July 12, 2001 Volume 1, Number 10

The Big Question: Agency or Corporate?
With a Tight Economy, Where Do You Get the Most PR Bang For Your Buck?

By Kevin Maurer

Here's the dilemma: You have a great product and you need some press. Needless to say, you don't have a huge PR budget, but you're still expected to produce results. Where is your money best spent -- on an agency or by hiring a small team in house?

While the jury is still out on this question, there are some pros and cons to weigh.

 

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Agency PR
There' no question that in a tight market, the layoff ax falls usually falls on the communications department first. That's why an agency is an asset, because it allows a company to have a well-oiled PR machine with an experienced staff, media connections, and the ability to get your message out quickly.

"A good PR person may not know how to build the car but he sure knows how to sell it. Good agencies have a wide array of people with various skill sets," says Kevin Sullivan, vice president of Hope-Beckham Inc., a public relations, event marketing, and communications consulting firm based in Atlanta, "The client gets the benefit of the combined experience, knowledge, and skills of these professionals. Rarely can a company find a person or a small team that has the level of expertise you will find in a truly professional agency."

Another plus to hiring an agency is it brings an outside point of view to the table.

"Companies benefit from the objective viewpoint that an outside agency brings. Pushback is hard to do, and possibly suicidal, when you're an employee of the company," explains Catherine Marenghi, principal for Marenghi Public Relations, a full service PR agency with an expertise in technology, "In the long run, that impartial viewpoint will strengthen a client's PR program and make the company look more savvy."

Adds Cathy Wood, account manager for WarrenCordes, "An agency has the advantage of being able to offer a "fresh approach." They don't deal with the same message day after day so they are open to new ideas and can offer immediate marketing solutions. Agencies also have so many resources available that they can often launch a campaign more quickly and effectively than an internal department. That's very important when each day counts."

By outsourcing PR duties, companies can focus on what they do best, and concentrate their resources on reaching their business goals, leaving PR to the professionals.

"Outsourcing offers a lot of flexibility, especially in times like this, strategic marketing is a company's best weapon," explains Wood, "If times are tough, you don't want to disappear from sight, you want to be even more visible. Increasing awareness is the key."

Another bonus to agency PR is that they're easier to fire. "If an agency does not produce, the contract can be cancelled, therefore not exposing the client to any long-term HR risks," says Lloyd Trufelman, president of Trylon Communications.

Trufelman adds that the key when selecting an agency is to pick a specialized agency versus a "generalist ship." "A company should look to hire an agency whose experience maps back to the client's industry, so that the agency can deliver turn-key expertise fast," says Trufelman.

Corporate PR
"Billable hours, [a] retainer, and expensive campaigns" are what come to mind when Eli Kuo, director of public relations for InvoiceDealers, a Web site that acts as a middleman between consumers and car dealers, thinks of agency PR. "PR firms often tell clients that they need a lot of excessive unnecessary things to get press. In fact most reporters tell me they don't like external PR flacks who are not in touch with what is going on inside the company."

Being inside is the name of the game with in-house PR. Total access and total understanding of the product, the company's philosophy, and the company's goals are the main attractions to having PR professionals on the payroll.

"We've all seen accounts manned by junior staffers who lack the PR experience, technical knowledge, and key editorial or analyst contacts required to execute a successful PR campaign," says Susan Shelby, PR director for Tiburon Networks, a telecommunications start-up, "As a start-up, you get one chance to launch your company, and you want to make sure it's done correctly."

She adds that the in-house pro has the advantage of doing "PRBWA" -PR By Walking Around, based on the MBWA (Management By Walking Around) theory. Essentially, PRBWA gives the PR professional the chance "to uncover new ideas and trends in their company" by having conversations with the key players.

"I can have casual conversations with product managers, bump into executives in the cafeteria, and gauge the pulse of the company's plans far better," says Shelby, "That's a perspective that is nearly impossible for outside counsel to gain, no matter how close the relationship is between the company and the account team."

PR professionals on staff can also focus their efforts on their company exclusively. Their time is not spread between the numerous accounts they oversee. "In my last agency position, I worked on four very different technology accounts," says Shelby, "I found it virtually impossible to stay on top of all four clients needs, track industry trends and monitor my client's competitors."

But, the flip side of only having one client is getting bored and stuck in a routine. Says Sullivan of Hope-Beckham, "[Corporate PR professionals] are working within the same framework every day, which can be boring for a creative individual. If the people in the corporate PR department do not actively seek out input they can become stale."

Another pitfall to try to avoid in corporate PR is letting company loyalty and job security impede your media relations instincts. Corporate PR professionals must remember to view their company from the outside.

"The PR people become insulated and can lose touch with how their company is truly perceived. In the event of an emergency, some corporate PR people fall down when it comes time to handle crisis communications," says Sullivan, "They immediately assume a defensive posture, break nearly every rule of crisis communications, alienate their media contacts, and ultimately do more damage than good for their own company."

Regardless of the choice, PR, like any facet of a business, has to bring results.

"Whether a company hires its own in-hour PR team or hires an agency there has to be a return on investment. This must go beyond simply reciting how many column inches or minutes of new coverage a company receives," says Sullivan, "The PR efforts must contribute directly to a company's goals and ultimately its bottom line. Does a company want to increase sales? If so, by how much? Does a company want to enter a new market? Introduce a new product? Unveil a new service? Whatever it might be, the PR team or agency must bring results."

ExpertPR Staff Writer Kevin Mauer is a research analyst in the Special Projects section at MediaMap. A graduate of Old Dominion University, he worked in Washington, DC before coming to MediaMap.

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