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I’m a communications student who is about to graduate this spring. I want to go into PR, and am wondering: what are the pros and cons of working in-house vs. for an agency?
Dear Publicly Pondering,
Five ProfNet PR experts share their career experience:
“Agency life is a training ground for recent PR grads,” says Josette Robinson, vice president of CJP Communications. “Because there is more exposure to a variety of clients, subject matters and situations, the ability to spot the right opportunities and provide client counsel is developed a lot quicker.”
“Nothing compares to agencies for training PR newbies and developing PR talent,” agrees Michele Spiewak, account director at Rhino Public Relations. “There are many opportunities for learning and professional development on the agency side, as you are surrounded by people who bring varied PR and marketing expertise and experience to one place.”
For example, junior-level staffers at CJP are not only encouraged to build relationships with media, but to also develop other skills by taking the first stab at drafting a plan or even flexing their entrepreneurial muscles through new business, says Robinson.
“The advantage to agency work is variety,” concurs Dan Collins, senior director of media relations at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. At his first PR job, Collins had close to 15 clients, ranging from a hardwood-floors company, to an independent TV station, to a guy who sold greenhouses. “Plus, I also did a lot of work on proposals to projected new clients,” he says.
“You’re being exposed to all of these different fields and industries, learning what makes them tick, the challenges each faces and how to promote them effectively,” he continues.
“Agencies provide a diverse workload with changing activities: media relations, bylined articles, press releases, speaking opportunities and award submissions,” says Spiewak.
“One client in the IT industry might require marketing communication support, another in healthcare might need crisis communication and a nonprofit client might need pro-bono help with fundraising or media relations,” says Zeny Sarabia-Panol, professor at the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University.
This ability to learn and develop skills also makes advancement opportunities more likely, she adds.
As a result of agencies’ widespread duties, they also tend to have access to more PR tools like ProfNet, for example, says Rodger Roser, president of the brand and PR firm Eisen Management Group. Rarely are those functions contained entirely in-house. Depending on the tool, the expense might simply be too high for most small to mid-sized organizations. Additionally, in-house PR teams might not necessarily “need” those tools all the time.
Agencies tend to have larger teams of people with more diverse backgrounds, so the potential for fresh ideas and creativity is higher too, notes Roeser.
Agency life can be a recipe for burnout, says Collins. Working with multiple clients does indeed provide a range of experiences, but at the same time, each client wants everything for free, 100 percent of your attention and (while you’re at it) the cover of Time Magazine.
“Client A doesn’t care if you’re on deadline for Client B,” Collins continues. And that’s how you end up with a dozen No. 1 priorities.
Time-wise, agency work can be demanding, says Sarabia-Panol. Agency people tend to have extended workdays or even night functions depending on the client accounts. And with the variety of clients comes the constant documentation of work done for them too.
Reporters and media pros also have a tendency to think of agency PR people as suspicious, says Collins. “They perceive you to be a ‘hired gun,’ not as someone who ‘really works’ for the organization they are writing about.”
When you’re in-house, naturally you’re going to be more aware of what’s happening in an organization, rather than an agency worker who could be hundreds of miles away from the client, explains Collins.
In-house gigs generally have good salaries and benefits, particularly in large corporations, says Sarabia-Panol.
Working in-house also provides the opportunity to work with a group of professionals who specialize in a particular PR or strategic communications area, and possibly have extensive resources to pursue projects, she continues.
Furthermore, working for a particular industry means that the PR professional will also deal with a particular set of journalists, says Sarabia-Panol. If a PR pro is in the financial industry, then they will deal with financial and business reporters, as well as specialized media outlets.
“Depending on the company size, there may be bureaucratic procedures that tend to result in a long, laborious approval process for PR projects,” says Sarabia-Panol.
Internal politics can also affect the success or value of PR, as well as media relationships, says Rodger Roeser. Ideally, PR controls the market, and not the other way around. But control comes from having the ability to lead and manage, and it’s virtually impossible to do that if there is fear of honesty or candor internally. “Marketing and growth is not for ‘yes’ men,” he says.
Internal politics can of course exist within an agency too, but agency professionals can speak candidly with clients without a lot of strings attached. This may not be the case for in-house professionals when talking to superiors from within their own organization, says Roeser.
Also, particularly in small corporations, there is not much opportunity for advancement, says Sarabia-Panol. “The PR practitioner might get stuck in routine activities with very minimal changes over time.”
If you like structure, predictability and specialization, working in-house is a good option. On the other hand, if variety, flexibility and developing an extensive skill set seems more valuable, then agency work is the way to go, summarizes Sarabia-Panol.
“It really depends on the individual,” says Sarabia-Panol. “Some of my students know they want to be in the music and entertainment industry, or healthcare, for example. Others are doing agency work. But both groups of students love what they do.”
Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.