Agency v. Corporate PR–How to Decide?

On the heels of PRSSA National Conference 2009, one particular seminar stood out the most to me. “Crusin’ with PR—Corporate vs. Agency” provided beneficial insight to future public relations practitioners. As students often ponder what fields of PR interests them, corporate and agency often pop up.

Tim Wheatcroft, general manager of Allison & Partners’ San Diego office, represented the agency side of the argument, whereas Rana Kay, public relations manager at the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego, works on the corporate side. Both presented valid arguments, some of which I’ll share with you.

PR Agencies

Pros:

  • Exposure to wide variety of clients 
  • More access to new and upcoming tools and resources
  • More opportunity for training
  • Opportunity to learn quickly
  • Surrounded by other PR people

Cons:

  • Media sees you as a barrier—often a love/hate relationship
  • Multiple bosses you answer to—your boss and client
  • Salaries not as high, especially in popular sectors
  • The larger the agency the less exposure to senior management

New PR professionals often worry they cannot juggle multiple clients at once, the lower salaries and longer hours may also scare beginners away. Most beginners let the intimidation scare them away from what could be an incredible opportunity. An agency will afford you the opportunity to try your hand at many different specializations. Especially early on in your career, you should try different PR fields before you can say what you like and don’t like. An agency will also be filled with older, wiser PR professionals who can help teach and mentor you.  Tim and Rana both agreed that starting off at an agency is invaluable because it better prepares you for corporate PR.

Here are some pros and cons for working at a corporation:

Corporate

 Pros:

  • Higher salaries
  • Access to senior executive early in career
  • Ability to specialize in area you enjoy
  • Interact with the marketing department
  • Easier to forge relationships with the media
  • Chance to learn from PR agencies

Cons:

  • Your boss most likely won’t be a PR specialist
  • Less exposure to new techniques
  • Can be too niche
  • Limited advancement opportunity
  • Less time on traditional PR activities

If you’re someone who already has a clear train of thought of what you want to do, corporate PR may be more your forte. At a corporation you get to work closely with other departments, such asmarketing department, which may particularly interest PR majors who have a business minor. Another major pro for working at a corporation is the long-term benefits. Graduates may not be thinking about their 401k quite yet but need to keep it in mind for the future.

Obviously, there’s not a “one size fits all” in PR, as people thrive in different environments. It’s important to note that agency and corporate PR share overlapping themes. As Rana and Tim said, neither side is cushier than the other.

Do you think it’s better to start off at an agency or a corporation? Why? Have you found any noticeable differences between working at an agency and corporation?

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10 Responses to Agency v. Corporate PR–How to Decide?

  1. wwillis says:

    The debate of the century. A debate I am sure we are all well aware of. Personally, I love the feel of working in-house for a corporation. However, I also understand the importance of gaining agency experience before entering that world. In the agency world you learn quickly how to juggle tasks stay up with trends (read my blog post for more on that) and immerse yourself in the PR world.

  2. bgansar says:

    Through my internships I have had a chance to work in a corporate and agency setting, and my experience shows that the agency does a lot of different work than what the corporate world does. Everyday there is something new in agency, whereas corporate can get repetitive. I do like the idea that you brought up about how your boss may not know what’s going on in PR in corporate- I never thought about this and depending on the person it could be a good or bad thing. I think it would be good, you can prove yourself by impressing the boss and teaching him/her new things! Take advantage of that.

  3. ekozak says:

    I believe that all new PR pros should start out at an agency if possible. Most importantly, working with clients in multiple industries allows a PR pro to find out what interests him or her. You may never have thought about a career in tech or healthcare PR, but a choice encounter could completely sway your career plans. Also, unless you are working with a VERY large corporation that has a large PR department, you may not get the benefit of learning from others. For example, I spoke to a new PR pro yesterday that is one of three in a department that handles all external and internal communication. With such a small department, there may be less time for traditional PR activities. Plus agencies work on multiple projects for multiple clients, so you may get experience planning events, drafting media advisories, doing research, writing newsletters, communicating with the media, etc. All of those skills will help if and when you choose to move to the corporate world.

  4. sferrer says:

    Ashley,
    It is rather interesting that you brought up this topic because I have considered whether PR agency life or corporate is more suitable for me. Being an intern for a boutique agency in Scottsdale, I have worked closely with clients from various industries such as hospitality and tourism business to a company in the green market. Working for different clients and an array of targeted media makes PR experts worldly. However, I would prefer to narrow my clients to a certain industry rather than juggling various clients. I absolutely believe that PR agencies are a great way to enter the industry. You learn all the nuts and bolts in a setting like that. Corporations have higher expectations and are usually more conservative as opposed to agencies that are usually more laidback.

