What are the main differences between working in house or at a PR agency?
As a second year Public Relations major I have heard some differences between working for a PR agency and working in-house for a company, but I would like to hear more about what daily life in one or the other is life for someone working in the field. Is there one that is preferred for certain types of people?
Great question! I’ve worked for a public relations agency for more than 2.5 years so I can provide some insight into what we do on a daily basis, and some of the major differences from an in-house team. Ultimately I think it depends on personal preference which one you want to pursue. Here are a few key differences:
You balance a lot of different clients, that may be in completely different industries. At my agency, our clients vary significantly in size, industry, and needs.
- Pros: This keeps it interesting, and you learn a little bit about a lot of different things. You’re exposed to companies and organizations that you may not look into otherwise. It’s also fun to switch voices depending on which client you’re serving. At an in-house agency, it’s going to be similar efforts and materials since you’re working for the same company.
- Cons: It’s challenging to balance many different accounts that all need different things, and it can get hard to keep track at times. Some clients demand more attention than others. You may not be totally interested in the subject matter surrounding one of your clients, but you still need to give it your all. If you work in-house and love the product/company, it’s going to be easy to keep it interesting.
An agency is always on the lookout for new clients to expand business.
- Pros: You can get sales experience by attending pitch meetings. You gain public speaking and presentation skills by presenting to potential new clients and communicating your value to them. You wouldn’t necessarily experience this as much at an in-house agency.
- Cons: It can be stressful, especially if you’re not interested in / inclined towards sales. Always needing to go out and build your client base can be challenging, and sometimes the number of clients the company has will fluctuate. You’ll be needing new business some months, and others you’ll be overwhelmed, depending on number of clients and how much they need.
My advice: Since you’re still in school, try to get 2 internships: one with an agency, and one with an in-house team. This is challenging, I know, but you’ll have both types of experience under your belt. If you had to choose just 1 internship, I’d recommend looking for a full-service agency because you’d be exposed to more clients, varied work, and different aspects of the communications industry. If there is a company you really love and dream of working for, get as much PR experience as you can and see if you can become a part of their in-house team! If you have any follow-up questions please let me know, I’d love to help.
Best of luck to you in this journey!
Freelancing (independent consulting) is by far the best situation for me because I'm a workaholic anyway, so I may as well be comfortable at home and be able to multitask with laundry, etc., if I'm going to be working long hours. I find I'm much more productive when I don't have to deal with dressing a certain way (and shopping for work attire), commuting (and paying for gas and parking), and—the kicker—staff meetings. Ugh!
But the #1 reason I enjoy being a consultant is that the degree of respect accorded to a consultant is so much higher than what you'll find in-house, and a bit higher than an agency receives. It's amazing. When I joined the Communications Dept of a major corporation as Senior Executive Speechwriter after years writing speeches for executives of equally prestigious organizations, I was astounded when my colleagues circled their wagons against me in a way that never would have occurred if I'd been hired as an independent speechwriter. It was as if they envied my ability to sail in and out of the C-suite offices when others in my department who'd been at the company for years had never even met some of the top people or sat with them for hours as I did. The politics! Again, ugh....I lasted two and a half years at the company before most of our department was laid off in cost-cutting measures (communications tends to be the first to go) and I will never join a corporate PR department again. To be clear, I loved the work itself, and I'm still close with a number of my former colleagues and the execs for whom I wrote who were my internal clients (all of whom have left by now). So I have nothing against people who work in corporate PR, and in fact I loved having those folks as my clients when I worked at their PR agencies, but there is a sea change when you become an employee. The people who seem to like the corporate environment are those who value job security and predictability (whereas I'm comfortable creating my own niche in the job market) and who are more change-averse in general (especially at the largest corporations, as big ships tend to turn slowly but are able to stay upright in a storm). As someone who came out of the gate working with executives many years my senior and with way more experience in their field, I've never been one to "work my way up the ladder" within a hierarchical and often patriarchal system.
PR agencies are great and I look back fondly at the years I spent as an account exec. At an agency, people are allowed to be themselves. Offbeat styles and personalities are valued within agencies more than within corporations. Even the space tends to be more flexible and conducive to creativity. Another advantage of an agency is the variety of clients and projects you'll experience, along with opportunities to view and even be a part of every stage of the work, from the hatching of ideas to budgeting, to planning and presenting, to research including focus groups, to copywriting and design, to print/video/online production and event management, to media pitches and client interview prep, to results analysis and sometimes award applications. There's no way to learn as much on your own or at an in-house PR department than you will at an agency. The only downside for me was tracking my billable hours because I tend to lose track of time and prefer to do what needs to be done by the deadline vs. working fast to stay within the estimate we provided to the client. But it didn't hurt me to acquire the discipline, and gradually I got a sense of how much time every piece of the project typically would take me, which helped me to estimate projects better when I started freelancing. Somehow if I put in late nights at the agency to get a project done on deadline it didn't seem as burdensome as when overtime was required in my corporate job, because agencies tend to value risk/reward and fun—so after working hard, we played hard. The atmosphere was more collegial. It was also fun to have a client entertainment expense account and mix fun social time into the client relationships. We had great seats at the sports arenas in town!
Overall, I'm happy to have had experience in all three environments: in-house, agency, and freelance because the breadth of experience means I have more to offer to clients today, and it helped me to know myself. One final word on freelancing/independent consulting: it takes confidence. I never once doubted my ability to win business, do the work, set a fair price, and maintain great relationships with clients. If you prefer to have someone else handle the business development, office maintenance, professional development (such as time management and skills training), and salary/benefits management, you will be happier at an in-house communications department or an agency. If you appreciate structure and knowing where you fit into the larger scheme of things, and you aspire to identifiable rungs on a corporate ladder with increasing levels of responsibility, and/or if you wish to be identified with a certain brand or industry, you'll be happiest in-house. If you are more driven to exercise creative talent or production skills, enjoy a variety of work assignments, and don't mind keeping track of hours in exchange for a bit more freedom from meetings, you'll fit better at an agency. And if you're between jobs, don't be afraid of freelancing for companies, agencies, nonprofits, schools, or even government agencies. That's one way to find out if freelancing is your natural habitat, as it is mine!
Having done both I can say they are much more alike then many people think. In both cases you are working with a diverse group of people who, sometimes, have different needs. You are being relied on for your expertise and your ability for sound judgement is absolutely vital. Both require the same tactical skills (good writer, great project manager etc.). You'll also find a various group of colleagues and customers at each.
If I had to think of one difference I would say that in house you're much more in the spotlight and whether or not your actions have a great direct effect on the organization, they're more easy to track to you.
PR Firm: you get to work with multiple clients in various industries. Learn about different styles and build a broad portfolio. It makes you nimble; you will be able to adapt to changes in the economy.
PR is a very transferrable skill across the private, government, and nonprofit sectors. You definitely have an interesting and exciting career ahead of you. (Make sure you master the AP Style Guide!)