Public Relations: Should your company bring it in-house?

Public Relations: Should your company bring it in-house?

Summary: As we move into 2011 budget planning, decision-makers are asking themselves how to create more bang for their buck. Are they being 'penny-wise and pound-foolish' or is this the path to success?

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As we move closer to 2011 budget planning, marketing decision-makers are asking themselves how to create more bang for their buck. Even if a company is not slashing its spending it certainly is trying to determine how it can get more results for its investment. And, in the specific case of public relations, this has created an ongoing question of "should I take my PR in-house?"

The numbers are indicating that this trend is indeed happening. In its most recent agency report, AdAge showed that overall the domestic agency market -- which includes public relations as well as advertising, marketing services, media, and health care -- dropped 7.5% to $28.4 billion in 2009.

The question of in-house PR versus hiring an agency is a much trickier question today than it ever used to be. PR as a function has changed and PR agencies should no longer be simply operating as strict media relations / press release development / "insert tactic here" outlets. There's a bit of a crossover now between traditional public relations agencies and digital agencies. The thing is, that in many companies the cross-functional collaboration required for today's progressive communications is easier to achieve by internal teams, versus agencies that might only work with one business unit. While many agencies are still able to do this well a slew of others are still focused on baseline media relations programs. This is another reason why it might make sense to expand internal teams versus expanding or growing an agency relationship.

Jaelithe Milich, marketing communications specialist at clothing company ExOfficio, said that her company brought its PR in-house not only for traditional elements but for better collaboration overall.

"We brought PR in-house because we wanted quicker and more efficient interaction with ExOfficio product development and customer service," she said. "This allows us to react to customer needs, communicate quickly and authentically and accomplish bigger objectives."

Milich said that the results of taking the program in-house were immediate.

"We’ve seen an 80 percent increase on impressions and reach a more qualified audience," she said.

Milich is not alone in her experience. Many companies made the decision to bring their PR, and even some marketing programs, in-house in 2008 when the brutality of the economy started to truly show itself. While economic factors were an initial consideration, the trend continues due to as many public relations agencies are struggling to move from their traditional roots into digital agencies. At the same time, the hiring of digital agencies that incorporate PR into their larger programs is increasing. There are still risks in agencies trying to be everything to everyone and, for that reason, more companies are choosing to work with internal resources.

"You must be inside our doors, in the thick of our culture, living and breathing our core values to communicate effectively," says Leslie Yeransian, creative writer and media coordinator, Rising Medical Solutions, a national medical cost containment and healthcare management company. "Our existing and prospective clients are on information overload; consistent messaging is key. The best way to achieve that is by keeping communication in-house."

Peter Shankman, founder of Help A Reporter Out and PR veteran, believes that internal PR can be very effective, that is, if the company has the right resources.

"As long as the companies have some idea what they're doing, yes -- it can be helpful to them," Shankman said. "Fact is, no matter how good the PR firm is, no one's ever going to capture your passion the way the actual company will."

Bear in mind that the larger a company gets, the harder it is to bring communications fully in-house. Larger companies generally have multiple agencies or multiple arms of agencies (think Edelman and Edelman Digital) for its different initiatives, and while that can create some communications challenges, it's usually smarter and more effective than having an exceptionally large internal PR resource.

"It's harder for larger companies. The larger the soup, the more cooks; the more cooks, the more voices; the more voices, the more of a chance for two people in the same company to say competing things and shatter the voice," Shankman said.

For small- to medium-businesses, however, bringing PR in-house could be a real opportunity.

"On average, we get about twice the number of media mentions as we did with a public relations firm," said Naomi Whittel, founder and CEO of Reserveage Organics. "They work with many clients and often do not have the ability to invest in researching the best public relations opportunities. I have worked with two public relations firms and feel our in-house department is achieving great things."

There are still many companies that prefer to hire agencies. While saving budget is a benefit, David Prova, owner of design firm Prova, says that his biggest motivator in deciding to hire an agency was freeing up more time to work on the tasks he knows best.

"If I was a networking and social genius, then I would have no need to hire a PR firm," Prova said. "However, the day to day operations would probably be my weakness and I'd need to hire an ops manager or struggle doing it myself. I'm able to see the cost savings (and ROI increase) of hiring a PR firm over spending the required number of hours to manage my own PR."

Prova says that hiring a PR agency has resulted in much more publicity than he believes he could've attracted himself -- and it was accomplished in a short amount of time.

What do journalists want? This is where the people matter more than the method. While in-house communicators have an easier job of learning their company's stories, agency folks, due to their extensive client bases, often have a better scope of the media landscape.

"Ultimately, the best PR people are the ones who (1) know their products cold, and (2) know enough about my publication to have a good sense of what I might find interesting," said Harry McCracken, founder of Technologizer and TIME.com columnist. "Over the years, I've found that there doesn't seem to be any clear pattern about whether those folks are internal or external."

In the end, Shankman advises that companies not be "penny-wise and pound-foolish." Saving money on an agency or investing that same amount into internal staff is a viable option for many companies, but to ensure success make sure that the right type of internal resources are in place.

Do you prefer using a PR agency or relying solely on an internal communications team? Let us know in the TalkBacks.

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  • RE: Public Relations: Should your company bring it in-house?

    Good review of the pros and cons of bringing PR in-house, Jennifer. While I agree with you that having PR in-house allows for more efficient cross-functional capabilities and collaboration, I think the biggest benefit to many companies of still utilizing some type of outside PR relationship is the objective counsel those professionals should be providing executives within a company.

