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Should I Hire a PR Firm or Go In-House?

gorilla-rentals-now-hiring.jpgMany companies (start-ups in particular) are confronted with the decision of whether to hire an outside PR firm, or to lead their PR efforts internally. These are the associated pros / cons as I see them:

In-House PR Pros ...

  • Lower cost than PR firm - A decent PR firm will typically be in the $10-15k range monthly. A marketing director-level internal hire (with PR as a sub-set of overall responsibilities) requires a salary that's much more palatable.
  • Retain the knowledge - With a PR firm, you're providing their staffers with a free education on your industry domain. This is the most fundamental opposition that folks seem to have with the PR firm route, and rightfully so. Somehow it just seems foolish NOT to have that expertise developed / retained in-house.
  • Own the press / analyst relationships more directly - Similarly, there is something perplexing about the idea of being one step removed from the relationships with the target journalists / analysts. An in-house PR approach retains tighter control over those relationships.
  • Much closer to the information, able to respond quicker than outside firm - The in-house person can walk down the hall and ask the VP of sales a question. The in-house person was IN the meeting where the new product was demo'd (and not hearing about it second-hand). There are numerous examples through the course of the business day where information is exchanged / absorbed by the in-house person (and the PR firm is at a disadvantage by virtue of not being there).
PR Firm Pros ...
  • Network effect of their access to industry journalists / analysts / etc. - In my opinion, this is the most powerful 'pro' on the PR firms side of the argument. When you work with a PR firm that has numerous other clients in your industry, you enjoy the benefit of the cumulative relationships and knowledge that the PR firm has developed. Often a PR firm is working with a journalist on a story on behalf of one client, and it turns out that another client is also a fit. There is this sort of element of serendipity in how stories develop, and often the only way to get dragged in is if you are simply in contact with the journalist. By having numerous touch-points with different journalists, the PR firm gives clients access to opportunities that would be neither obvious nor accessible to simply an in-house person.
  • Client roster / peer network effect - Some PR firms enable some pretty rich interaction between multiple clients in a similar domain. There is definitely something valuable about the personal introductions and advice that's exchanged.
  • Valuable sounding board for positioning, etc. - It's great to have access to a reality check on new positioning, branding, etc. Often in-house teams can be seduced by their own ideas to such an extent that they become blind to the obvious criticisms. The outside PR firm theoretically should be a valuable source that either validates the new ideas or speaks up if they think they don't jive (unfortunately, many PR firms glad-handle their clients in situations where it's tough to give critical advice, because they're more interested in keeping that monthly retainer rolling in, and fragile egos typically don't like to hear negative feedback on their new ideas).
  • Additional source of new ideas / angles / etc. - The PR firm should be a source of new creative ideas, based on their knowledge of your story combined with their collective insights (via other clients).
In-House PR Cons ...
  • PR is typically just a sub-set of overall responsibilities - It is very seldom (with the exception of very large companies) that the in-house person is exclusively focused on PR. They are typically a jack-of-all trades marketing person, with numerous other responsibilities. Often as different priorities pop up, PR becomes a distant priority, and when there's nobody with an eye on the queue, a few months can easily slip by without any noteworthy publicity wins. The PR firm, on the other hand, is explicitly on the hook for coverage and (*should* be) measured by the amount / quality of coverage.
  • Less frequent overall correspondence with journalists (than PR firm) may lead to missed opportunities - The in-house person tends to have considerably less interaction with journalists than the PR firm. They do not enjoy the network benefit that comes through continuous journalist / analyst interaction on behalf of a number of different clients.
  • Being too close to subject matter sometimes limits scope of new ideas - Being on the in-house side does afford a much deeper understanding of the product / business. But it can be challenging for the in-house person to investigate new ancillary angles and to figure out creative new ways to tell the story.
PR Firm Cons ...
  • Exorbitant cost - Most PR firms with a proven track record and existing relationships aren't cheap by any standard.
  • Typically bulk of work done by junior-level PR firm staffers - The wise and charismatic founder of the PR firm does the song and dance to win the business. Then your day-to-day contact is at least 10 years younger / greener. You get the occasional cameo from the founder, but somehow you feel like you're getting screwed (I bet that exact scenario applies to more than 75% of folks that are paying good $ for a PR firm).
  • Time required to keep PR firm updated - Add another weekly meeting to your plate. For this one, you have to inform a third party of everything potentially newsworthy that they can use to drum up publicity interest. If they're any good, they'll continuously have new opportunities in the queue, and new angles / ideas they want to run by you. If they're lousy, they'll try to tell you that you're not giving them enough info to work with (despite the avalanche of info you gave them at the onset of the relationship) ... and they'll have zero qualms about wasting your time with questions that you've already answered in previous correspondence. Wheeee!
  • They own the journalist relationships - The interview is just part of the relationship. The email / phone correspondences that lead up to the interview are often where the relationships are really formed. Does it make sense for an outside party to have that historic interaction with *your* important targets?
  • Conflicts of interest - A typical PR firm employee will work on at least 2-3 accounts simultaneously. Often a single person on the account team will achieve the bulk of the results for those clients. Are there stretches where you're essentially paying $12-15 / mo. for one third of one (junior) person's time? Are there months where your account is not a priority because the firm has a newer, higher paying account? Is your PR firm inserting its other clients into your stories, when the opportunity presents itself? Yes. Yes. And yes.
  • Don't have the time to understand the intricacies of clients' products - Most of the PR firm folks you deal with are an inch deep and a mile wide. They know the buzzwords in the headlines, but they don't know what most of the acronyms really stand for. They'll know enough about your company (hopefully) to tell your story in an interesting way. But even six months into the relationship with the PR firm, scratch beneath the superficial surface of their understanding of your company, and be prepared to be astonished by what they do not know.
  • Weekly / monthly status reports and other posturing - Like reading weekly and monthly reports? No? Well, your PR firm spends at least 10-20% of its cycles documenting their work / results. Wouldn't you prefer that they applied that time to getting 10-20% more results for you?
Many of these pros / cons are generalizations. Of course there are exceptions to these scenarios. There are PR firms that get incredible results with minimal supervision / guidance (and whose senior staff are intimately involved with the account). And there are in-house folks (with no PR firm) that get tremendous results and have an incredible network of contacts (and get better publicity results than competing vendors with large PR firms retained). But those are some common scenarios / considerations to take under advisement when considering whether to go in-house or PR firm route ...

"Gorilla Rentals: Now Hiring" image courtesy of madbytess's photostream on flickr creative commons.

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