How to thrive in a PR agency
The most important piece of advice to advance your public relations or communications career (or any career for that matter!).
Learning how to be successful in a public relations agency is a stressful on-the-job, sink-or-swim, immersive experience—but there’s no reason to learn all the lessons the hard way, right?
We are agency pros based out of London (Shalon) and New York (Kristin). (Hi there!) After meeting in a PR agency, leading several global teams, and wishing for a foundational book we could give to our newer colleagues, we wrote, “How to Succeed in a PR Agency: Real Talk to Grow Your Career & Become Indispensable” to provide practical advice on what it takes to contribute, grow and thrive in a PR agency. Don’t just take our word for it—the book also contains contributions from 17 PR agency leaders from different sectors around the globe, including Edelman, Weber Shandwick, MSL, Burson Cohn & Wolfe and Ketchum.
We believe that the uplifting guidance of a generous mentor (or author!) is much better than floundering on one’s own (which we did plenty of early on). And, agency work is greatly team-based, so it’s important to understand not only PR, but the secrets that make successful agencies tick. Unfortunately, many of those secrets are revealed only after years of experience—until now.
Here’s how we synthesized theory and practical advice to demystify the unique environment, culture, and skills necessary to be successful in a PR agency:
One of the biggest challenges we face when onboarding newer professionals is that they don’t understand the context they’re working in. This is why we spend the first third of the book talking about agency basics. We unpack agency structures, roles and how teams are formed, demystify the new business process and provide advice on writing, since it’s the skill that underpins most traditional and digital PR activities and team / client relationships.
Most importantly, we spend a lot of time on finance. It’s unusual for PR pros early in their career—and perhaps even in mid-career—to identify as “numbers people.” Those who work in PR often don’t have confidence that they are strong in math or finance. But we need to squash that thinking here and now. Financial management is a central part of leading a successful team because each client account must be run like an independent business within a holding company. This means accounts not only have to be well-managed, but PR pros need to be clear on how the success of the client’s business fits into the overall success of their agency.
Most early career professionals think of time entry as a nuisance and haven’t a clue how it feeds into overall financial management of an account including: project scoping, budget management, staffing, ongoing capacity planning and billing. While the level of detail in the book is a crash course for new account managers, it’s imperative for newbies to also have an appreciation even if they won’t apply the knowledge in their current day-to-day roles. Education is the only way to prevent inaccurate / delayed time entry, misclassification of billable time and the most dreaded budget issue of all—over-servicing.
Even with increasing levels of financial responsibility, most early to mid-career PR pros are unaware that they don’t need to be given a promotion or even permission to act like a leader. PR pros need to recognize that everything they do is leading by example and they have the choice to hone how they use this power with every decision.
To shift gears into a leadership mindset, we discuss how the four behaviours identified in the Harvard Business Review’s 10-year study of 2,000 C-level executives (CEO Genome Project), can be applied by PR pros at any level. We also explore how to achieve authenticity and how that impacts building personal relationships (people trust people, not robots), and of course, expectation management.
Like most career development books, we make it all sound relatively manageable, but we know first-hand that putting these lessons into practice can be tough, which is why we provide a lot of examples and tips. As consultants with many masters (multiple clients, multiple account leads, line manager, agency managing director, etc) and a seemingly endless workload—mastering the art of being perceived as a team player while not overcommitting yourself in the process, is a challenging balancing act even for seasoned professionals. This is why we share our 5 diplomacy and persuasion gems of advice and our 5 rules of expectation management that have served us throughout our careers.
Lead the way
PR pros may think you stop “doing” when you become a middle manager (managers to senior vice presidents) or even a director, but that is a myth—the role just becomes more complex. We’re expected to manage, lead, and do. This is why we provide practical advice to bring out the best in everyone’s management and leadership style against the backdrop of a demanding workload.
The book goes into excruciating detail on best practices on how to build a solid team down to interview questions and a hiring rubric to compare candidates. Building a team is like a chemical reaction: if you get all the elements right, you end up with a useful solution; if you get the proportions wrong, you end up with a serious (and often expensive) mess.
We also discuss how to develop and proactively manage one’s personal brand, effectively manage clients, mentor and of course the most critical—managing one’s career trajectory. PR pros of all levels need to be setting measurable goals, monitoring progress, taking advantage of professional development resources (like this book!), and embracing opportunities to cultivate your best professional self. As Sheryl Sandberg famously said, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.”