The online trade publication Digiday runs an anonymous confessional series for marketers. Typically, it involves a representative from an advertising agency ranting about the wrongdoings of the industry.
Recently, however, the column took aim at public relations agencies — Confessions of a PR person. I read the piece with interest and thought some of it was true, some of it was half true, and some of it misguided.
Of course, that’s the trouble with anonymity: you’re not accountable for your words and a young account director is liable to say things to get a reporter to like him or her. It’s a good way to confuse both those trying to diligently procure PR services and those aspiring to provide them.
I grew up in a PR agency and have worked for firms small, medium and large. Later, I went in-house – first at a startup, then the mid-market and finally at a global company. I spent a good part of 10 years working with different agencies, in some cases hiring them, and in some cases resigning their services.
Today, I’ve parlayed what learned from living in-house for a decade into my own boutique B2B tech firm (see services). This year will mark the third anniversary for the business (though the blog will celebrate 10 years and some 700+ posts).
All said I have some perspective to offer on this column. Below, I’ve quoted directly from the answers provided in the column and then provide my own assessment.
1) “Brands are not only in-housing their creative and media buying, but also PR, and sometimes they’re not afraid to recruit from their own firms.”
Perspective: This how reporter Ilyse Liffreing sets up the story – it’s her reporting – not part of the anonymous confession.
The trend to take more work in-house is quite true for creative and media buying. There several studies on it like this one from Forrester that the Wall Street Journal reported. There’s also a lot of anecdotes such as Proctor & Gamble, Verizon and Sprint, Netflix, and, L’Oreal, among others.
However, I haven’t seen a single data point about PR moving in-house. I did put that question to a survey of corporate communicators that recently went to market – so I may have data one way or the other in a month or so.
2) “Companies have been burned by PR firms a lot. You get a lot of smoke and mirrors and bullshit from agencies. Clients are promised the world a lot of the time. I’ve worked at very large PR firms, and they will bring in the big guns to close the business, and then that’s passed off to the younger people. Executives earn their trust and then ride off into the sunset and let account executives or supervisors run their accounts, even with big clients.”
Perspective: Most agencies don’t have a professional sales force, so the leadership sells the deal and then pushes the work down the pay scale for action. This is called leverage. You see it in many professional services businesses including law firms, accounting firms and PR agencies.
A key factor for those procuring services is to a) ask who will do the work on your account and b) spend some perusing that person’s social media posts and online writing. You’ll get a sense very quickly for who is working on your account.
The downside to this that big agencies are training their account executives with client work. When they finally get good at it and know your business, they move on – getting promoted or switching employers.
This is an advantage to working with a boutique agency – on a small team clients always have access to the leadership. And they’re generally committed to the cause.
3) “I’ve been in PR for 10 years now, and it’s growing tremendously. Before, companies had a team of one or two handling everything and anything, with PR sprinkled in. Now, there are people that own arsenals. Someone might be strictly media relations in-house or strictly partnerships and collaborations or influencer relations.”
Perspective: I’ve been in the business for about 20 years now and for as long as I can remember – there was always an in-house team. Generally, in-house staff – if their good – get brought into everything. Too much even. It’s not that PR gets sprinkled in, it’s that it gets spread thin.
So, you need a mix of internal and external PR help. I just can’t imagine the luxury of a P&L that affords a dedicated FTE to just media relations. If that’s you, I’d love to hear from you.
>>> See this related post: 6 Ways to Get More from your PR Agency
4) “I would say it was about a month into me working at the PR firm when this client began to poach me for their in-house team for a director of communications role.”
Perspective: This sounds to me like the client burned the agency. And yes, it happens. See how that works?
- Agencies do the bait and switch in selling;
- Agencies train junior staff on client work (leverage); and
- Client poaches the best agency staff.
Yes, there are non-competes and all sorts of legal things that can happen. But if it happens, then an agency is in the unenviable position of suing a client. It’s not good PR.
I think this is a good argument for senior agency leaders to be more engaged in client accounts. There’s research to show that in law firms, clients that have relationships with multiple partners are less likely to be a flight risk. Seems to me PR agencies would find something similar and a strong relationship would be tonic for poaching.
Taking care of your employees helps too. And remember, the most underutilized tool in a manager’s toolkit is a compliment.
5) “I heard that the politics at this company were pretty savage, that it was a little bit of a shark tank there, and it seemed like there was this dartboard mentality: ‘Let’s throw something at it and see if it sticks’ kind of thing. That freaked me out. I ultimately decided that it wasn’t the best decision for me.”
Perspective: If you are going to make the leap in-house, the internal politics are a good consideration. Glassdoor is a good resource to check out. Keep in mind, businesses big and small can churn through people. In small companies it’s a management philosophy, in big companies, it’s spreadsheet leadership and restructuring.
6) “Everything I’ve heard is that it’s a lot easier rather than spreading yourself thin across five or more clients. At one point at an agency I worked at, I had 12 clients at one time. It was madness 24/7, trying to keep the wheels on the car. You also normally make a bit more when you go in-house over an agency role.”
Perspective: Working at an agency is a mile wide and an inch deep. The advantage is you bring best practices and insights from one industry to another. In-house work is just the opposite: it’s an inch wide and a mile deep.
Each side has benefits and drawbacks. In-house definitely lets you focus, but you also start drinking the corporate Kool-Aid and can lose perspective. I was always worried the breadth of my skills were slipping, which is what has compelled me to read, write and do on this blog for 10 years now. Whether you are in-house or at an agency, whether you are new, or have 20 years experience, this profession requires you to be a student forever.
But if you think it’s cozy, or you want an in-house job because you think it’s going to be cozy, keep your resume updated. If you are comfortable, you’re not growing and if you’ are not growing, you become obsolete and expendable.
7) “The offer they gave me was around $175,000 plus bonus. I was making $150,000 at the agency I was at when the offer came in.”
Perspective: That sounds generous for the director level in an agency. The median salary for a PR professional in early 2018 was $95,000, according to an annual salary survey by PR Week. Across segments, the median for 2018 came in like this: corporate: $132,000; agency $88,000; non-profit: $78,300. I’d guess the confessor comes from a high-rent district like New York or San Francisco.
The larger point here is this man or women was willing to jump jobs for $25,000. I’ve seen people jump for less.
* * *
If you’re in the market for a PR firm, I’d suggest beginning with a defined problem. Then go find a partner you want to work with collaboratively to solve a problem.
And be careful about buying base on the advice of an anonymous source in a gossip column citing. If they gossip like this now about their agency, they’ll be gossiping about you too if you hire them.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
8 Corporate Communications Tips for Hiring a PR Firm