Public Relations: What are the differences between working in-house and at an agency?

If you’re currently not on the Q&A website, Quora, I recommend you create an account and start participating, now! Ever since I joined, the only other website I’ve spent more time on is reddit – it’s a great place to learn about new things and connect with interesting people. A while back I posted up the question – “What are the differences between working in-house and at an agency?” – because I was interested in learning about how the two differed.  

Ian Edwards, a communications consultant with more than 20 years experience, was kind enough to provide a very thorough answer. The below post was originally published on Quora: http://www.quora.com/Public-Relations/Public-Relations-What-are-the-differences-between-working-in-house-and-at-an-agency 

There are many differences between being in PR “client side” (or with an organization) and “agency side”. In no particular order:

Scope of Responsibilities:

  • Agency: While it’s possible that you would be assigned to only one client, if that client was a whopper, more likely you would be responsible for tending to many clients. Agency workers have to juggle different clients, with different priorities, schedules, strategies, needs, urgency, personalities…. at the same time.
  • Corporate: PR teams client-side have, usually, one focus — their employers. It means a very different kind of work flow. For a lot of PR people, they like the more refined focus compared to hectic agencies.

Hierarchy:

  • Agency: You might have many “bosses.”  If you’re junior in a PR department, say corporate reputation, you may have supervisors, a department chief, project leads, CEO, CFO and client-side reps that all need to be happy. Your client might also need you to involve other departments within the agency (graphics, consumer, media relations), which may create a whole other level of people management.
  • Corporate: Again, the chain of command is more refined. VPs communication have to appeal to their solid and dotted line superiors.

New business development/Budgets:

  • Agency: At agencies, new business development (finding and signing new paying clients) is a never-ending task and one that may pull your focus from actual customers, depending on the drive for growth and new revenue. Your career at an agency, and subsequent promotions and compensation, may be very tied to your ability to sign new clients.
  • Corporate: While new-age corporate PR needs to look at ways to ask for, create and secure greater budgets from their CFOs to pay for anticipated PR activities, some are looking at ways that they can create revenue streams. This is and will be novel, since PR departments have traditionally fallen into the “expense” categories. More likely, you will field solicitations from agency folks courting your company.

Compensation/Benefits:

  • Agency: If you’re a junior at an agency, you might not make much at all.  There is greater upside as you rise in the ranks, but (generally!) comp is lower at agencies. A smaller agency might not offer benefits like health insurance and might be stingy with time off.
  • Corporate: Client-side PR people tend to fall into more traditional job categories and can (many times!) make more money. Again, benefits tend to be richer for PR people client side.

Work environments:

  • Agency: This can swing wildly from buttoned down traditional office space and cultures to hipster, open-concept, creative environments. A lot depends on the type of clients the agency is courting and the expectations of those clients.
  • Corporate: This tends to be more traditional and conservative, again, depending on the organization.

Billable hours/Proving effectiveness

  • Agency: Agency people sell time and are expected to tally up “billable hours” of appropriate work toward key clients. Depending on the agency, you might be expected to bill 8 hours a day and still put in “non-billable” hours toward new business and other activities that don’t collect revenue. If you don’t meet your billable quota, that likely means you will need to explain that to your superiors who have to manage profit-and-loss and productivity reports.
  • Corporate: While agency and corporate PR people will both likely have to face job evaluations, the criteria for success might be quite different. Billable hours are not usually a focus client side. Rather, corporate PR people have to showcase their effectiveness to the higher-ups. Office politics, “managing up” and proving value are common issues for  both kinds of PR people but perhaps more considered focuses of client-side professionals.

Teams:

  • Agency: An account might have assistants, account exectives, account supervisiors, senior account supervisors, VPs, SVPs, EVPs, etc. working on fulfilling strategy and maintaining the client relationship.  Smaller budget clients will have far fewer people billing time.
  • Corporate: Because of the higher cost of employing people (vs. hiring consultants), a PR department might be much smaller than the team agency side. Often there is only one person doing PR client side and, often, that person’s job is to manage the relationship with the outside agency. In my experience, some PR people client side have little experience with actual PR activities, but are strong in managing the agency relationship to meet the corporate goals.

Type of work:

  • Agency: Regardless of where you work (agency or corporate), the activities or tasks needed to fulfill a PR assignment are pretty common — strategy, writing, stakeholder development, releases, presentation training, media outreach, etc. Agency side, the work can be very specific to “scopes of work” and expected deliverables that fulfill a PR-supplier contract that can release payment.
  • Corporate: Again, the ways to do PR are pretty much the same wherever you go, but corporate side, they may be less focussed on the ways to prove deliverables and more focussed on what works to meet corporate communication goals. While it seems deliverables and goals should be inter-connected (and likely are), sometimes the priorities of an agency worker to ensure billable hours and revenue are at odds with what is actually working. This last part is what is a major headache for the client-agency relationship — doing the work that actually works.