  5. bjohnson says:

    I have definitely found noticeable differences between working for an agency and a corporation. I personally liked the consistency of the in-house corporate job but the agency style was good for me as I learned the art of pitching, balancing multiple clients and participating in all aspects of the integrated marketing mix.

    As a soon-to-be graduate I welcome opportunities in both sides of the field but realize that my passion is being able to devote all attention to one client. I think it is interesting that Rana Kay noted that it is easier to move up in an agency versus in an in-house position but I also find it something odd that agency practitioners typically makes less money than an in-house PR practitioner would make.

    In the end, I think it depends on the person as to what is better for starting a career. I think both sides should be tested out but everyone is going to have their own preferences based on personality, experience and ultimate career goals.

  6. bihrig says:

    1. I have heard the debate over which is better, agency or corporate, but I think neither is better than the other. I think it depends on the person. Some people will do better in an agency while others would do better at the corporate level. I have never gotten to look at the pros and cons laid out next to each other and I never realized how different they are.

    While I don’t think one is better than the other, I do think starting off at an agency is a smarter move for most people because you become more well rounded. I would want to start at the agency level and them move up to the corporate level. There is so much to learn about PR and I feel like the best way to expand your knowledge of PR is to work with all different types of clients. The corporate level doesn’t allow you to get that sort of experience. People just starting out should think about starting at an agency unless their personality or career goals are corporate focused.

  7. cgharai says:

    There will obviously be pros and cons with working for a firm/agency or a corporation. I do feel, having worked with a corporation, that i am part of a whole; a total initiative. Of course, some many not be exposed to the option of working for a corporation, given their geographic location. I agree that “one size fits all” in PR, when it comes to the drive of a specialist, their duties and responsibilities (to either a firm or a corporation). It is subjective and highly based on the individual. I plan to seek agency positions after corporate world shows no sign of acceptability, as a career-seeking graduate. Hopefully that will not be the case for me.

  8. ecain says:

    So far through interning I have only experienced agency life. While I do like working on a variety of clients each day, I can definitely see some of the cons of an agency such as the long hours and having to answer not only to your direct boss but also to your clients as bosses. However, I am not quite sure where it would be better to start off. Both agencies and corporations have their advantages and I think that both would provide a great learning experience as an entry-level employee. I guess in this market I will just be happy to start a career in PR after I graduate and will not be too picky about whether it is at an agency or corporation.

  9. sclarke says:

    I have heard from numerous people that starting at an agency is the best way to go. My first internship was in a corporate office and it definitely persuaded me that I wanted to eventually be working for a corporate business. I understand how the pros outweigh the cons for an agency, however the pros and cons for a corporate job seem more appealing. This is something we all will ultimately learn when we go into the work force. My opinion that I have now could very well change in the future.

  10. astrazzara says:

    Whitney- Yes, it does seem that agency v. corporate is a major dilemma PR students face when deciding what they want to do. I would say that both agency and corporate PR demand that PR pros juggle multiple tasks.

    Brittney- An agency has different clients and a corporation is about one client, however, I wouldn’t say that corporate PR is repetitive. I think that with corporate PR you get to branch out more into other departments, you can broaden your horizon from more than traditional PR. Plus you become a well-versed expert.

    Erin- I agree that an agency will provide you with multiple avenues to decide what field of PR you like. You may have clients from travel to fashion, and later determine that you love travel PR and decide you want to do corporate PR for a resort.

    Stephanie F.- That’s an interesting notion you brought up about corporations having higher expectations and being more conservative. I think that may be because corporations are often larger and better established.

    Britnee- Yes, it was interesting that Rana mentioned that agency professionals often make a significantly amount less than corporate. There’s no one size PR for everyone, and it’s great to see people excel in different environments.

    Britney- It’s interesting that many think starting off at an agency will make you a more well-rounded PR pro, as I see both sides, agency will introduce you to different fields and corporate will expand your skills beyond the traditional PR.

    Claudia- That’s a great point about feeling part of the team at a corporate because it’s not just you working on a project alone in the PR department, but rather you must work in conjunction with other departments to finalize a project.

    Elizabeth- Every PR pro has different strengths and weaknesses, someone may be great writer whereas another is more a concept thinker, and that’s what makes agency and corporate useful. As you said I also think today’s PR graduates won’t necessary be as picky as past classes because of the situation of the market.

    Stephanie C.- I also agree that by trying new avenues will reveal what you like. There are so many options out there and everyone will be able to find their own niche.

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