Is it better to work for an agency or in-house in PR?

What are the differences between working in-house and working in an agency on public relations? Andy Smith, director at Powerscourt has worked both sides of the fence and here he talks us through the main differences.

First things first – well done. Well done for choosing to help tell stories. It is a very exciting career choice and one you won’t regret. So, having made that decision, what is the best option for your career in corporate communications? Should you go down the route of an agency role; or should you go in-house. Well in my career – I started in-house; went to agency; went back in-house and now I’m in an agency again! At the very least this should tell you that for some people both agency and in-house offer different challenges and experiences. Ones well worth pursuing.

Advantages of working for a PR agency

  • First and foremost – you are a revenue generator. Your raison d’etre is to help your firm generate revenue by doing an exceptional job supporting your clients. Most of the best comms people have strong, but subtle, selling skills – as you are forever trying to convince your audience (e.g. journalists, politicians, colleagues, the customers) to see your point of view on an issue. However, if commission driven sales excites you then PR may be the wrong career for you.
  • Do you like pace and variety? Then an agency may be a slightly better environment for you. In an agency you can be working on five to fifteen different briefs – depending on their size, fees and complexity. This gives you lots of variety and no two days will be the same. It also can give you lots of exposure to different types of briefs; different companies and sectors. This is important – especially early in your career – as you learn the type of work you enjoy the most.
  • Periphery concerns. This breadth of work can also be a hindrance. You’ll get a great understanding of your clients (and their challenges) because if you don’t, let’s face it, you’ll lose the contract pretty sharpish. But you’ll always be on the outside – looking in. 

While this means you can add value with an outside perspective and quite often the latest thinking in comms best practice, you could be suggesting ideas and campaigns that the client simply doesn’t have the capacity, bandwidth or desire to deliver. This can be frustrating.

On the plus side, in an agency you are surrounded by colleagues who understand what you do, what you are trying to achieve and who you can continually learn from.

Advantages of working in-house

  • First and foremost – you are a cost centre.  So, while your raison d’etre is to protect and enhance your company or organisation’s reputation, you always must have an eye on the financials. This means justifying budgets, being smart and of course ‘doing more with less’.
  • The pace and variety of work. In-house roles can have lots of pace and variety but it depends on the company that you work for. So if my area of expertise is financial services, I could try to go for roles at an asset management company or an insurer; or I can go for roles at a bank – that includes insurance and asset management products, as well as all the other products and services. The pace can come from how high profile the organisation is. In some comms departments the phone rings a lot more than others with both internal news to be disseminated and of course external stakeholders asking questions.
  • Central concerns. Whereas an agency can give you experience on lots of different briefs, in-house roles tend to be narrower by their nature.  This can lead to less opportunities in the future as your experience may become more focussed on one area. However, there are transferable skills, so if you work for a listed company on their corporate and financial communications, then you can use those skills for other listed companies. And, if you work in a heavily regulated industry (e.g. financial services; utilities) then you can look at roles in other regulated industries. Also in many in-house roles you may be in small teams. You may even be the only communications person in the organisation. You will likely need to be constantly educating internal ‘clients’ about the importance of corporate communications and what it can achieve. You may also have to contend with the competing objectives from different departments that might not work in line with the overall comms strategy.

Other things that of course are always worth considering are the benefits package – sorry to sound like one of your parents. What is the holiday allowance; is the pension scheme better than the bare minimum required? Is there health insurance; funded training; or other softer benefits? This is a sweeping generalisation of course; but, in-house roles at larger corporates may offer better benefit packages. Access to training – both early on and as you progress – should also be a consideration.

And one final thought. Don’t be afraid to switch between both in-house and agency roles so that you get the best of both worlds. It worked for me.

Thanks so much to Andy Smith, director at Powerscourt for writing this introduction to the differences between agency and in-house jobs in PR and communications.

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This is part of our Beginner's Guide to public relations