Pick up any PR textbook and many a business book and you’ll notice that 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 there are generally two options, in-house or agency. In-house means working within a company – you come in at 9, eat in the company lunch room, are considered a full-fledged employee of the company, and work to maximize the reputation, media goals, and awareness of that single company through your work. The controversy over PR’s desire to work at an executive level, as a kind of advisor to management, is based on the idea that the PR advisor is working in-house, or at least as part of a traditional corporate culture.
In contrast, PR agencies usually have their own office and business account at Staples. They take on several clients, and are usually contracted to work a certain amount a month, plus expenses. 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, media relations, rather than management advising, plays a more central role. Secruring media mentions and placements are one of the major ways that agency practitioners demonstrate the value of that monthly retainer to their clients.
Most large fashion houses keep their PR in-house. They may contract out to a PR agency for added event assistance during fashion week, or to several agencies across the country to help land local media hits during a large campaign. Smaller or emerging designers and fashion labels often work with a PR agency that specializes in fashion, or has a fashion team, to help them ramp up media awareness. Or, if they are feeling risky, or don’t really understand the importance of a PR’s job well done, they might try and get a marketing or PR intern to do the job for free. Later on, they might hire a PR person to work full-time.
Rather than managing the reputation of a company that provides a service, fashion usually falls under the consumer/retail/luxury goods sector, and as such, much of the public relations work is concerned with communicating about the brand through its products via media placements. This often includes 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 PR to seek, secure, and maintain that media contact and mention, which is a more affordable, meaningful, and all around more powerful method of promotion.
Having worked in-house, agency, and now as a sole practitioner/freelance, I have experienced how the responsibilities, expectations, and challenges pertain to each:
- My job responsibilities in-house included that coveted seat at the decision-making table. I worked directly with the CEO, assisting with everything from PR strategy, brand development, advertising and marketing, to better internal and customer communications. I became an expert in this single brand, and much of the work I did was optimizing media relationships based on reactive (responding to media inquiry) media relations. My challenge with working in-house included staying excited and challenged by work that eventually became routine.
- As an agency account executive, I worked on 3-4 clients at a time. 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 that same access to senior management, or the owners of companies as I was used to. Also, my past experience working as part of an internal team made it difficult to reign back and allow the heirarchy of agency practitiners 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.
Despite the prolifiration of in-house this and that within PR research and the PR classroom, it’s interesting to note that the voices of in-house PR’s are all but mute in the blogosphere. Perhaps agency blogging will serve to encourage PR research methodology to consider or require agency perspectives in their work. To do so would further enhance public relations’ own understanding of the true scope of the profession, in particular the varied responsibilities and experiences of in-house, agency, and freelance practitioners. In addition, being mindful of how client specialties impact strategy might serve to temper the desire of the profession to distance itself from those very tactics and strategies, like media relations, that are so valuable for agency practitioners in comsumer goods PR and/or specialties like fashion. Perhaps this might encourage the profession as a whole to stop doing it so badly.