Learning from the Pros during COVID-19: Summer 2020 Reflection

In All News, Blog by Kellie

By Leo Nye, Writing Intern

Working in-person at an office with others is normally nothing special, but I feel very grateful for my internship this summer with The Communication Solutions Group amidst a global pandemic that left most of my friends stuck at home. I utilized my skills as a writer and my creativity to conduct interviews, come up with unique branding ideas and design marketing materials. I compiled photos, proofread documents and sat in on meetings with clients, all with my notebook and pen in hand in order to avoid missing anything. I wrote for many projects in several formats, including speeches, teasers, slogans, website copy, social media posts and press releases.

Working at The Communication Solutions Group was a blast! I kicked off my career as a writer in a field I knew very little about, and not only was my experience educational, but it also gave me insight on what work I want to do as I move forward in life. I’d like to share what I’ve learned from the “PR-Pros” this summer.

The Search for Unique Branding

To figure out the branding for a client is to learn and convey their personality in a way that appeals to them and their appropriate market of (potentially) interested people. Our firm was hired to help a fire company with their volunteer recruitment campaign. Normally, to jumpstart a recruitment campaign with a new client, we meet with them in-person, but not this time. The client’s far location and the COVID-19 pandemic prevented us from having a normal branding session. We resolved this by asking their volunteers to fill out a questionnaire which included most of the questions we’d ask them in-person. Without meeting the client or having any familiarity with their location, I had no choice but to work with the two tools at my disposal: research and the survey data.

To optimize a recruitment message, it’s important to get information on the region you’re addressing so you know who you want to appeal to create well-informed and eye-grabbing copy—writing that catches one’s attention and tells its message without any effort on the part of the receiver. My search for branding led me to do research. Once I was done, I reviewed the survey responses we received from current volunteers whose testimonials provided me an insider perspective on their fire company. In doing all this, I found out what set this fire company apart from others, which is exactly what I needed in order to provide branding to the client, branding that made them unique.

After the branding and the copy for this client’s new standalone recruitment website were approved, I helped design a large postcard for them. The idea was to advertise community events that could occur this coming fall at each of the client’s three stations, but the events were not fully planned out because of COVID-19. This required the use of ambiguous wording due to the uncertainty of future circumstances.

It was a little awkward to write for an advertisement-type project since I’m accustomed to complete sentences; I had never channeled such a short, choppy and snappy writing voice before this assignment. Even though I struggled a little bit with the physical constraint of the postcard format, the tools I used and lessons I took with me from the branding experience were a big help—The time I spent demonstrating our client’s uniqueness in their branding improved my ability to convey the desired message to their community when I had less space to work with.

Success Under Limitations

Whether it’s the COVID-19 pandemic or some other obstacle, I learned that most clients will have something blocking them from forward progress. It could be the client’s budgetary constraints, conflicts within their community or even challenges from their competitors. I heard several accounts firsthand of what issues our clients are up against from sitting in on meetings over the past two months. No matter how much it seemed to me like our clients were fighting against the tides or trying to swim upstream or that there was no adequate solution in sight, our firm gave its clients answers and plans to keep moving forward.

When a client came to Leza Raffel, founder and president of The Communication Solutions Group, for help with a whirlwind of pandemic-related issues concerning fundraising, member retention, and event planning, she responded with a well of worthwhile ideas.

Leza suggested to the client, a religious organization who had already moved all their traditional ceremonies and practices to Zoom, to promote themselves accordingly. They could market themselves to match the massive changes they’ve made to their organization since COVID-19 began to actually increase member engagement. By using tools of the trade: thorough research, captivating messaging and branding designed specifically to fit our client’s community in the moment, our client adapted to a changing environment. I learned that when we do this kind of flexible and thoughtful communication work for them, our clients are able to face new situations regardless of whatever limitations they’re working under.

