Friday, October 09, 2009

Who does it better? Consultant or inhouse PR practitioner?

Really it's a trick question. The simple answer is "it depends".

On what?

The person, their experience, their colleagues (particularly their manager), the CEO and probably some random things such as news of the day.

This is a question I think about almost every day. For one, I've been on both sides. Secondly, I now devote a great deal of time, as everyone in our team does, to thinking about how to be a really good consultant in order to help our inhouse clients be really good at what they do - managing the reputation of their asset management firm, advice business, consulting firm, super fund or banking product provider.

Having now been thinking about this question since 1996 (when I first watched some PR consultants be charming but deliver a huge amount) I have some general thoughts about the relative strengths and weaknesses of each role.

And more importantly how the two can come together to form, in many cases, a perfect whole. By that I mean a truly great partnership where the inhouse person is relieved of bucket loads of day-to-day grief, and gains a trusted, expert, external sounding board and access to great media or stakeholder outcomes.

On the other side of this perfect pairing, the consultant gets to work with a capable inhouse client who values the role of external PR, knows their company and the internal stakeholders and can gives access to the information or people the consultant needs to deliver the right outcome.

The beauty of being in house is really knowing your firm. No consultant can ever really 'get in the skin' of your company. After a few years you probably know everyone, and possibly have a political intelligence quotient higher than anyone except the HR director. You instinctively 'know' the answer to almost any question of principle about your firm because you live it.

If things are going well, the senior PR person has a hand in almost every significant corporate event. And the ear of senior executives if not the CEO, Chairman and Board.

What is harder to hang onto in house is a sense of objectivity - that instant judgment of what the outside world will think. It can also be mighty hard to actually 'do the doing'. Internal meetings, issues management, endless phone calls and emails all conspire to keep in house PR people from actually planning, writing, calling or otherwise executing what may well be a great strategy. Or not.

Crippling email volumes, media, online or parliamentary monitoring, requests from media and almost any part of the business can all conspire to muddy clarity of judgment. Where do you get the time to plan the proactive positive media activity the CEO or others seem to think should be easy??

It can also be more difficult inhouse to judge success. What is a good outcome here? Does it matter? Longer term yes, but short term it can be very hard to know.

Never a dull moment. When you have multiple clients, as most PR consultants do, you never quite know which way your day will go. And that gives great perspective. Perspective across diverse businesses, with diverse communication challenges - and opportunities. Perspective day in and day out across stakeholders from bloggers to community groups or investors to editors.

Always on, constantly watching the online and media world, grabbing opportunities, meeting clients, talking to media or surfing the relevant online sources.

One thing about being a consultant, at least the ones I respect, is that we 'know what we don't know'. Many consultants (cetainly the team at BlueChip!) work as part of a team, working up ideas, sharing what they've learned and in turn learning from the experience of peers. That collective intelligence can produce extraordinary results.

So too can years of building up 'the little black book'. Whether media or industry contacts, consultants tend to build up a formidable network along with the knowledge bank.

And consultants are almost never in doubt about what a good outcome/success looks like. They have to know that before they can start work or it's all just fumbling around in the dark. And understanding what success looks like matters - because consultants have to stay hungry. For the next project, the next client, the next win for all clients.

Consultants ultimately have to deliver for their clients - or they don't stay consultants. So dedicated, focused resources usually ensure the job gets done - whether that supposedly easy proactive positive coverage or keeping your name out of certain stories.

What I've found both in house and as a consultant is that a few key things are needed in both places to be a truly great PR person....which will be my next post!

But no pressure people!

Actually both roles have potential to deliver immense value, for very different reasons.

The trick is to know what you're really really good at and do that - ideally outsourcing the rest or working only with clients who need what you have!

Note: I worked inhouse for ten years before founding BlueChip Communication, a specialise financial services PR firm, with my partner Bruce Madden. Since 2004 the BlueChip team of consultants have partnered with Australia's leading wealth management, investment and financial services brands. We think a LOT about what it takes to make a great partnership with clients!

1 comment:

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