Making the Leap: In-House to Agency Public Relations

There’s a stigma attached to public relations agencies. I was given the impression that, regardless of the type of clients, large agencies churn and burn their young talent (leading to most fading out and few rising), and that boutique agencies lay off their newest talent in the event that they lose one to two key clients.

There’s a stigma about working in-house, too. My sense was that there’s a cap on your potential when working in-house, only being able to climb so high within an organization before the opportunities for growth flat line. Too, the term “pigeon-holed” was often used whenever someone expressed their concerns to me about working in-house. Of course, stigmas exist because these situations do happen, but it’s not fair to definitively state that they apply to working at any agency or working in-house at any company, or that one is better than the other. Like many things in life, it depends.

Hats off to you if when faced with this conundrum, your solution was to start your own PR firm. Despite my bold personality, I was certainly not an entrepreneur looking to start my own company fresh out of college, so alas the choice was mine: in-house or agency.

For nearly two years I was a Communications Coordinator on the public relations team at an international law firm, and for the past two years I’ve been an Account Manager with Berbay. So what’s my advice to anyone thinking of making a switch from in-house to agency or vice versa? Even if you’re familiar with the industry, in-house and agency positions are different in so many ways; you should be prepared to face some challenges when transitioning.

The Bigger Picture

Transitioning from in-house to agency was overwhelming at first – namely the shift from having essentially one client to … well, more.

Whether working in-house or at a boutique PR agency, being able to see the bigger picture and understanding your role in working toward an overarching goal can be a challenge, as these things can often change. The biggest difference for me was going from a more structured position on a team, where each person had a defined role in achieving these overarching objectives, to the role of managing several clients, each with their own objectives, and being the one who calls the shots and is responsible for managing every aspect of each client’s PR efforts.

That’s right, be prepared to juggle. Depending on the industry and the agency, you may be expected to handle a much broader range of services. As daunting as that may seem, you’ll be all the better for it.

What to Expect

I did expect my relationship with “clients” to change. At the international law firm I was working for essentially one client: my law firm. If I needed to speak with an attorney and they weren’t picking up their phone, I could just pop into their office (at least the attorneys located in the Los Angeles office). I was used to having direct access to attorneys and their matters and, more importantly, the attorneys were eager, or at the very least, required to participate in marketing and public relations.

With shifting to an agency, I knew that the “outside” aspect of being a law firm’s outside marketing and public relations firm would drastically change the “client” relationship I was used to having. No matter how strong your relationship is with a client, there will always be limitations to your ability to access things you need, such as  information on a case, successes or even scheduling a meeting. It can be more challenging to obtain these things working externally. The best advice is to figure out who the gatekeepers are for each client and establish relationships with those people; as an overall goal, do your best to strengthen your partnership with each client so that even though you aren’t a part of their firm, you know their business well enough that you could be.

The unexpected change that required me to adjust my expectations was the realization that not all firms or even all attorneys within a firm believe there is a need for marketing and public relations. It is our job to forge a partnership with each client and to be a trusted advisor. At times we encounter resistance, but being able to adapt quickly to change and actively listen to what each client wants, is what makes Account Executives great at their jobs.

Additionally, thick skin is an absolute necessity for working at an agency. Whether you’re pitching new business or pitching a new idea to an existing client, you cannot be so afraid of the word “No” that you avoid making the pitch in person. Agencies are tasked with constantly proving their value to their clients, so phoning it in isn’t really an option.

Another reality is that sometimes client engagements just don’t work out. If I had been fired from my in-house position, I would have been extremely hurt. Being fired from your job while working in-house is a lot less common than being fired as an outside marketing and public relations firm.

There are many reasons why client engagements don’t pan out. From budget cuts or internal politics, to the firm jumping ship for another agency or even being adverse to PR altogether, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Some clients are short-term project clients and sometimes clients are simply unable to justify an ROI at the time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re bad at your job or that you didn’t deliver a successful PR campaign. You invested time and resources with this client and you’ve gotten to know the attorneys – their practice, their accomplishments and even about their family – so it’s normal to feel a sting when a client engagement ends, but statistically it is a reality for anyone in the agency industry. In most cases, it’s best to not take it too personally and continue to approach every client engagement with the same enthusiasm and determination for success.

Having experienced working in-house and at an agency, I have come to believe  that each person and each company is different, and every job experience will have its unique challenges. What’s important is finding the best fit for you, and the only way to truly know what you like/dislike is by trying it, and who knows, you might surprise yourself. Don’t let an industry stigma keep you from potentially advancing your career.

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