Should you use internal or external PR staff?
25 JUNE 2014 7:49 AM
There is no one right answer when it comes to public relations, but this potentially expensive decision does require several factors to be carefully considered.
When tackling a public relations issue (positive or negative), be it at the property or at a corporate level, the factor to be weighed most carefully and objectively is the understanding as to what resources are at your disposal and how they should be utilized.
Generally speaking, the most important decision is whether to use internal PR staff (to the extent it exists) or an outside PR firm. There is no one right answer, but this large and potentially expensive decision does require several factors to be carefully considered.
Internal vs. external PR
Take objective stock of your internal PR capabilities. Do you have the people necessary to do the job? Not just the number of people, but do they have the right experience? If your PR people are more oriented to special events and openings, you probably do not want to thrust them into a merger-and-acquisition situation or a corporate crisis. Figure out the issue at hand, and only then make a determination as to the resources that you need to get the job done.
There are distinct advantages to using internal staff: They know your property or company better than anyone on the outside does; there’s no need for additional education; you’re already paying them; and you have access to them 24/7. Also, a full-time employee is more naturally “vested” in the property/company’s success than an outside person.
But in certain situations, outside agencies can bring their own set of attributes, including: a fresh, “out-of-the-box” perspective; specialized expertise on such issues as brand/property marketing or positioning, big events, labor relations, financial communications and crisis work; digital/social media; specific media contacts; and arms-and-legs support for internal staff. Additionally, from a cost standpoint, you can turn the faucet on and off as needed.
The next step
If, after putting all of these considerations into the blender, what emerges is a decision to hire an outside agency, the work’s not yet done. Whoever in your organization—CEO, GM, marketing director—is responsible for the client-agency relationship needs to be actively involved with the agency to maximize the effectiveness of the program. The agency cannot do it alone.
Determine if you are hiring an agency for a specific one-time project (usually the best way to begin an association, especially from a budgeting standpoint) or retaining an agency-of-record for the longer term. A good tip is to make sure the agency people who make the “pitch” are actually the people who will work on your account. It’s not unusual for agencies to bring the “A” team for the presentation then assign the actual work to more junior-level people.
Once the agency is identified, it is surprising how many times the next simple steps are overlooked. They are:
- settling on the scope of work;
- establishing work parameters; and
- setting appropriate expectations.
Managers routinely tend to the above with their internal staff but often neglect to do the same with outside PR help.
The onus here is on both parties. As the client, you need to lay out exactly what you want done and the results you are looking for. The agency, for its part, must be up-front and honest about what can realistically be accomplished. Does it have the right people and expertise and can it complete the work within the agreed-upon budget? As the job begins, conduct periodic evaluations to assess the state of the relationship and if the activities are in line with your (and the agency’s) expectations.
The agency is a partner and should be given the tools to succeed, along with your knowledge and thinking, but neither side should forget that this is still a vendor-client relationship. The outside firm is hired to do a particular job, and its effectiveness at doing that job is the criteria on which it’s judged.
Sometimes, though not often, it’s the agency that is dissatisfied with how the relationship is going (perhaps through not being paid enough or unrealistic client expectations) and opts out. That possibility is all the more reason why a regularly-conducted evaluation progress is necessary. If the agreement is not working for either side, it is better to recognize that as early in the relationship as possible and make the necessary adjustments or changes.
Finally, the client and agency must understand that each is in business to make money. The client will naturally want to get the most work from the agency for the least amount of money, but the agency is a business, too, and has a right and obligation to make a profit.
Similarly, agencies must always bear in mind that while their work is on the PR side of the client’s business, the property or company is, in the end, in business to make money for its owners or shareholders. Therefore, it is incumbent on outside firms to work not just in the sometimes “mushy” world of PR but in the real world and appreciate how its work can help the client have a more effective overall enterprise.
Marc Grossman is a senior communications executive who served as senior VP, corporate affairs, for Hilton Hotels Corporation, where he was responsible for all global corporate communications, investor/financial relations, public affairs, brand/marketing public relations, crisis communications and internal communications. He also held senior positions with three leading international communications firms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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