What’s Better, PR Agency Or Client Side Work?

In public relations, there are many career path possibilities, but most fall into either the agency side or the client side. This is the time of year when I get questions from new graduates about which path makes the most sense for an aspiring PR professional. But the question isn’t just for PR beginners. Many who’ve been successful after years in agency PR may nurture a curiosity about client-side work. Like everything else in life, a move from agency PR to corporate or brand communications involves trade-offs. Here’s how people in our circle describe the pros and cons of crossing to the other side.

Agency PR Has Many Advantages

Constant innovation
At an agency, “you have your finger on the pulse” of industry trends, according to Debbie Etchison, head of public affairs and corporate communications at a major pharmaceutical company.  She’s grateful for her agency background, which offered “the ability to be creative and think outside the normal boundaries.” It’s true that when you handle multiple clients and are constantly in the marketplace competing against other agencies, your sense of what’s around the corner is always being sharpened, and you’re up on the latest trends.

A true team mentality
An agency executive is surrounded by people who basically do the same thing they do. They therefore share a deep understanding of the work and an appreciation of what goes into it. On the corporate side, things may be different. A handful of clients I queried who moved from agency to client work mentioned having to adjust to an environment where everyone shares a common goal, but where skills and backgrounds are very different. Depending on the company, the communications team may be relatively small, and corporate peers in marketing, HR, and product development may lack an understanding of PR and corporate communications. There’s also the siloed nature of many organizations. Marijane Funess, who left our agency a year ago to join a nonprofit, says, “I thought it would be easy to brainstorm and get information for story pitches, but, proximity doesn’t always guarantee that I’ll shake loose what I need in a timely fashion!”

Well-rounded skills
The opportunity to work on many clients and brands at an agency is excellent career groundwork for whatever may come next, whether that’s a client-side post or even an entrepreneurial venture. Comments Etchison, “An agency position will promote agility and productivity, and the versatility of the work makes you very well-rounded.” Though many agency professionals eventually specialize in a specific vertical industry, like technology PR, or a service offering like content creation or media training, the wide exposure to different aspects of the PR agency service offering is nearly always cited by those who started out in an agency job.  You’ll also learn to produce under pressure, which in itself sharpens skills and enables a bottom-line mentality that can be useful wherever you choose to take it.

Career mobility
Starting salaries at PR agencies can be low when compared to the corporate side. But early in one’s career, an agency environment may offer greater upward mobility, particularly if the agency is growing. Turnover at PR agencies can be high, and while that’s not a good thing, it often creates a terrific opportunity for career advancement for those who perform.

The Client Side Offers Consistency, Focus

One client, one focus
Many client-side professionals talk about their satisfaction in maintaining a pure focus on their particular company and industry, which enables their best work.  Etchison says that her move to the corporate side gave her an in-depth understanding of her company’s brand and business and freed her to be “highly strategic and even visionary” in supporting its communications and business goals. There’s also the advantage of following your bliss. Sri Ramaswami of rbb communications advises, “If you are singularly passionate about a specific industry it makes sense to join a company within that sector and grow through the ranks.”

On the client side, there’s typically no need to be selling in order to gain new clients or have the opportunity to do interesting work. This is in contrast to an agency environment, where new business development is the lifeblood of the place and a requirement for anyone who wants to climb the ladder there. A corporate PR team does need to promote its own work and justify the investment in PR, especially if an agency budget is involved. The difference, however, is that the day-to-day work offers greater consistency and lacks the do-or-die pressure of a growth-oriented PR firm.

No one in the dynamic and every-changing PR universe has perfect control over their programs, but on the client side, resources and politics tend to be stacked in your favor. Etchison explains that on the corporate side, “you’re able to deploy agency teams for maximum brand benefit” and exert a greater degree of control over the outcomes than she did in her former agency life.

Though agency team members support one another and often get shout-outs from their clients, there’s nothing like the shared business mission of those who work under the same roof. Comments Marijane Funess, “The shared pride and admiration for projects has been a thrill. When you are in-house and your co-workers see ‘up close and personal’ the effort that goes into a successful event or a meaningful story, it is really rewarding.”

You’ve Been Served: How To Be A PR Client Service Superstar

Working in a PR agency means working with clients and making them happy. Yet not all have the same goals, needs, or expectations. But it’s fair to say that the best PR people, like Liam Neeson, have a particular set of skills that keep the clients coming back year after year. Here are seven indispensible rules to becoming a client service superstar.

