“The internal staff person has problems and limitations that an external communications company doesn’t face.”
A couple of years ago I ended a blog post about the hidden costs of in-house PR with this thought, and I promised that I would one day expand on this theme.To that end, here is a brief examination of several big challenges that in-house communications teams face:
1. The internal staff often gets too close to the subject matter to be objective. However, many companies look at this from a different perspective. Corporate management reasons that, since internal staffers have a wider knowledge of the company, its people and its products than any agency could have, they’re better suited to communicate externally for the company. But that detailed knowledge is a double-edged sword. Employees become so much a part of the corporate team that they often lose their objectivity. When we come across people like this at client companies we say to ourselves, “She’s been drinking the Koolaid for too long.” The danger of not being able to be objective is that you can’t put yourself in the position of external stakeholders, such as customers, investors and media, to understand their perspectives. And if you can’t do that, you can’t appeal to them with messages that will catch their attention.
2. Counseling senior management is harder for internal PR staff.
When internal PR professionals don’t agree with the directions that top management gives them, it’s a lot harder to verbalize that disagreement (after all, the same senior management has the power to fire them, or at least make their lives very difficult). Even when an internal PR executive vehemently disagrees with senior management, his counsel is not taken as seriously as outside counsel. I’ve been on both sides, as an in-house communications staff member and an agency consultant, and I’ve seen senior executives sit on the edge of their seats when we talk to them and tell them the same thing they ignored when their own staff told them! I think sometimes we’re hired simply to provide back-up for the internal team’s counsel.
3. Agencies can focus better on the media.
We develop social media programs, design marketing communications strategies and do media relations all day every day and in a variety of companies and industries. An in-house communications team does this only for one company in one industry and doesn’t get the chance to work on each of these areas as extensively as we do. For example, media relations is only one of a long list of tasks assigned to the internal staffer (unless the internal team is quite large so that duties can be defined very narrowly). In that situation, there’s less ability to focus intensely on media relations, and it’s easy to let media relations slip down on the list of priorities, with the result that the company is less responsive to the media.
4. It’s easier to get professional feedback and input in an agency.
When I worked for an insurance company years ago, I was surrounded by insurance executives who really didn’t understand what was involved in the work I did. But when I joined a PR firm, I was able to turn to my co-workers for feedback and input whenever I needed it. It’s a lot easier to get good feedback on your ideas and plans when you’re working in a public relations agency setting than when you’re on an in-house communications team. I also believe that agencies are better learning environments for people who want careers in communications.
Despite these challenges, from a public relations career perspective it’s a good experience for up-and-coming professionals to put in some time “on the client side” in a marketing communications or corporate communications setting. Working inside a corporation provides insight on what it takes for various departments to work together well, and also on how they sometimes jockey with each other for political favoritism and power. This kind of insight is very valuable to have in an agency setting, because it helps in understanding why agency projects sometimes take forever to get approved by a client, how easy it is for messaging to be inconsistent from one part of a company to another, and why some projects are stopped mid-course for reasons that seem incomprehensible!