How well a business promotes its products or services, engages with its customers and, when necessary, how it responds to a crisis are often the difference between failure and success. Effective public relations and communications strategies can translate to greater brand awareness and public or shareholder trust. Poor PR and comms risk slowing an organisation’s growth.
Whether a company chooses to manage its PR and comms in-house or use an agency, then, is one of the most important board-level decisions to be made. Investing in neither is naïve. But choosing between them is not straightforward and there are several factors to take into account.
Time and money
For smaller organisations, in particular, in-house PR or comms teams could represent a cost-saving compared to agency fees. This can ring-fence more budget to be used elsewhere. As Jess Magill, the co-founder of Powderkeg, a microbrewery in Exeter, explains: “Doing our PR in-house means we can direct all available spend towards marketing. We target things such as digital ads, print ads in wholesale magazines and events.”
As a small business, Magill adds, it is important for Powderkeg to be “very nimble” and able to change its messaging quickly according to evolving situations. Nodding to the contexts of the coronavirus pandemic or cost-of-living crisis, she says this has become “especially important over the last couple of years… The further away your communications [strategy] is from the company’s [central leadership] team, the more time-consuming and costly it can be to change direction.”
But Kieron Goldsborough, the CEO of Different Narrative, a Newcastle-based marketing and PR firm, says the consistent and steady expense of an agency fee might be more cost-effective than recruitment or in-house training – and give smaller businesses access to resources they wouldn’t otherwise have.
He asks: “Are you better off hiring a new marketing graduate on a salary of around £23,000, or will you get better outcomes by investing that £23,000 in an agency, which would set up a team of graphic design, PR, media buying and advertising experts for your account?
“Agency partnering also reduces the risk to businesses operating in fluctuating markets of hiring staff but then needing to let go of them during a quiet period. Clients can dial up or dial down their activity, in line with their business operations and needs.”
Who is controlling the PR message?
For highly specialist or technical organisations, using an in-house PR or comms team could help with guaranteeing the necessary expertise. For Steve Hynd, the policy and media manager at City to Sea, an environmental charity in Bristol that campaigns to stop plastic pollution, this is essential.
“Having a knowledge base around plastic pollution and wider environmentalism allows us to tailor our external communications to make sure we’re not just getting the coverage of our campaigns, but also that our key messages are accurately and effectively communicated,” he says. “Working in-house allows us to quickly give specialist professional opinions about breaking stories or complex overlapping issues.”
Sports Interactive, the London-based video game developer responsible for the Football Manager series, uses a mix of its own in-house PR, in-house PR within its publisher Sega and several external agency partnerships. Andrew Sinclair, the PR manager who works directly for Sports Interactive, says that his team handles most of the media requests and campaigns attached to the games. For Sinclair, the tone of press coverage is vital and the in-house team at Sports Interactive ensures more technical details of the games are communicated accessibly and that the right outlets are targeted.
“By keeping most of our PR output in-house,” he says, “we can control the messaging of how our games are spoken about. Taking a more DIY approach to our PR functions means we’re much more attuned to the media landscape, who the people are that are talking about our games, and the coverage they’re providing. We’re able to shape a stronger bank of favourable contacts based on hard evidence, rather than trying to spray all fields.”
Sports Interactive tends to use agencies, Sinclair explains, to syndicate press releases and other assets to their clients, often in other countries, “where we don’t have contacts and a language barrier exists”.
Gaining a fresh perspective
While it may be fair to say that a business is often well-placed to comment on itself, Amy Story, an account director for technology at the London arm of the American agency FleishmanHillard, suggests it can be beneficial for organisations to work outside their bubble.
Alex Silcox, the chief client officer at the London arm of another American agency, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, agrees. He points out that while in-house teams may indeed have a strong handle on their specific field, they risk missing opportunities to explore or intersect with others, by simply not being exposed to them.
“Part of my role as CCO is to help clients benefit from the many touchpoints and viewpoints we have,” he says. “Conversely, [companies that use in-house teams] can be, understandably, hampered by a relatively narrow ‘window out’ from their business or category pressures and challenges.”
Where in-house teams risk succumbing to bias, Story notes, agencies are also able to give “more impartial counsel”.
Bringing in PR insight, expertise and access
In-house PR or comms teams are not always made up of staff with PR or comms backgrounds or training. Sometimes, the person or people on in-house teams are juggling multiple responsibilities.
Different Narrative’s CEO Kieron Goldsborough points out that agency teams can focus their efforts. “They spend 24/7 working in a creative environment which will not only ensure your PR campaigns use the most innovative ideas, but they’re also on top of changing trends in the sector.”
“Working with a global PR agency like FleishmanHillard,” Story highlights, “gives a business access to hundreds of experts across multiple specialisms, including corporate communications, public affairs, crisis support, social media, and market research. We are also part of a global network of nearly 80 offices in over 30 countries, which makes it easier for our clients to activate or extend their comms activity as needed.”
What is the best PR strategy?
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for PR and comms. And in addressing the in-house versus agency debate, perhaps there is a balance to be struck, according to needs and priorities.
Where in-house teams can ensure “closeness and continuity”, says Kelly Fogarty, co-audience and communications director at London’s Soho Theatre, established agencies’ media contacts are likely to be more extensive. Where in-house teams might have immediate access to a company’s founder, the distance and nuance offered by agencies can be more adept at making an advert sound less obviously self-servicing.
“Sometimes companies doing their own PR can get carried away with claiming how good they are,” comments one PR professional at a multinational firm, who prefers not to be named. “We try to get them to focus more on thought leadership and adding to a wider conversation. A bit of hand-holding can go a long way.”
As with Sports Interactive, Fogarty says that at Soho Theatre, although the bulk of PR is handled in-house there is also scope to “engage project-based freelancers and agencies” for individual shows or campaigns that may require it.
As Soho Theatre’s PR team also supports its sales and marketing and social media departments, sometimes outsourcing individual projects, she says, “helps to alleviate the challenges that come with a high volume of work. And we are still rebuilding our team following the pandemic.”
Ultimately, how a company communicates its ideas, products, services or special offers is crucial to its chances. Making sure those things are communicated in the most appropriate and effective spaces, rather than simply throwing a lot of messages at a wall and seeing what sticks, is one of the most significant conversations senior leadership should be having.