7 Ways to Stellar PR Client Service

ABC’s of PR client service

Always Be Creating. Clients pay agencies for ideas. Ideas for messaging, for story angles, data-driven research, strategies, tactics, plans, and activations. There is no autopilot on the PR agency dashboard. The steady drumbeat of coverage that agencies strive for demand new thinking because there won’t always be something newsworthy to talk about. It’s PR’s job to drive conversations and ideas that keep the media interested, but even more importantly, to let your clients know you’re always helping them succeed.

Communicate – early and often

We’re in communications after all, so silence within a relationship is the kiss of death. Constant proactive communication is the key to PR teams never letting the client doubt its commitment. Keep the client informed about the progress of media pitches in progress. Bring that stream of new thoughts and ideas, both large and small. Don’t be bashful about questions. A good rule of thumb is PR pros should email or message every client once a day at absolute minimum. See this earlier post for more on what clients should expect from their PR agency.

PR pros keep it real

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best services PR provides is the ability to spot BS. Clients pay for our expertise and guidance in the world of media relations. That includes being forthright and transparent if a client’s idea may not work, why we feel that way, and what the alternative solutions may be. We’re counselors, and we owe our clients a point of view that’s grounded in experience and good judgment.

Volunteer to help        

This one can be controversial because many agencies worry about “scope creep” and we work to curb constant overservicing to meet a client’s goals. Yet the occasional assistance outside the strict scope of work can do wonders for the client relationship and cement a service-oriented foundation for the long term.

Be responsive

Our informal research shows that while clients can be blown away by top-tier strategic thinking and impressive creativity when they shop around for PR agencies, they most often judge the agency team on simple responsiveness. It’s obvious, but sometimes this basic rule gets lost in the fog of war. Responsiveness means answering emails promptly, making sure that queries are covered on weekends and holidays, and a certain “can-do” attitude, even when things are tricky.

Meet face-to-face

It’s very easy in PR to perceive clients (and vice versa) as mere email addresses or Slack handles that fill our screens day in and day out. A good practice is to schedule regular face-to-face meetings with clients – whether its once a quarter to go over planning initiatives or more often – perhaps in social situations. Grab a drink if the client seems like the type, and prove yourself a presence that exists outside of the email inbox.

A personal touch

Elevating a client relationship past the level of email creates human connection, and seeing each other as people makes client services all the more smooth. Congratulate clients on an award win. Adding a personal touch to the relationship such as a hand written Christmas card or an email about a work anniversary shows that you care, and enforces your position as the top of mind choice for your customers.

PR Guide To Agency-Client On-Boarding

If your company has hired an outside PR firm for the first time, you may have gone through an exhaustive search, conducted several meetings, and even done some negotiating before making a decision. So it’s usually a good feeling to finally sign the agency agreement. But what happens then?
On-boarding, that’s what. Many PR agencies have a proprietary immersion and startup process, but even if they don’t, on-boarding is a critical first step in the relationship. How each party handles it can set the tone for a partnership that could take your company to the next level.

On-boarding a new PR firm

Deep-dive meetings

The first order of business is immersion into your business by the agency team. We recommend a structure half or full-day meeting that allows for briefings by key department heads relevant to the PR program and goals. The PR team will ideally have a million questions, and a good client will want to be candid in response. We tell clients, if you’re in doubt as to whether to include something in our backgrounding, do it. Too much is never enough! And like a campaign manager digging for skeletons in a politician’s closet, the PR team will also want to know about problems, challenges, and reputation dings, whether public or not. Further, these kick-off meetings are the time when the respective teams get to know the players and determine exactly how they will work together.

Set up the metrics for success

Before the letter of agreement is signed, the agency and client should already agree on what general basis PR outcomes will be measured. But they’ll also need to decide on specific metrics for evaluating the PR program so there will be no surprises later. Today more than ever, public relations can get data on a wide array of metrics, so it’s critical to choose the right indicators to avoid wasting time and money. See this earlier post for more on how to measure PR outcomes. Pro tip: make sure you have a baseline for brand awareness and message communication before starting the PR campaign.

Awareness audit

Of course one can’t evaluate a fresh PR program without knowing the current state of the client’s visibility. This is where the perception baseline comes in; the PR team will conduct an audit of a brand’s media visibility, including searchable content about brand attributes, customer complaints, reviews, and an all-important analysis of earned media coverage. Depending on goals, an audit of key competitors may also be helpful. Be aware, an objective awareness audit can sometimes hold surprises. A media audit will also inform new messaging and even tactics.

Collect assets

The PR firm will ask for lots of existing marketing and PR documents beyond those it can find on its own, like previous owned and earned content. Additional assets may include proprietary market research, archived announcements, internal communications about business changes, executive speeches and biographies, award entries, and marketing plans. Another important asset is a less tangible one — historical relationships. The PR team will want to know which journalists, analysts and influencers with whom the client has cultivated good (or not-to-good) relations.

