Pick up any PR textbook and you’ll notice the author tends to assume that working in PR means working as a company employee (they also seem to only focus on PR as it relates to healthcare, finance, oil companies, etc but that’s a rant for another time). The truth is that public relations practitioners, fashion or otherwise, generally have two options, working for a company (like DKNY's Aliza Licht), or working for (or running, in the case of Kelly Cutrone), a fashion PR agency.
Many large fashion houses keep their PR in-house. They may contract out to a PR agency to produce their fashion shows, social media campaign development, product placement or to help land local media hits during a widespread campaign. Smaller or emerging designers often start out doing their own PR, and it often falls to the person within the company who also handles marketing, graphic design, or a PR intern, until they are profitable enough to hire a fashion PR agency or hire a PR person to work full-time. For a multitude of fashion brands, working with a fashion PR agency is an important part of their communication and outreach.
No matter whether the position is in internal or external, the majority of the work includes pitching company news to media, sending samples to fashion editors and coordinating fashion shoots or editorial mentions which, unlike advertising, do not come at a direct cost. Instead, the cost comes from the work of the practitioner to seek, secure, and maintain that media contact and mention.
So what's the difference and why might you consider one or the other?
Pros and Cons of In-House Fashion Public Relations
I love [in-house] because it gives me the ability to really connect with our line and have a relationship with editors, stylists, our design team etc as the face of the brand. They can all come to me and they know me. I’ve been with Jill for over two years and we’re like a family. I absolutely love it. Working in house also means you take care of many day to day things and also have a lot more business thrown your way than just PR. Fashion is, after all, a business and being inside a house you gain that exposure in huge levels.- Lindsey Green, Director of Communications for Jill Stuart
I spent two years managing the PR and marketing department for a small online jewelry company where I worked directly with the CEO and eventually a small staff. In addition to handling media requests, tracking samples and media coverage, I was also responsible for developing three email newsletters a week, graphic design for the website and product copy. I became an expert in this single brand, and much of the work I did was optimizing media relationships. My biggest challenge working in-house was that I was the PR expert and didn't really have anyone to brainstorm with or learn from. In addition, the work eventually became routine and I needed a challenge, which led me to try our agency life.
- Opportunity to be the face of the brand
- Ability to become a true brand expert
- Access to senior management
- Work can become routine
- Easy to operate in a silo or become overly-specialized
Pros and Cons of PR Agencies
As I approach my sixth year work on the agency side, I realize how much I value working in the agency environment. I’m surrounded by people who specialize in the same field I do; whereas in-house, a PR person is often a team of few. By working with people who also do PR 24/7 (as opposed to designers or engineers or brand managers), I never stop learning about media; whether its new contacts, new outlets, new approaches to pitching, social media, etc. The agency side also offers the opportunity to try on different brands and sectors, allowing you to see what the best fit might be. Because of the need to always be creative and smart in order to sell our services to current and potential clients, people are always reading, writing, and ultimately, always learning not just about how to do PR, but how current events and trends affect our work.
No place is perfect though. Agency life is not a 9-5pm job with an hour lunch break. Because we’re billable, every 15 minutes counts. Titles are big in the agency world, which can trip up some people. Each agency is different, so again, I encourage people to intern, interview like mad, and make sure to find the agency that feels right not just because of the account mix, but has a great staff that ideally has stayed with the agency for a long period of time. - Kathleen Drain, Account Supervisor, Access Communications
PR agencies take on several clients at once, and are usually contracted to work a certain amount a month, under retainer, plus expenses. Because they are working with lots of different companies, oftentimes in different verticals (fashion, food, fitness, non-profit), working in an agency is a great way to develop broad expertise and a variety on insights gleaned form working with multiple clients. Communication with the client takes place primarily via email, conference calls, and the occasional in-person meeting hosted at either the agency or the client’s place of business. For agency practitioners, securing media mentions and placements is one of the major ways to demonstrate the value of that monthly retainer to their clients. As such, pitching media, writing pitches and coming up with creative campaign ideas are recurring tasks.
As an agency account executive, I worked on 3-4 clients at a time, sometimes more. My desire to learn as much about them as possible blended well with agency expectations as well as my own natural love of learning. The variety in daily work was challenging and exciting, although it was at times difficult not to have the level of autonomy I had working in-house, as well as direct access to decision-makers. My past experience working in-house made it difficult to pull back and allow the hierarchy of agency practitioners to take over and manage accounts. This was to my advantage however, because I learned to listen and observe, rather than diving in with an opinion or solution. Within the agency, the major pressure was to land publicity for our lifestyle clients. Unlike my past experience of coming into work with an inbox full of magazine requests, it was now my job to proactively make these editors interested in my clients’ products. I learned quickly how difficult, but ultimately rewarding, this experience could be.
- Ability to learn from and work on multiple accounts
- Surrounded by the best in the business/not a lone wolf
- Dynamic work environment due to account mix
- Learn how to pitch and acquire new business
- Less of an ability to just make things happen, need client approval
- Being on the outside means missing out on "water-cooler" conversations
- Titles matter, agency politics can be a struggle
- Billing time
Of course, most practitioners will at some point try their hand at both and develop a preference. Most importantly, aim for a place that values training and a place where people at all levels (CEO to Interns) have exposure to media contacts and are talking to the media regularly.