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Five years at Clearbox: everything I’ve learned

Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings Alex's five year learnings

Alex Symington, our fountain of knowledge in many aspects of PR, has recently celebrated her five year anniversary with Clearbox. Alex has been reflecting on some of what she's learned in that time. Over to you, Alex.

It’s quite a daunting task detailing what I’ve learned over the past five years at Clearbox, especially when you’ve a weird memory that can remember the name of someone in a photoshoot from 2019 but can’t remember what happened two months prior.

However, one thing I do remember very clearly is my interview for Clearbox (which incidentally wasn’t successful, more on that later). It was in Coffee Yard, which has (had) the best panini and pasta I’ve ever had - I will never get over them removing these items from the menu during COVID. I was very nervous. Following a move home from London, I’d not had much luck establishing my career in the Northern Ireland PR scene and was starting to think I’d made a mistake moving home. Disheartened, displaced and with very low self-esteem, I had pinned all my hopes of making my move home work on Clearbox.

During my interview, the team asked me “what do you want to achieve in your career?”. They were maybe hoping for an answer such as “I want to win lots of awards for really cool and creative campaigns.” Instead, I answered that I want to work somewhere for a long time and create work I am very proud to stand over. After five years, I’ve made that wish come true. I’ve also learned a hell of a lot along the way, about PR, about business and about myself. So here it goes, my five year recap.

1. Don’t lose hope.

As I mentioned, I wasn’t initially successful during my interview process at Clearbox. And at the time I was devastated. I had put too much importance on one avenue and if that didn’t work out - I had failed. But this isn’t true, just because your path to something isn’t how you pictured it, doesn’t mean it won’t happen or you’re not on the right path. You have to keep the faith and if you feel passionate about something, or your gut is telling you something is right for you - you have to keep trying. So, after my first knock back I tried again and this time, the time was right. This sentiment is the same for campaigns and ideas, maybe the sell-in didn’t get the pick-up you thought it would, fine, take a look to see if there’s a way to re-cut the story or is there a contact you’ve not tried.

2. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned at Clearbox is how to ensure every detail is correct. As my granny says, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right and she couldn’t be more on the money. One of the things that sets Clearbox apart from other agencies is the ability to take the extra five minutes to make sure everything is perfect – data is right, ideas are followed through, things don’t contradict each other.

3. You have to evolve.

Working in a creative industry means always keeping it fresh, which is really hard. But the minute you start resting on your laurels, it’s over. One way we try and combat this at Clearbox is by trying everything. We hold regular brainstorms even if they aren’t for a new business pitch, we research other industries adjacent to our own, we look at other agencies and discuss their campaigns.

4. If they don’t know you personally, don’t take it personally.

This is something I learned very early on in my career when I was working in London in broadcast PR. As a junior, a lot of your initial work is “selling-in”, which basically means calling journalists and producers and asking (as nicely as possible) if they’ll print, publish, run, broadcast or carrier pigeon your story. Now, there are many ways to do this, some good and some bad. Some journalists would say there’s no good way of doing it. Regardless, it’s a necessity of the job. Naturally, when you’re essentially cold calling, you never know the head space the person on the other end of the phone is in. This is the same when you’re speaking to suppliers (I once called a venue where we were having an event to confirm some details and the owner barked down the phone to say it wasn’t a good time – they called me back after 12 mins to apologise and let me know they had since had a sandwich and all was well with the world again), talking to third parties, other agencies, managing up, managing down, pitching, promoting, and doing just about absolutely anything that involves communicating with other humans. And this can result in some heated words being exchanged. To combat this (as I do with many aspects of my life) I use words of wisdom pasted down from my grandparents, so, as my gran always said, “if they don’t know you personally, don’t take it personally.” Don’t let someone’s bad mood get your back up, brush it off and remind yourself, it’s probably not about you. Keep polite in everything you do (you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar – you can have that one for free), always find a better way to work with people if it’s not initially working, and always stay positive.

5. Finally, remember, it’s PR not ER.

This is ultimately the thing you need to remember most when you’re working in PR and communications. Things can seem extremely important but at the end of the day, you will very rarely will have people’s lives in your hands. When I first started Clearbox, I was the preverbal duck flapping about, always stressed, always worried about projects and while it’s important to care, this way of working isn’t conducive to a smooth working environment. Stressing and worrying often leads to avoidable mistakes. Over my five years I’ve learned to always take a step back, take a breath and assess the situation before diving into action. Granted, when a new project comes in, I can still get excited and start bouncing from idea to idea and some people on our team will have to remind me to calm and sort a plan. But those reminders are getting fewer and farther between one another. Plus, you’re never the finished article. Hopefully I’ll be writing in my ten year round up about how I’ve kiboshed that trait, but until then I am proud to look back and see how far I’ve come while looking forward to all that’s ahead for me to learn.

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