Think of a company – any company. Now think if they have a PR pro working there. If that person actually writes releases and speaks to the press, they are in-house public relations.
The in-house pro has a number of advantages. For one, the press trusts them. Why deal with a middleman (from an agency) if the media can get a professional working relationship directly with the company they want to find out about?
I used to do PR for a technology company and it became apparent to me at the time that I could often respond to a media request a lot quicker (compared to our competitors that used agencies and thus had to go through multiple people). I also found that the press trusted me more – a certain ‘Chinese whispers’ can occur if multiple serial contact points are required before a response can be give. Thirdly, I quickly became an industry spokesperson for the area of technology that my employer excelled in. Even when the press wanted an un-branded educational piece on the technology, they would come to me for the facts.
From a company’s perspective, having your own in-house PR professional has advantages. Providing you can find the right hire, you always have someone on call that understands your company and will always do the right thing for your company. If that professional is dedicated to the PR function, then the press will be well taken care of.
From a PR professional’s point of view, working in-house can be rewarding and fun. It allows you to really get deep into a company and their products/services. If there is the right corporate structure or you can create one where the C level suite of players understand the importance of the PR function then you will be allowed to arrange great campaigns and prove a very healthy return on investment (ROI).
Working in-house also has a number of disadvantages that are detrimental to both the company and the practitioner.
Firstly, reach - no one person gets on with all other people. Unless you have a multi-headed team there is no chance that you can get on with all your target press – life just isn’t that way. More problematic is when one PR pro in a company has a ‘problem’ with one press member (or visa-versa), which can result in that company being frozen out of that media.
Secondly, excitement - the PR pro is likely to feel unchallenged and bored with the work quicker in this environment unless the company is releasing new products that are newsworthy on a regular basis, or unless the organisation is constantly in the media and that pro is going to get regular new professional challenges.
Third, dedication – an in-house PR pro often also has other commitments to the organisation. That might be further marketing functions, or something completely unrelated. In either case, PR then gets pushed behind other job tasks in the day. Unless the PR pro has clearly defined goals and objectives with some type of measurement in place, this might not work out.
Fourth, budget commitment – it’s my experience that solo PR pros working in-house just don’t seem to get the budgets they often should do for PR campaigns. Someone who is good at PR is not necessarily good at working the boardroom to get that budget.
Sooner or later, the job becomes too big for one solo PR pro to manage in-house. In my previous experience, this became apparent as the company went through international expansion. At this point one has to ask if that person who is great at implementing PR is also good at being a manager or indeed if the business can sustain a whole new PR head. Often it can’t and so as the PR function expands, the in-house PR pro often metamorphosis into a client side PR pro.
To be successful in the role of an in-house PR manager you have to be able to balance corporate responsibilities and rolling up your sleeves to get PR done. This position is often quite isolated – dealing with many people, but rarely as part of a team.
Client Side PR
Once an in-house PR pro starts working with an agency their job role systematically changes. They have become client side while their PR agency (or PR freelancer) becomes agency side.
Make no mistake; working client side takes a greater skill level. As well as understanding the PR machine in all its glory from strategy to implementation, you now have to manage an agency (or freelancer) to ensure they are doing the best for the money you are paying them.
The more successful you are working client side, the less PR you are actually going to implement. Your media contacts are going to die out as you use them less and less and your life is going to be a never ending excel sheet to meeting loop of proving ROI and trying to obtain budgets.
At the beginning of the client side development is the fun stuff – the creation. Here you get to use your wisdom to find the best-fit agency to work with. I’ve done this multiple times across some 15+ countries, so allow me to share some experience at this point about what is important:
1 – the agency has to have experience in your industry (i.e. past or present clients who do what you do).
2 – the agency needs to be able to prove an ROI (because that’s what your boss is going to ask you for) – so find an agency that understands that (and if the agency says that PR can not be measured you should disregard them instantaneously – or buy this book for them and forward it to them with).
3 – make sure you meet the team that you’ll be working with – not just the sales person or company owner
4 – find out how many accounts your team will be working on apart from yours
5 – I’ve yet to see a case of ‘client conflict’ being detrimental to a client – when two competing companies say that an agency can not work for both – 99% of the time it works out in the client’s interest as shared industry knowledge and closer media relationship can be had. Find a way to work around that.
6 – don’t be cheep – pay for media monitoring and ensure that you can measure the effectiveness of the agency
7 – at the end of the day, none of the above matters unless you feel a personal connection and WANT to work with this agency team
And a couple of things that don’t matter:
1 – it doesn’t matter how good the ‘agency’s’ credentials are unless you can get good credentials on the local team that will be working with you
2 – big brand names in the world of PR do not necessarily translate into better results (they always translate into higher prices) so ensure you undertake due diligence when hiring.
So you can go through a search and selection to find the best agency. Then you get to train them on how best to work with your organisation. All this is great. But then it will go down hill – the agency will have all the fun implementing PR, coming up with great strategy while you sit by and fill in excel sheets.
OK so it might not be that bad, but once the agency is up and running the job function of the client side PR pro becomes one of:
- Measurement – monitoring the agency to ensure results are met
- Corporate lobbying – self promotion of great results to prove your worth and to continue adequate corporate funding
- Agency motivation – ensuring the agency has the tools they need and are working hard on your behalf
- Strategy development – working with in-house customers and the agency to ensure that the PR strategy is developed around forward looking goals
- Chief liaisons – giving access to and getting information from the company employees so your agency can do the job
- Approving – becoming a caretaker so tactical plans only get implemented once it is assured the agency is working to company communication standards
Needles to say, it is clear that the job function of an in-house pro is pretty far removed from the actual role of PR. That said, this position can only be carried out successfully if this position is filled by someone who understands how to implement PR intrinsically.
