR pro's attire can impact a client's comfort level. So while many agencies enforce a suit rule, others opt to embrace the laid-back style of their clients.

Whether suits or jeans, a PR pro's attire can impact a client's comfort level. So while many agencies enforce a suit rule, others opt to embrace the laid-back style of their clients.

What to wear, what to wear? Most PR pros are experts in verbal communication, but what about that all-important nonverbal statement you make every time you walk into someone's line of vision? Agencies often address the problem with strict dress codes. But times have changed, and many PR firms are changing right along with them. Uptown or downtown? Buttoned-down or down with the street? Both sides of the perennial dress code debate still have their passionate adherents. Patricia Thorp, president and founder of Thorp & Co. in Florida, keeps her agency solidly in the old school. "We have a fairly formal dress code," she says. "We believe that so much of our clients' judgment of us is based on nonverbal cues." In fact, Thorp cites studies that show that judgments are 72% nonverbal, 12% auditory, and 16% content. "That 72% PR people often underestimate, and we think it's a mistake," Thorp says. Account execs are encouraged to pay attention to the spiffiness of their jackets, shoes, and jewelry. "The rule of thumb is you always try to be at the client's level or one level higher in terms of attire," she says. Thorp admits, however, that the heady years of the tech boom led to an overall loosening of standards. When clients showed up for meetings carrying skateboards, the Brooks Brothers vibe had to be toned down. But not every agency got the message during those years. Chris McManus, who now runs his own consultancy called CenterStage Communications, was a Burson-Marsteller employee in New York throughout most of the '90s. He was working on the Sun Microsystems account and frequently flew to California to visit the client's headquarters. Burson's strict dress code mandated nothing less than full business suits every day, but McManus quickly found that he and his colleagues "stood out like a sore thumb" at the casual Sun campus. "[Burson was] very much focused on this ... paradigm that 'we are the agency.' And it was run a bit like a law firm," McManus says. Eventually, McManus was pulled aside by his Sun clients and asked to please not wear a suit because he was being perceived as an outsider. McManus was caught between a rock and a hard place, with a supervisor requiring a suit and a client requesting business casual. He ended up acceding to the client's wishes, but not without having to have a difficult conversation with his boss. The entire episode opened his eyes to the need for flexibility in clothing, as well as in thinking. "We clearly were sending an image to them, not of, 'We're professional, and we're here to help you,' but more of, 'We're better than you because we're from New York and dressed up.'" Outside of the sometimes stuffy confines of the Big Apple, dress codes are often viewed more loosely. And sometimes, practitioners fed up with agency guidelines vow not to replicate them when they leave. Tony Katsulos founded Trinity Public Relations in Dallas three years ago, after working in both corporate and agency PR. In the corporate world, he recalled, only white shirts were acceptable, and men had to put on their suit jackets to go to the bathroom. Now his code is, "Dress every day like Saturday." Because his clients come from the tech sector, he says, the focus is on results, not appearance. "If their choice is to have someone in slick Armani do nothing for them or a bunch of people in jeans hit home runs," says Katsulos, "they want home runs." Relaxed standards are not exclusive to small agencies. Ruth Fitzgibbons, a principal at The Richards Group, a 560-employee firm based in Dallas, describes their dress code as "not really a dress code any more." She explained that there used to be a "guys in ties" requirement, but that it fell by the wayside after the definition of "tie" was expanded past the outer limits of the imagination. "I don't normally [subscribe] to slippery slope-type theories, but I saw it in action," Fitzgibbons says. The agency, which sells itself on its creative prowess, determined that the battle was not worth fighting. "Now, we don't even have a flip-flop rule," she says with a laugh. Of course, as any postmodernist could predict, the backlash against the backlash against dress codes is already in effect. Michael Kempner, CEO of MWW, notes that the dot-com boom is over, and he believes it's time to get back to basics. "I've actually begun to strongly encourage more ties, more jackets, and a much more tailored look among our employees," he says. Perhaps youngsters will find some value in ties, as well. "I remember myself, putting on that first tie, putting on that first jacket, there was a different spring in my walk. There was a different way I felt," Kempner says. "I felt much more professional."

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