Two sides of the same PR coin….

The world of Public Relations is diverse.  It cuts across every industry, country and language in the world.  Furthermore, it also includes a wide range of different disciplines from the ever-popular media relations to internal communication, investor relations, community relations, customer communications and any other form of communication you can think of.


This diversity has led to the emergence of experts in each industry, along with a large number of �generalists� who cover many of these different areas.


However, PR can often differ dramatically in the same industry.  In particular the divide that often appears between agency-in-house practitioners.


In my experience, the one fundamental difference between the agency and in-house practitioner, and the difference that is often not recognized and therefore leads to confusion and frustration is their primary objective. 


In the case of the in-house pro their number one priority is (or should be) the success of their employer.  Once the employer is successful their job is secure, there are opportunities for growth and advancement.  Whilst there is no question that the client�s success is very important to the agency practitioner, it isn�t their number one priority.  That priority, and in many respects how they are measured, is the success of their account group and their agency in attracting, retaining and growing client business.


But this is not just about money.  The daily working day for each can be similar while at the same time completely different.  The agency person has to become a master of time management, spreading their efforts between clients and having to quickly �change hats� as they undertake programs in often-divergent market areas on behalf of their clients.  Meanwhile in-house people also tackle a set of diverse audiences, but these are typically different departments within their organization from finance, to human resources, sales, engineering, distribution etc.


Much of the frustration that develops in the relationship is down to misunderstandings about each other�s roles.  The in-house person working with an agency is subject to a wide range of often-unseen pressures.  These can include onerous managers, demanding department heads, budget restrictions etc.


Furthermore, while most agency practitioners live in a 24×7 PR environment, the majority of in-house practitioners do not.  They are typically part of a much larger marketing and often sales organization and will end up not only working on pure PR projects but with other areas of the marketing function or HR on issues such as internal communications.


I am glad to see that many of the barriers between in-house and agency practitioners have dissolved over the past decade.  The greatest agent of change has been increased mobility among our profession, who now commonly move from in-house to agency roles and vice versa.  These moves have helped to educate both sides on the strengths and weaknesses of each other�s approach.


What�s the key to successful relationship?


That�s a really hard question because there is no simple right answer.  Having thought about this for a while I�m happy to provide some guidelines and would love to hear the thoughts of both in-house and agency folk on these:


1)      Respect.
Too often I have found (on both sides of the house) that there is a distinct lack of respect in the relationship.  Sometimes its one-sided, often it is caused by both sides.  The simple fact is that regardless of your role, you need to respect your opposite number, who has been employed/retained to work with you on achieving your joint goals. In the past there was an element of snobbery between agency and in-house staff, thankfully that is receding, because nothing will damage an account more than a lack of respect.


2)     Understand.
Make an effort to understand the differences between your roles.  The in-house person is serving a range of diverse internal audiences and that diversity can always create pressure.  The agency practitioner similarly has a diverse set of functions to perform for a number of clients.  Understand how the agency works and understand what to expect from your investment.


3)      Be realistic.
Your client will not always be able to find fifteen customers in fifteen different industries willing to promote their products.  Likewise the CEO can be too busy to meet or talk with you. Plan around it.  Your PR agency is limited by your investment in their services.  They need to be involved in your planning, they need time to build lists, pitches etc. and no they cannot guarantee the front cover of Time in the next six months.


4)      Try it.
The only true way to understand your opposite number is to spend time in their shoes.  Whether you spend some time in-house or in your agency, or decide to jump to the �other� side, you will never understand their challenges or issues from a couple of daily calls and a monthly meeting. It�s just not that simple.


5)      Partnership.
I have to admit I always cringe when I see agencies publishing helpful �how to select an agency� op-eds.  Vested interest anyone? However that matter aside the most common element in these lists is a relevant one: partnership.  Successful client-agency relationships are partnerships.  Agencies are right to expect time with senior management, they are right to demand the specific tools and resources they need from the client.  But partnership is a two way street.  It you expect your client to be your partner then they have the right to expect a similar commitment from you and that doesn�t just mean billable hours.


6)      Flexibility.
Each role faces different objectives, different time requirements and different pressures.  The faster you both understand your opposite number�s challenges, the faster you will build a relationship that is mutually beneficial.  Your agency contact can�t spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week working for you on a retainer of $2,000 per month.  That�s not how it works.  Likewise if there�s internal pressure your in-house counterpart may not have the time you�d like to devote to you. Be flexible.


The agency role and the in-house role continue to differ quite dramatically.  I�m often asked which I prefer and to be honest I can�t answer that question.  I have really enjoyed working on both sides of the fence.


What I can tell you is that often you are talking about two very different jobs, with different stress points and requirements. 


Failing to understand and respect these differences is a recipe for disaster.