To be successful as an in-house PR pro you have to love working as part of a corporate machine, budgeting and reporting.
Agency Side PR
Then there is the sharp end of the PR profession. Working agency side means one thing for sure – you’re going to be eating PR day-in-day-out and probably dreaming about it too. Good PR agencies specialise in only PR – there is no escaping the core function – they strip all the other functions from the agency. So to be successful in an agency culture you better love the work of public relations.
There are essentially two sides of communication when working in an agency client side and the media side (with a bunch of work between the two):
CLIENT AGENCY MEDIA
Understand goals & obj. Building and delivering Selling stories into the
Strategy / tactical plans tactical plans including media and working with
Getting raw data /info production of PR tools media partners to produce
Approval coverage according to obj.
Some agencies believe that it is more efficient (and easier to hire talent) that only deliver in one of the areas above. In the past it would not be unusual to find copywriting specialists with an agency or a team of people that all they were tasked with is calling up the press to sell a story that someone else had produced.
Thankfully this compartmentalising of an agency life is fast disappearing. Of the hundreds of agencies I’ve had visibility to, none using this structure have been more successful than their competition that are using the same team of people that are intelligent and professional enough to work through all these area of the agency flow.
Teams that are integrated (work client and media side, plus produce the tools needed) offer a number of advantages:
1 – From the client’s perspective they know that everything communicated in the client/agency meeting can be acted upon without ‘Chinese Whispers’ distorting the facts.
2 – The media get to speak to professionals that know, understand and can actually assist with the client’s business (as opposed to someone who has hundred of press releases and are told to sell it).
3 – Better PR tools can be produced by someone who fully understands all the nuances of the client and the target media. This achieves better PR results and takes less time to be approved by the client.
4 – Greater ownership by individuals in an agency over all the three areas allows for greater job satisfaction, a more varied day (less burn) and a happier working environment.
Agency people have to be people people. They have to get on with a variety of people – client and media side which are often very different personality types. They need to be detailed orientated and able to produce strong media tools. And they need to be adaptive so they can work over multiple clients at any given time.
The conduit to actually getting positive publicity is working well with the media. There are a number of different types of media:
Are idealistic, naive, usually inexperienced, often keen, frequently under pressure, and broke. They quickly become aware of the power of their position and can be obnoxious and rude. Building staff journalist relationships is important as staff journalist get promoted into other positions.
Are specialist professionals, in for the long-haul. Self-employed, they want to build long term relationships and are looking for economic ways of working. Time is money for them and their reputation with the titles they write for is important.
Working on tighter deadlines, will want shorter quotes and opinions. They often want to get the answer in a few lines of email or a two-minute phone conversation. Help these journalists out quickly and they will remember you and put you higher on their calling list.
Longer deadlines, more analytical, more likely to use material in several places. Often a longer time to see this work published, but also a chance to use these types of placements internally for promotion or possibly re-print (with the journalists/publications approval) for other marketing materials.
More likely to know your secrets. The readers are also more literate. They’re going to ask the deeper, probing industry specific questions and most likely to have spoken to your competitors. The great news is that the journalists and readers known and understand your more complex terms and acronyms.
Journalists On Nationals
Likely to know a little about a lot of topics. The readers are more diverse, so the journalists tend to follow the news of the moment. If that crosses over to your company’s specialty, then a great opportunity to work quickly and expand the potential customers who hear about your brand/product/service.
Online / Blog Journalists
There are different types of journalists in this category. From the journalist that is already writing for an established traditional media (one of the groups above) and also has to represent that same title’s online presence (which is increasingly the case), to the person writing occasional comment on their own blog and not gaining commercially from the content. It’s important to assess the importance of the online content, if it reaches your target, if it is credible and the influence power of this placement – to understand how much time should be spent with this type of journalist.
Internet, daily, weekly, and monthly titles all work to different deadlines and have different priorities. If you are dealing with a news journalist that works on a daily newspaper, you better have reached them and given all relevant information to them by 3pm that same day.
If you are working with a journalist that writes on a monthly title you’ll want to check their printing schedule. For example, if the title comes out in the first few days of the month, then the chances are that the title has to go to print on the 22nd of the month (give or take a few days) so that it has time for final design, proof reading, printing and distribution (to readers or newsstands). Which means the last few days of the editorial process (lets say the 19th through the 22nd of the month) are crazy. Better to work with the journalists in the first 10 days of the month.
As we’ll see later in the book, all journalists are essentially looking for the same type of content. They want to hear about stories, copy, opinions, ideas, views, and vision. They really want to know about something that comes from controversy, comment, knowledge, or anecdotes.
By being outspoken and contentious you increase your chances of being recognized by a journalist and your content used. Just remember the journalist is talking to you because you are the expert, with views, opinions and experience – and there can be a great bilateral beneficial relationship if this is carried out in a mutually respectful and professional manner.
Just occasionally, you get to carry out PR for the entrepreneur that started the company. Entrepreneurs make fantastic spokes people because of their drive and enthusiasm, but due to their nature can be difficult to work with because of their time pressures and controlling nature.
CEO – and other C level executives
Whether you are working client or agency side, you sometimes get to work with the top levels of the client organization. This is not normal in day-to-day public relations operations, but with it comes to crisis communications and media training this might become necessary. In my experience there are two types of C level executives that we work with.
The first type knows what they want and normally say it. Disagreeing with this type of executive can be detrimental. It is important for a PR pro to be on their game, remember to look at the whole picture (including business objectives outside of PR) and then negotiate wisely when dealing with the assertive executives.
The second type respects the professionals that work with them and are more likely to listen to and respect the advice given by the PR pro. For these types of executives, it pays to act like a consultant. Get your project together, know the facts and make recommendations that support the business objectives.