Agency or In-House Public Relations?

My friend and colleague, Lucy Siegel, runs a great New York-based PR firm and is one of my favorite bloggers on our industry.  Lucy recently reported that her most popular blog post of 2013 was on the advantages of working with a public relations agency vs. in-house PR department. Her full article is here.

It isn’t a new debate in our industry, and, frankly, the majority of us agency folk have great experiences working alongside extremely capable, highly respected in-house PR counsel.

But there are differences – and advantages – to what agency personnel bring to the table.  Lucy points out four such differences, and I have a few thoughts of my own:

The internal staff is often too close to the subject matter to be objective. As Lucy points out, however, corporate leadership sometimes reason that, since internal staffers have a wider knowledge of the company, they’re better suited for external communications. But that closeness can cloud true objectivity, which hampers the ability to measure how the company is perceived by external stakeholders.

The internal staff often has a much harder time counseling senior management. This isn’t always true, but it certainly can be.  No matter the level of respect and credibility, an in-house practitioner’s decision to vehemently disagree with senior management comes with risks that don’t apply to agency personnel.

We develop social media programs, marketing communications strategies and media relations campaigns every day for a variety of companies and industries. I couldn’t agree more. By working with a wide range of companies in a similarly diverse mix of industries, agency-based PR consultants are exposed to a greater depth of corporate challenges – and the strategies needed to effectively address them.  I am continually surprised by how working with a B2C product company can create experiences that help address the challenges of a B2B service company.

We have constant access to teams of other highly experienced agency consultants. This is essentially an expansion of the point made above. For all of my experiences working with countless client situations, my colleagues have comparable depth of experience. They are always there to share their expertise, serve as minute-to-minute soundings boards and otherwise help address tough client circumstances. As an added benefit, we all learn in the process and take those lessons with us to the next challenge.

I have three additions to Lucy’s thoughtful commentary:

An agency can be far more cost effective. In most cases, our clients can realize better value from us over in-house personnel.  The fees we charge provide our clients with access to our complete team of experienced consultants.  They don’t need every one of us for 40 hours per week, but we are all available to them as needed, and we each offer unique expertise to meet their needs.   Additionally, as external consultants, we place no burdens on our clients in terms of payroll taxes, health insurance, 401Ks or office space.

There are resource efficiencies that come with the agency structure. I am always surprised when I hear of a senior in-house practitioner writing a news release or sorting through the details of printing materials to place in a trade show booth. That’s simply a misuse of resources.  The agency team structure is such that we have great writers and project coordinators who bill at an appropriate rate for the services they provide. That enables our senior consultants to focus on what they do best.  At the end of the day, our clients get the best possible value from each team member.

We are always available.  We hand select the right team for each of our clients, and every member of that team stays fully informed on all aspects of the client program. And, because our culture is based on providing the highest level of service possible, someone from the team is always available to respond to an urgent text, deal with the reporter on deadline, discuss that late-night idea or run to the office as needed.  It’s what we do.

There is no single right answer to finding the ideal mix of agency vs internal staffing to meet a company’s public relations needs, but there are clearly critical business factors to consider on both sides.


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