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.
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3 thoughts on “Public Relations: What are the differences between working in-house and at an agency?

  1. I was always curious about the differences of working on your own or at an agency in the field of public relations. I think this was very interesting how you compared agencies versus the corporate world. I think I would rather work in the corporate world after reading this blog. I enjoyed this blog a lot, thanks!

  2. This was a very interesting blog! I didn’t know there were a lot of differences between working on your own or at an organization. It was very informative. I really enjoyed this blog!

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