Going In-House: Shifting from the agency world

The public relations world is split into two distinct categories — those who work at agencies and those who work “in-house” at organizations. I juggled clients and prepped for pitch meetings as well as managed PR vendors for specific campaigns and those on retainer. I spent years learning clients’ stories and later captured news on-site with my trusty camera and note pad.

Looking back at when I made the shift away from the agency side in 2006 I wish someone had explained how things would stay the same yet change so dramatically. In the hopes that I may be able to provide some advice to those making a similar leap I took this opportunity to lay out what I found once I went in-house.

Experiencing stories
SWOT analysis, competitive research, company tours, and so forth. None of these things can take the place of living and breathing an organization every day. When working at an agency I juggled an average of 6 clients, all with different stories and needs. I logged my time, adhered to weekly call sheets, and strove to meet agreed upon deliverables. When I made the switch to in-house communications my perception of PR changed.

When you’re on-site you realize that your clients are the departments that need your help sharing their stories. The workload is the same, just different; the bonus being that you can poke around. There are still buffers that impede you from learning everything about a company and you’ll find ways around that, however for the most part you’re there to chronicle daily life.

Real time
By experiencing stories in real time you can react faster to the 24-hour news cycle. I can hear someone behind a desk at an agency reading this saying, “Hold your horses mister! When news breaks with a client, my phone rings and I am on it.”

While that is true, the agency PR staffer is receiving a filtered story from their client contact. I know this because I used to be on both sides of that call. The story that is told to a PR vendor is on its third, fourth, fifth iteration. Decisions have been made either by the contact or an internal team about what to share and how to proceed: dictate terms, ask for consultation, or frequently both in reverse order.

The on-site communications leader experiences news in real time. You uncover the news as it happens and choose those items you want to pursue from the unfiltered source. It’s a huge distinction between the trough of stories that you will be allowed to experience when you are in-house and those you are permitted to see on the agency side. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule and some agencies actually place a staff member in-house several days a week to better experience their client.

Response time
As the in-house communications leader you’re the barometer of response time. I’ve waited for clients to call me back with updates as I craft a press release, media alert, or whatever people want to call it these days. It stalls a conversation and kills momentum. In-house you can become known for pushing, in a good way, and carrying a story through to completion.

Sometimes you’ll be greeted with a sigh by co-workers and other times a smile. You’ll interview your colleagues every day, search for and learn about kernels of stories, vet them, and decide which should blossom into news. The more you perform this duty the faster you’ll be able to gauge the success of your news.

Welcome to your new role as being the decision maker. As part of an in-house team you will have multiple team members, you may even have a VP to report to, however you were hired to bring your expertise and consultation in-house and you better use it.

Some days you’ll see a story, take photos and video, write a release, and send it out, all without running it up the usual chain of command. Your process is different and more likely consists of department heads that verify information rather than sign offs from your boss. Now you can stand in doorways, hold up a red pen, and ask for corrections before the story wilts on the vine. This may have been unique to my experiences however if you can balance how you ask your colleagues for assistance with demonstrating how you are helping, this can become a smooth process.

All of this ties together nicely when a crisis strikes. While agencies can be prepared for layoffs, facility closures, or changes in leadership, the in-house communications leader is uniquely positioned when disaster strikes. If a crisis strikes quickly it is extremely beneficial to be on-site. I have had the unfortunate pleasure of handling arson, thefts, and unannounced picketing while in-house and I believe that the internal and external communications benefited greatly from time-saved and institutional knowledge.

When it comes to long-lead crisis, such as downsizing, the external communications may be handled equally well by agencies or an on-site team however the real difference can be seen when the dust has settled. At this point it is the in-house communications leader that walks the halls, takes the pulse of the organization, shapes and reshapes messaging, keeps departments informed, and calms many of the nerves once the ground has finished shifting underneath employees.

Your thoughts?
I’m sure there is more to say on this topic, which is why I started this discussion. I would love to hear from anyone in PR that is passionate about working in-house or on the agency side. What makes it ideal for you? Write a post about your experiences and let me know or drop me an email at brianadamspr@gmail.com.


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