Communication isn’t just about words. It’s about context, too, and a ton of what someone says—whether he or she is a CEO or a public relations representative—will go through certain filters. And if communication occurs face to face or through video or some other visual avenue, one of those filters is that person’s attire.
“I definitely believe that clothes communicate as much about a professional as the words that roll out of their mouths,” says Hope Gibbs, owner of Inkandescent Public Relations.
That was readily apparent in early May, when Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg raised some Wall Street eyebrows by wearing a hoodie to a New York meeting in advance of his company’s initial public offering.
It brought others to his defense, notably Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who wrote on his blog: “Part of the reason that business has a bad name is the stuffy clothes people wear. It would be brilliant if businesspersons didn’t feel they had to wear a uniform, and leaders could let people be more natural.”
That’s a nice thought, but is it practical? And what should people whose jobs involve communicating—through words and by the impressions they give—say through their clothing? Publicists and PR experts weighed in.
The traditional approach
Sandy Dumont, an image consultant self-described as the Image Architecht, says she’s often called upon to clean up messes created by business casual attire. She takes Branson’s advice with a grain of salt. Like Steve Jobs, he’s a billionaire and entrepreneur whose attitude is, “You can’t make me do that,” Dumont says.
Compare those CEOs with Bill Gates, who always wore suits in business settings when he was head of Microsoft. Communicators ought to push CEOs to dress for business, she says.
“Inspiration comes from the top, and while you can’t motivate people by the way you dress, I have proven for years that the way you dress announces the outcome other people can expect from you,” she says. “People who dress for their own comfort, rather than to impress their potential clients, may be deemed as showing a lack of respect for their prospective clients.”
Sally Williamson of communication firm Sally Williamson and Associates says CEOs can have their own branded looks—think Jobs’ turtlenecks and jeans—but they have to strike a balance.
“I don’t think you have to give up who you are, but you have to acknowledge your audience,” she says. “You don’t want that impression to speak louder than you yourself are. Don’t let it get in the way of your message.”
She notes that Jobs wore plenty of suits to meetings with investors, and his “uniform” was clearly a thought-out look that aligned with the Apple brand.
A moving target
Other image experts, however, say it’s not quite so simple. Gibbs says she regularly advises clients and PR pros to dress up for events, photo shoots, or speeches. But she points to a blog post on her website that offers advice that says it’s all relative.
You should look like your clients, says the post’s writer, Jody Maki. “If you are selling to artists, technology people, or auto shops, are you wearing a three-piece suit on your sales calls? You shouldn’t be,” he wrote.
Likewise, he says you and your executives shouldn’t be dressing the same way as your competitors. If your look is unique, you’ll differentiate yourself.
Lizzy Shaw of Lizzy Shaw Public Relations says people representing a business should “dress to express.”
“People need to figure out the ‘uniform’ of their industry and dress accordingly,” she says. “[They should] wear clothing that is comfortable and feels natural—nothing more distracting than someone who is constantly fidgeting with or adjusting their clothing—with their own touches that express their personality or approach to business.”
The reality for CEOs is that they can pretty much wear whatever they want to, says Patricia Bernstein of PR and marketing firm Bernstein and Associates. PR professionals don’t have that freedom.
“We are providing a service and want to be taken seriously,” she says. “To me, that means wearing a suit to visit my clients, whether it’s their casual Friday or not.”
That said, Bernstein says that doesn’t mean men and women have to wear exactly the same uniform, as they often tried to do in “the era of women in suits with the little fluffy-bow/faux neckties.”
“My compromise is to wear suits but stylish suits with brightly colored blouses or jewelry,” she says. “This also reflects the creativity expected from communicators and publicists.”
However, Shaw says PR pros shouldn’t be too flashy. You don’t want to outshine the executives who are your clients, whether they’re wearing slick suits or hoodies.
“Our job is to make our clients look good,” she says. “We are supposed to fade into the background. They are the story, not us.”