Align with marketing  

All tactical PR planning should be aligned with the company’s marketing efforts. The PR team will want to see previous and current marketing calendars – a key tools for the creation of a new PR plan. As noted in last week’s post on writing the PR plan, the team will use the marketing calendar as a guiding touchstone when crafting the new PR program.

Finalize the PR program

The centerpiece of all these efforts is the PR plan, a draft of which will be presented early on. Pay special attention to the timeline of the plan, taking into account key internal barriers or milestones (like a sales meeting or key conference) and building in time for approvals and changes. Make sure the plan offers enough tactical details so that there will be no surprises around execution times or the budget required. Remember that the best PR plans integrate with other corporate functions, ideally showing how a single initiative can be executed around paid, earned and owned media as well as shared across key social media platforms.

Agency-client infrastructure

Early on, the PR and client teams will set up the logistics of communication, establishing the day and time for the weekly call or meeting and quarterly check-ins. All the pesky protocols of who, when, and how are implemented before getting down to the daily grind. It’s during this time when it’s good to agree on etiquette and boundaries on both sides – instead of waiting for issues to arise.

Final touches

Finally, the PR team will set up monitoring and communications tools — shared document and file platforms, messaging, project management and collaboration tools, and other protocols for working together. Depending on the needs of the client, the on-boarding process can last from 3-6 weeks. A smart on-boarding will set the stage for good communication, high productivity, and a long and successful working relationship.

Things Your PR Firm Should Tell You (That You May Not Want To Hear)

The PR agency/client relationship can be a delicate dynamic, especially when things aren’t all rosy. The fortunes of a company and its PR agency are inextricably linked, and a good PR team  must have the confidence and courage to deliver bad news when necessary. After all, PR pros are in the communications business. To the client, bad news or constructive criticism may feel uncomfortable, but an open channel of communications is key to a fruitful client-agency partnership.

A good PR agency tells you when..

Your message doesn’t measure up

A company’s message can be a powerful differentiator, and it should show in its communications, from social media posts to CEO bylined articles. A business may think it has fully defined its brand voice, but it may have a narrow view, or one based on technical superiority. If the story isn’t  sufficiently compelling and different, the PR team needs to say so. Then all need to start the work of transforming a list of product attributes into compelling, media-ready storytelling.

The PR agency brings valuable objectivity and experience to the table, and a good team will collaborate on defining and fleshing out the brand voice and its story. A good test of whether an agency is willing to speak up is what they tell you before the agreement is signed.

Your branding is holding you back.

Not every PR professional is a branding expert, but we are experts in messaging. At times, a company’s branding or advertising will compete with the PR messaging, or it simply doesn’t fit the story the PR team is serving up to media. We once had a client who set out to market a high-priced item of luxury women’s apparel under a brand that was contrived and downmarket in its style and tone.  Remember, public perception is driven by visual branding, marketing, and public relations (among other functions), and inconsistencies will harm or fragment that perception over time. A smart client will make sure the PR team has a voice in key branding changes and decisions, and a good agency will use it.

What to expect when you’re expecting (too much)

It’s certainly tempting to ride the client’s wave of optimism or ambition. We want to say yes, we can do that! There’s nothing wrong with aiming for the stars – as long as you don’t expect the universe. An experienced PR team will manage expectations by outlining tangible deliverables and measurable goals at the outset. An early- stage company may not have a roadmap for reasonable expectations of activities like pitching, content, or earned media coverage. The PR team will be doing a disservice to everyone involved by allowing expectations to exceed reality. A company may not want to hear that the PR team can’t control the final edit of the CEO interview, or that the first month may not break records for coverage, but it’s the PR team’s responsibility to make sure the client knows what to expect and when to expect it.

How to face the music

When things go south, a business cannot bury its head in the sand. It may want to let a crisis blow over, or just go quiet until the next news cycle, especially if the criticism is undeserved. A CEO may feel reticent to acknowledge unflattering reviews or misbehavior that comes to light. Here, a good PR firm will urge the company to do what in its best long-term interest. In most cases this means to face the reputation crisis with sound advice and appropriate action.

Everybody’s a critic, including the PR agency

Part of a PR team’s job is to critique the client’s performance in media interviews and public speaking. A good PR rep will be on the phone or in the room for the media meeting, and he’ll offer constructive criticism about the conversation. In a less direct way, a PR team will often hear feedback about its client’s business or communications from journalists, analysts, or stakeholders. Where that feedback is valuable and relevant, it should be passed on and incorporated into programs going forward. In today’s world, communications isn’t about broadcasting your message or story to customers; it’s also about listening to the perceptions and responses of high-value audiences.