    While certainly no one can argue that in-house people will know a company's brand, its customers, sales cycle, etc. better than in-house people, that's also a problem in itself. As many of us know, it's often difficult to provide objective analysis of our own company's work, strategies or tactics because we are either so focused on that work on a day-to-day basis, or it's our very jobs to champion that work.

    Where outside PR relationships can be very beneficial to companies is in providing that strategic, objective analysis that is needed for executives to make thoughtful decisions regarding the business, messaging and branding impact of specific strategies and decisions. That's certainly not to say that in-house professionals can't provide this type of objective analysis (I know many who can and do it very well), but PR professionals are trained to help companies build their business through the use of objective and strategic counsel ... even if that advice/counsel isn't what executives always want to hear.

    @KeithTrivitt
    KeithTrivitt
    • RE: Public Relations: Should your company bring it in-house?

      @KeithTrivitt
      But an executive is supposed to be an intelligent person, and should have totally intimate knowledge of the market and the products. If they don't understand the market, and need a consultant to explain it to them, then they aren't FIT to be an executive. I do acknowledge, however, that there ARE a lot of hot-air stuffed shirts in the upper echelons. We all pay for incompetent, expensive staff, in high prices and poor value.
      peter_erskine@...
      • RE: Public Relations: Should your company bring it in-house?

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  • RE: Public Relations: Should your company bring it in-house?

    Great article, Jennifer! The ever-long debate, is PR better in-house or with an agency? The most important factor is that PR can't be looked at as its own separate entity, it needs to be fully integrated, and whether that comes through agency relationships or internally is up to the stage of the company.

    When I made the decision to bring part of our PR program in-house, we were at a stage where it made more sense to align an internal team with the business objectives. In addition, part of it was also needing the passion - what Peter Shankman said here: ?Fact is, no matter how good the PR firm is, no one?s ever going to capture your passion the way the actual company will.? We now have that passion in spades and our success is proof! But agencies should never be overlooked.

    The agencies that I know who are being successful are evolving with the new media/communications/digital, etc... landscape. At the end of the day agencies will always serve an important purpose - holding media relationships and having a larger view of the world to make sure that a communications strategy is targeted right and doesn't fall victim to a company drinking too much of its own kool-aide. And a really successful agency can integrate itself closely with the internal team and can certainly share the passion.

    In my mind, the decision to bring PR in-house is purely based on the stage of the company and internal dynamics.
    JenniferJewett
  • RE: Public Relations: Should your company bring it in-house?

    The best PR is a friendly smile and a great attitude.

    I fear that many corporations are turning something that should be relatively simple into something too complex, be it in house or not.

    So complex, in fact, that it is pretty much its own industry now. It should not be taking this many resources to begin with.

    I do find it odd that when people are demanding more direct relations with a business that they often still go through a third party. PR is one of those things where people generally do not like middlemen. People often feel like the PR firm is "filtering" their relationship with the business and not letting them see an accurate picture.
    CobraA1
  • PR is actually Waste Management.

    Normally you don't think of PR as garbage, but it is. Any really good company or product doesn't need ANY PR management. Good products at the right price just sell.
    So: By all means bring PR in-house, and cut the PR cost at the same time. The customer needs to know one thing alone: That you understand and meet the requirements.
    peter_erskine@...
  • RE: Public Relations: Should your company bring it in-house?

    Jennifer,

    I think your article is well balanced, but as with every article written about PR, the comments are what I find most interesting. Funny that people think its just that easy that anyone should just be able to do it. Just smile and be nice and make a good product - nothing could be easier and the Wall Street Journal should be calling you any second now.

    People have expertise for a reason. Certainly I COULD paint my house by myself. I COULD do my own plumbing. I COULD put in my new hardwood floor. But I don't because I know that if I did, while it would be ok, it would not be as good as if an expert did it.

    I am not saying there are some companies that could bring it in house - my argument isn't with that. Its with those who have no idea what we do who think its really easy.
    lisa@...
  • RE: Public Relations: Should your company bring it in-house?

    Jennifer, what I like about this article is that you show both sides of the story. But, I'd like to offer another budget-related point for consideration. When the economy crashed, many companies were forced to cut their agency ties and/or lay off internal communication teams. Now, as companies start to see segments of the economy improving (albeit incredibly slowly), execs are trying to figure out how to best allocate limited resources. Is it more fiscally responsible to hire or to outsource? With a new hire, the company is on the hook for taxes, benefits, and of course salaries. Last year, I started my own communication consulting firm and I've found that many small businesses and even some nonprofits prefer to outsource rather than making the "full-time" commitment that comes along with hiring someone internally because it's actually more affordable. Just another side of the coin ...

    Heather Whaling
    @prTini
    prtini
  • Why force a choice?

    Having led communications in-house and from the agency side, I always worry when PR is looked at as an either/or choice... because the combination of in-house and external resources, on a tightly integrated team, is unbeatable. In-house pros develop a depth of understanding of the nuances of a company that's crucial to success. And external pros bring a level of outside context and perspective that's equally crucial. The internal person can be a dedicated communications person or can be someone who owns communications as part of broader responsibilities (at early-stage companies, this will often be the CEO and/or head of marketing). Having the best of both worlds is both feasible and, increasingly, imperative.
    mclarke15
    • RE: Public Relations: Should your company bring it in-house?

      @mclarke15 that is an excellent point and is actually my experience as well.
      lisa@...