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!).
It’s 4pm on a Friday and your client just rings you about a heap of last-minute work that needs doing before the weekend. You think – wow – life on the other side seems like a piece of cake! I just call up my agency and they do all my work for me. We’re about to pop that bubble because things are not as they appear. Take it from someone who pinballed between agency and brand-side roles, no matter which side you’re on, you’ll be working hard.
Most of your day is spent producing – whether its ideas, strategies, campaigns or documents – you’re producing tangible work products that you submit to your client(s).
Your boss and client praise you for getting results – whether it’s beautiful campaign materials, pulling off a virtual event on a tight timeline or getting quality media coverage – it’s all about what you’ve done.
Of course, the expectation is that you will think strategically, tactically and creatively, but your client is going to provide parameters to help guide the ever-changing priorities, give you the inside track on what’s expected and will often advise on the direction of the work in terms of content and format.
We’ve all had difficult clients and bosses, but most of the time your insight and opinions are not only welcome, but expected. Praise and recognition are doled out like candy (and there’s generally plenty of that too!).
Sure, you work long hours without a break and check work email on your phone, but unless something extraordinary or horrible happens, you probably won’t be hearing from your boss, team, or clients in the evenings or on the weekends.
Both large and boutique agencies tend to have offices in major cities such as: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Shanghai, New York, San Francisco, etc. However, in a post-COVID world, working from home wherever that may be, is likely to become more widely accepted.
Prior to the pandemic, many PR consultants felt like road warriors between attending client meetings, industry events, and new business pitches; however, the reality is you still have plenty of time in the office in-between. Large teams generally share the responsibility of attending client engagements in-person, making it almost a treat. Unless you’re an executive, most of your time is spent at your desk.
However, lockdown has proven what us virtual collectives have been preaching all along – teams can effectively collaborate and service clients remotely. Travel and in-person meetings may be reduced for traditional agency teams even after we return to “normal.”
Most agencies charge clients based on actual hours worked so the likelihood that you will spend a ridiculous amount of time chronicling your working life in 15-minute increments is high.
Despite agency lay-offs due to COVID-19, there’s still more agency roles in existence than in-house roles within brands and organisations. Agencies also provide clear career progression and opportunities to learn, grow, and network are practically limitless.
There’s little time to create because most of your day is spent in meetings (or these days on Zoom calls) gaining consensus within the organisation (generally on the ideas your agency produced).
Results are expected but undercut if consensus wasn’t gained first. From start-ups to larger organisations, getting stakeholders onboard, securing funding and managing expectations is what consumes your day, every day. This is a great opportunity to hone your presentation and persuasion skills.
You were hired and that’s pretty much your remit to dig into the organisation and figure out what needs to be done to support the executives’ priorities. If you’re naturally proactive, you’ll thrive, otherwise you may feel like you were dumped into the deep end without much guidance.
Unless an organisation truly understands the power of communications, a lot of education is needed. Executives may favour marketing because it produces specific conversion metrics to assess return on investment (ROI). Since communications impact multiple aspects of a business, performance indicators often feel less concrete to executives. It will be critical to master serving up PR metrics that matter.
It’s more likely that you’ll be able to take some time to exercise during the day (or handle whatever else you have going on outside work); however, colleagues in other time zones will ask for calls before or after hours, urgent items can arise without time to brief your agency, media requests come in with tight editorial deadlines, investors call and the list goes on…
Generally, you’re based in company headquarters which can often be outside cities where real estate is less expensive. However, the remote working movement, expedited by lockdown, is probably going to make flexible arrangements more common.
Everyone’s grounded right now, but if your role is global and the organisation has an international team, you’re in for some serious travel once things return to normal. Not only do you attend everything your agencies do, but there’s numerous other meetings related to the many facets of your role in addition to internal meetings. You’ll often find yourself on long-haul flights and expected to perform in back-to-back meetings. Hope you’re into coffee because you’re going to need it!
Hallelujah! Now you can focus on other operational tasks that waste just as much of your time like submitting piles of expense receipts (unless you’re lucky enough to have an assistant).
Since there are fewer in-house positions, they are coveted and you’ll see few communications consultants return to agency life once they’ve gone to the other side. With that said, there’s limited career trajectory unless the organisation has a large communications department.
While the job market is tough right now, even for public relations, which previously was in a constant state of recruiting (especially in healthcare), there’s still opportunities for you to potentially make a move. Just make sure it’s the right move for you – that it will progress your skills toward your ultimate career goal, not just because the grass looks greener on the other side.