You’re going separate ways

On rare occasions, a client-agency relationship will become untenable, and one or both parties may choose to cut ties. If the initiating party is the PR agency, it may come as a shock. No agency likes to lose business, so it takes a severe problem – or an irresistible offer from a competitor – to bring on a client firing. For the most part, if agencies and clients choose thoughtfully and are transparent at the outset, the working relationship should never degrade to such a level. Check out our earlier post on why your PR firm wants to fire you. (We don’t have those problems, but they can happen!)

The good news is that hard conversations actually lead to a better working partnership. A solid agency-client relationship thrives on collaboration and open communication, so a good agency will offer it and a good client will welcome it. For some advice on how to tell a client they are wrong, see this earlier post.

What PR Pros Can Learn From The Hospitality Industry

I am fresh off a vacation and couldn’t help but notice some things the hospitality industry does well – things that PR agencies and other professional services firms can adapt for providing superior client service (clients, listen up too!)

Give a client something for nothing. Well, not nothing, of course. But the way the travel industry showers you with free cocktails and gourmet sampling opportunities is a good model for providing clients with an unanticipated extra once in a while. It’s a way to let them know that you value the relationship enough to go above and beyond.

Provide proactive customer service. Take a page from the hospitality industry and the late NYC Mayor Koch and solicit feedback on the job you’re doing as you’re doing it. Before it ever reaches the equivalent  of a bad Yelp or TripAdvisor posting, you can root out any negatives proactively and work to solve ASAP.

Teach your clients something they don’t know. OK, not everyone wants to learn to line dance or fold a cutesy towel animal, but it’s offered, and it’s thoughtful. Perhaps you can take your client through some social media lessons or provide a primer on the new media landscape. Don’t give away all your trade secrets, but share in a way that benefits the relationship.

Make it easy to work together.  You know how much a traveler appreciates the words, “no problem”? You want to be that PR agency! Within reason, of course, handle all requests with a positive attitude and make problems go away, or, to the greatest of your ability, not happen at all.

Always be thinking about the future. Savvy travel marketers are selling you your next trip before you’ve finished your current one. Smart PR pros should do the same by thinking of ways to extend the existing relationship and build on current accomplishments.

Five Things I Learned On The Client Side

Guest post by Patricia Gibney

After many years in the agency world – from boutiques to multinationals – I found myself in that magical place called in-house. As a client, I looked forward to developing a company-wide communications strategy. I envisioned following an orderly protocol for media relations, being the internal expert and adviser to senior management, and having smart agency partners.

The reality was very different. Senior executives called journalists directly without consulting my department. PR firms were considered vendors, to be held at arm’s length. Communications strategy was frequently a work in progress.

The bottom line: being on the client side comes with a whole set of issues and challenges few agency people understand or take into account. Here are a few learnings from the other side of the table, based on my experience as a client at two different companies, working with several major PR firms.

Agency teams are myopic. Working with the agency is just one small part of a typical client’s job. Want to really understand why a client doesn’t get back to you with those edits or feedback on a proposal?  Spend time with them. Ask them about their job, what they’re responsible for, how they like to work with an agency/team members, and what their bosses expect. Not only will you come away with a greater respect for the client’s depth and breadth of responsibilities, you may discover ways to make a real difference in their work and grow your business in the process.

Service trumps all. Creativity and strategic skills are the price of entry, but what sometimes set agency teams apart was how quickly they returned my calls. Would you believe that I regularly had trouble getting monthly reports from one mega-firm whose fee was over $50,000 per month? Poor service can drag down the entire relationship.

The best teams take responsibility. Even when they’re not responsible.  While ideally a single e-mail or call from an account person should put an issue back in the client’s court for resolution, it often doesn’t work that way. Myopia aside, helping to keep me on top of my job helped avoid the black-hole syndrome for the best teams I partnered with, and it helped our relationship even more. Don’t confuse a lack of response with a lack of interest.

Budgets are sacred.  Few things upset a client more than a mishandled budget, and agency people can be cavalier, or even sloppy, about overages. Don’t let it happen…but if it does, launch an early warning system and be prepared with potential solutions.

Perfection is hard to come by. Not all executives are great with media, and not all corporate stories are compelling. It’s just a fact of life that an agency must sometimes work with raw material that’s less than ideal. While concerns need to be expressed and realistic expectations set, the agency’s job is to help me make the best of the situation by working hard, not complaining about what is lacking. A team who does that will earn my respect, and my business.

Patricia Gibney has held senior communications positions both in-house and at major public relations firms. She was most recently Director of Communications at Avaya.