Interview with Lars Voedisch, Principal Consultant at PRecious Communications

The latest addition to my Interview Series is Lars Voedisch, currently the Principal Consultant at PRecious Communications. Lars has over 15 years experience working in the communications industry, working extensively in both in-house and agency. He talks about the evolution of the PR industry, the difference between agency and in-house and provides some great insight for students looking to develop a long and fulfilling career.

1. Looking back on over 15 years of working in communications and public relations, at what moment did you realise this was the career you wanted?

Having worked for a radio station in the past and with a Masters in Economics, corporate communications seemed to be a natural fit of bringing media and business perspectives together.

Since that start it’s the people, the exciting brands I’m working with and the constant change that keeps me on my toes and constantly wanting to learn more. Imagine: Until social media came to play, PR hardly changed for decades. So being part of and to a certain extent even defining the ‘New PR’ is awesome!

2. With your experience in public relations, marketing and journalism, how do you think these 3 industries overlap in regards to common skills, platforms and tools?

Traditionally these three trades are looking after owned (journalism), earned (PR) and paid (marketing) media –and that’s what defined their respective platforms, but in today’s world. While these three areas have their own distinct heritage, objective and merits, you can see that this clear differentiation fades away especially with regards to platforms or tools used.

Basically, these three areas are about reaching out to defined audiences through communication matters with the attempt to influence them; this could mean to educate, entertain, entice or simply inform. So key skills across these disciplines are empathetic communication skills through different means. Especially for PR, this change requires that on top of writing, experts have to get versed in visual story telling through pictures and video.

3. You’ve worked in-house with DHL for many years as well on the agency side with Fleishman-Hillard or Hill+Knowlton Strategies. How did these roles differ in terms of agency vs. in-house?

The main difference is that in-house communications departments are cost centres and constantly have to justify the scope of their existence to the business funding their activities. Agencies are profit centres – so there’s a natural conflict of defining what’s best for the client versus the agencies profitability ambitions

4. Do you prefer one over the other?

Not really as they are actually more alike than most people think: How can your (PR) efforts contribute to business growth. In both roles you have to deal with multiple clients (internal stakeholders, e.g. different business units or geographies – vs. your external clients).

Obviously, when you work  in-house you develop deeper domain and company insights vs. rather broad industry knowledge on the consulting side. So if you are thinking about moving from agency to in-house, better be very sure it’s the right industry and company! On the other hand – not everybody can handle the constant commercial pressure on the agency side.

5. At the moment, with the PR industry evolving alongside communication platforms and the online world, how do you manage to stay up-to-date with technology and industry trends?

The basics of PR don’t really change: While the latest hypes, platforms or channels do change, it is still about how to convey a message to selected, targeted audiences.

Some of the key sources I look at are Mashable, Wired, HBR, Social Media Today, PR Daily and a couple of PR and business blogs and of course quite a few people on Twitter and selected groups on LinkedIn.

6. What skills do you think will become increasingly more important for PR professionals?

Technical capabilities to leverage the new possibilities are certainly more and more needed. But what’s even more crucial is a sound understanding of the economy, politics and how businesses actually function in a changing environment. Especially as a strategic consultant (this actually includes in-house communicators!) you have to first and foremost understand how you can contribute to your company’s or clients’ business objectives – and how to measure your success beyond counting clips or ‘likes’. Therefore analysis and statistics skills are becoming more important.

However, never underestimate the basics of writing and connecting to people. These are the two main skills that will prevail.

7. And lastly, what advice would you give to a PR student looking to develop a long and successful career in the industry?

Read a lot and on diverse topics. Constantly challenge yourself to diversify and learn new things and expand your network. Stay up-to-date on what news and topics are on people’s minds – both as your potential clients or employers as well as the audiences you are targeting.

Last but not least, the most important thing for me is to enjoy what you are doing: look for and actively build an environment where you have fun, spend time with inspiring people and brands you are excited about. At the end of the day, PR is also a creative trade – and for creativity to flourish, you need passion and energy to thrive.

