Written by Leanne Rate, MPRINZ, Corporate Communications Manager at the Open Polytechnic, PRINZ Central division committee member.
Thanks to Annalie Brown, MRPINZ, Communications Account Manager – Organisational Services at ACC and PRINZ Central division committee members for organising the panel discussion.
Things turning to custard? Does the in-house communications team have the objectivity to deal with what’s going wrong, or is it time to call in an external PR agency to get a different perspective?
That was one of the questions the panel talked about at a PRINZ Wellington event in August which looked at whether an organisation should stick with their in-house communications team, no matter what the circumstances; whether a mix of in-house/agency worked best; or if there were times when an agency had the upper hand in terms of expertise.
Speakers at the well-attended panel discussion included Daniel Paul, FPRINZ (The PR Company), Philippa Ross-James, MPRINZ (Fletcher Construction), Michael Player, FPRINZ (ACC) and Amanda Woodbridge (Ideas Shop).
Philippa kicked off the discussion by affirming the positives of using in-house practitioners. Key points centred on the strong internal relationships in-house communicators have with senior management which can help get messages signed off more quickly – especially when the practitioner has a deep understanding of the strategy, key messages, brand and culture of their organisation.
She also pointed out that in-house staff aren’t conflicted by juggling multiple client priorities, something agencies deal with on a regular basis. The benefits of working in-house included being able to lead a variety of projects, and building skills across a wide range of areas. That said, Philippa acknowledged that there is a place for contracting-in agencies, and it was important to be a good client in those situations.
Amanda Woodbridge from Ideas Shop agreed that there was value in having in-house teams, as contracting-in an agency can be expensive, but pointed out that when resources were tight and deadlines were fast approaching, agencies can help ease workload pressures. Agencies are also a valuable resource when you need a second opinion to back up, or build on, the advice you’re giving.
As well as having expertise in a wide variety of areas built up over multiple contracts, Amanda pointed out that PR agencies have access to a significant range of networks they have built relationships up with over time, which can benefit clients who need access to key influencers on specific projects, and having that access through the agency can save client’s time and money.
There’s no right or wrong way when it comes to using in-house vs. agency, according to Michael Player, it just depends on what the brief is. He argues that in-house works best in a large scale organisation due to the complexity of the communication needs, whereas in small or medium sized organisations it makes sense to invest in an agency on a partnership basis. In his experience an agency can bring fresh eyes to an issue, and they have a part to play when there’s a need for contestable advice, such as in times of restructures in large organisations. However, it’s important that large organisations don’t seek an agency to carry out all their communications work, as it creates financial risk for the agency if they have too much invested in one large client.
Daniel Paul picked up on the points that other panel members had raised, agreeing that it’s important for in-house and agency to work in partnership, and that often agencies are brought in to act as a sounding board on advice, and provide objectivity as they aren’t dealing with the day-to-day politics of an organisation. Agencies are useful when you need access to expertise you don’t have in-house, or need help with media relations or advocacy work.
What was clear from the panel discussion is that there is a place for in-house and agency to work in tandem to deal with tricky issues, take care of overflow, or ensure that advice is independent in times of high stakes problems.