The Communication Solutions Group has truly impressed me with the work we’ve done with school districts thrown into chaos by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a meeting with another client, a school district scrambling to conceive their fall re-opening plan while also dealing with losing students to cyber-charter alternatives, our firm really came in clutch. We created surveys to gauge the concerns of the school district’s entire community regarding their fall reopening. With the marketing research, the survey data that represented the opinions of faculty, students and their parents, our client gained knowledge, awareness of how each involved group felt. To do the best work in this field, I think it’s obviously important to know your client’s community, but it is also very important that the client knows the community too. To achieve an understanding, we cleanly presented the marketing research data so that our client easily comprehended their community’s opinions. With that, it all comes together, but what happens when the client doesn’t like our ideas or what we’ve written for them?

How to Satisfy an Undecided Client

Out of all I’ve done here, I devoted the most time to a certain fire company, and that’s partly because I was involved in all stages of our work with this client—from early idea development to writing their website—and partly because they did not make life easy for me in the slightest. My attempt to capture their identity and personality drove me to learn all about them—who they are, which kind of volunteer opportunities they have, and what community they serve. In this case, my initial branding ideas for their recruitment campaign and how I generally portrayed this client may have been based on the extensive research I did, how they characterized themselves in the survey responses and in our socially distanced visioning session, but it was not what the client wanted.

I noted many distinct qualities of this client, but their seriousness stood out to me the most. The client seemed like they were an aggressive, intense, and busy fire company that responded to special calls that other companies aren’t equipped or trained to handle. However, the client’s volunteers disliked the slightly hardcore angle we initially took in their branding. So, we had to return to the drawing board to identify other characteristics to emphasize.

Yes, branding should capture the essence or personality of the client and convey a clear message to their audience, but as their marketing firm, I learned we must be flexible problem-solvers. We need to work with the client to find some common ground and figure out how to adapt the branding (plus corresponding website) so that it makes sense to all involved parties. Ideally, branding must fit the client’s vision and effectively communicate the intended message to their audience.

This client required me to stretch my brain more than any others had, but I think it was worth the extra effort—I followed the branding angle they wanted and made it work! I’m proud of all my contributions to the firm, but this one in particular stands out to me because I was able to optimize their desired branding rather than what I thought would be best. It wasn’t easy to satisfy the unsatisfied client, but it would have been nearly impossible without the experience, advice, and skills I’ve picked up this summer in this office.

Putting it all Together

My first day was nerve-racking: I never had an internship or job like this before, I was worried about coming into the office to work due to COVID-19, and I didn’t know what to expect. My writing for college has been mainly prose, poetry, or analytical essays in philosophy, political science and history, so in my first couple days at The Communication Solutions Group, I felt as if my experience and training as a writer all had to be tossed out the window. I was encouraged to break all the rules, to not be afraid of breaking the rules or sounding corny. I had to pick up on the norms and standards of this new type of writing quickly, I felt like I entered a foreign world. Fortunately, everyone in the office was super sweet, helpful and serious about wearing masks and social distancing. This felt like a mentorship, like everyone in the office was my mentor in one way or another.

Before arriving here, I knew so little about what The Communication Solutions Group actually did. Now, I feel like I’ve obtained expert knowledge in the fields of communications, public relations and marketing! I’m thankful that my writing in college has helped me foster my creativity in order to put it to good use for any type of work, and I’m glad that got to do so in a professional setting with legitimate assignments for real organizations and businesses. I love how I’ve broadened my skill-set, enhanced my writing and learned so much all at once! Thanks to everyone at The Communications Solutions Group for everything they’ve done to help me, and to Leza for this opportunity to write. I’m happy to be writing!

Leo Nye is from Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania and loves to solve Rubik’s Cubes, read poetry, and has enjoyed doing research in social psychology under DR. Bowen in the SPARC lab (https://sites.krieger.jhu.edu/sparc-lab/people/). He is a double major in Writing Seminars and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland in his senior year this fall.