***To get in touch with Lars, say hello on Twitter @larsv***

Interview with Jessica Ben-Ari, Account Manager at Bite Communications

For the latest addition to the Interview Series, we have Jessica Ben-Ari, an Account Manager from Bite Communications, joining us to talk about her career path, making the transition from journalism to PR, what it’s like working for an agency and the top 3 most important traits all PR pros should have.

Q1. As someone who’s originally from New York, how do you think the PR industry there differs from the one in Sydney? I’d imagine things move a lot quicker?

PR is fast paced no matter what corner of the globe you’re on.  I’d say the major difference is the fact that the US tends to be pretty US-centric – when I was working in New York, I only worked with brands and teams based in the US.  Being in Australia is exciting because of the diverse cultural exposure the proximity to Asia affords us.  I have clients based in Singapore and New Zealand, for example. The opportunity has certainly improved my time zone juggling skills!

Q2. What was your career path like?

I’ve been on the agency side my entire full time career.  It suits me – I love the fast pace, the client diversity and the unpredictability of what’s coming up next.  Though I mainly work with a tech clientele at Bite Communications, my background is rooted in the consumer sector.  I’ve worked with clients from a range of industries including fashion, beauty, food, spirits, travel, personal finance, pet food, housewares, health and more. Told you I thrive on diversity!

Q2. You studied journalism back when you were in college but made the transition to public relations. Any particular reason for that?

Writing is a must-have core skill for every PR professional, and it’s always been one of my favourite parts of the job, which is one of the reasons I wanted to study journalism in college. Journalism demands certain disciplines that serve you well in PR, too – timeliness, the ability to craft a story, attention to detail are chief among them.

I actually never intended to go into PR. I graduated at 21 with a CV full of journalism internships, and while I was primed for an editorial career, it was more important to me at that young age to graduate school and find an office I liked to be in everyday.  When you’re used to being a student, the biggest job within your first job is making the transition to a 9-5 mentality, and my priority was finding a company that I liked spending so much time with, and a team which would help me transition from student to professional.  For me, that first full time job happened to be with a boutique PR agency, and the rest is history!

Q3.What sort of journalistic skills do you think would greatly benefit PR professionals?

As I said, writing is key.  These days, it’s common for the first contact with a client, international colleague or journalist to be through email.  Nothing makes me cringe like a poorly written email!  Aside from writing ability, tact and diplomacy are key.  Whether having a tough conversation with a client or negotiating costs with a vendor, you’ve got to know how to walk the fine line between assertive and stubborn or rude.  Finally, sense of humour.  PR is a fun profession, so let’s not forget it, even during the high stress times.  I once had a boss who had to remind me, “it’s PR, not ER.” Even when things get super stressful, I try to remember that!

Q4. Craig Pearce, an Australian communications professional, wrote two great blog posts comparing agency roles versus in-house roles. As someone whose worked in PR agencies their whole career, what would you describe as the pros and cons of agency life?

For me, the opportunity to work with a variety of brands on any given day makes coming to work exciting.  There’s not much of a chance of getting bored at a busy PR agency, which is a major pro for me.

Agency life makes you a well rounded professional and keeps you on your toes.  I’ve also made many personal friendships dealing with the media so frequently, so I appreciate the social aspect of agency life.  And another thing – agencies tend to be hot beds of expertise.  On any given day, I’ve got exposure to digital experts, video gurus, extraordinary event planners and creative geniuses, all sitting within a few meters of my desk.  How lucky am I?

Cons…hmm.  Finding and maintaining balance in your day can certainly be a challenge.  You might be out all day with one client only to find that another has a sudden deadline and needs your input.  One day we’ll find a way to clone PR people, I’m sure of it!

Q5. What would you say are the top 3 most important traits of a great PR pro?

  1. Attentiveness to news and events: always be on the lookout for opportunities to tell your clients’ stories.
  2. Think and act quickly: whether it’s a journalist on a deadline or a client request, PR people need to be able to grab the ball and run with it to maximise results.
  3. Master the basics: it might seem obvious, but deserves to be said again and again. Written and verbal skills are still the cornerstones of success in PR, whether you’re writing a proposal or a 140 character Tweet.

Q6. And lastly, any advice for the PR students out there looking for their first internship / job?

You’ve got a long career ahead, so follow your heart and focus on finding a company that you love, where you feel you’ll be able to develop as a professional.  You may think you know exactly what you want to do (I certainly thought I had it all figured out at 21!) but give yourself the permission to dabble in all sorts of industries.  Ah, and another thing – don’t Tweet or Facebook anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read – chances are you wouldn’t want your first boss to read it, either!

***To contact Jessica, get in touch via Jessica.ben-ari@bitecommunications.com***