Narrow house

As more and more marketing functions move in-house, what is the…

Every PR wants, not needs, to feel wanted. But in a world of in-house PR teams, internal shared services and shrinking external agency budgets, is there still as much need for third parties to advise and execute media policy?

The answer, with a bit of modernization, is an emphatic yes.

PR’s big sister, advertising, paved the way. Consumer brands, in particular, have used in-house teams for decades. That Specsavers or Stella Artois TV ad you love was probably produced by an award-winning in-house team. But working in-house on already-known brands, where TV campaigns and products are planned well in advance, is very different from the cut and push of digital PR.

Advertising continues to move internally. A recent report from the World Federation of Advertisers showed a 23% increase in members using an in-house agency type offering. Today, four out of five respondents have internal capabilities. Public relations has also seen the rise of internal PR, content and media relations resources, often to cope with the sheer number of social channels that need to be managed.

The Mad Men don’t exist anymore

Gone are the days of global mega-PR agencies battling each other with grandiose “Mad Men” pitches. That’s not a bad thing. Our favorite ‘back in the day’ anecdote involved motorbike taxis driving through central London and into sprawling abandoned industrial buildings with scenes adorned with expensively imported flowers.

Despite the times, clients and PR budgets all changing, external agencies, working across digital channels for many brands, undoubtedly always provide an edge. This applies even in deeply outdated B2B markets, where internal teams can often worry that their brand’s technical superiority will be lost in translation by an external PR team.

Credibility vs Creativity

Internal creativity is a problem. A narrow focus on internal decisions dulls the business acumen of internal “agencies”. Paying more attention to internal movements naturally means less time observing trends when they reach tipping points and thus stifles vital creativity to break into today’s relentless market for attention.

In some cases, this lack of creativity could be a generational issue. Relying on ideas proven by others may seem like a safer bet for a senior executive than heeding ideas from the young team brainstormed on the company’s day away.

However, this can be a long-term mistake. The wisdom of sorting out “warmed up” ideas from real innovation is where great internal leaders get the most out of their external PR consultancy.

Fighting groupthink

Those who rely solely on internal teams, without truly independent external voices, can suffer from groupthink. This tends to happen most in hierarchical internal teams where promotions may depend on the satisfaction of the boss. It’s no coincidence that the biggest PR howls are when no internal decision-maker backed down for a few minutes and thought “outside the box” about the potential to upset the public.

Today’s consumers are the digital dictators of PR, changing their preferences faster than traditional PR brand gatekeepers can keep up. Without a “finger on the pulse” of fashion trends, brands can lose relevance with a single sarcastic message.

The new public relations contract

There is a compromise. Today’s in-house PR teams are brilliant at handling press office functions, often alongside external presentation teams. Managed well, this avoids bandwidth issues, allowing internal teams to focus their internal resources where they are best deployed. The key is to play to each side’s strengths.

We see a new relationship emerging between internal communications talent and PR agencies. Our teams now regularly work alongside internal teams, acting as a global resource and providing external creative input, bringing together regional and national agencies, drawing on experts from our network.

Our teams also lead specific projects whose objectives fall outside the scope of internal teams, including writing TikTok video scripts for campaigns, advising on conference venues, or commissioning independent global research projects.

When guided by clear goals, it works well for the client and the agency. The external vendor acts as a catalyst for future strategic direction and the internal commissioning team stays close to their brand and direction. The client benefits from cost effective access to external talent and our network of independent specialists, who may not feel ready or willing to work at a company and would not normally have access to more ‘mature’ clients.

Reduced risks

Those who want to consider the external PR agency model obsolete should be careful what they wish for. A previous special report from PRMoment, first published half a decade ago, proves the challenges faced by internal teams.

They haven’t changed that much. One participant commented: “The variety of skills required means it’s incredibly difficult for an in-house team to recreate all the skills you need, and it’s extremely risky – having so many people on staff.

Recruitment errors are a major risk for all internal teams. This can be costly financially and also in terms of team morale. Teams with weak links are weak teams.

But let’s be brutally honest about it; agencies are easier to cut and change than employees. Changing agencies, while often painful, should at least not run the risk of an exodus of experienced internal staff.

For external PR agencies, that’s the gamble. We remain as strong as our last set of results. But for many of us, the allure of working outside of brands is the thrill of the new. They say variety is the spice of agency life.

So are we eternal consultants always up to date? Probably more than ever, to more customers and on more projects. But only as long as we provide something our customers need and can’t access internally. Clients buying from the mega agencies of yesteryear are a thing of the past. We are happy to see that being a different, more modern and collaborative agency has never made so much sense.

Written by Paul Maher, CEO of marketing agency Positive

If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our bi-weekly events and subscriber alerts.

Currently, each new subscriber will receive three of our favorite stories from the PR industry.

ESG Awards

The intersection of data, information and PR planning