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Corporate and agency work styles compared.

Today, the corporate and agency work environments exhibit striking similarities and distinct differences, with each side playing a vital role and offering unique contributions.

This article examines the views of eight professional communicators, all of whom have served in both corporate communication and agency public relations assignments. These men and women, at various stages of their careers, offer a range of perspectives. As business communicators for the 1990, they that both corporate and agency public relations counselors play vital roles and offer unique contributions to the profession and its clients.

Striking similarities, distinct differences

"Practicing corporate public relations is like plowing through the ocean on a cruise ship. Only major decisions and big storms really affect your course," says Manuel D. Valencia, a Pasadena, Calif., practitioner who has served on both sides of the professional fence. "In agency public relations, you're in a speedboat. You feel all the waves and every bump, and you have to make frequent adjustments in your course to get where you are going."

Valencia, 43, is a partner in Valencia, Maldonaldo & Echeveste, the public relations firm he cofounded in 1988 after nearly two decades in journalism and corporate communication, including five years as a public relations executive for Lockheed Corp.

"Corporate public relations can be very dynamic, especially in an industry like aerospace," Valencia says. "With Lockheed, for example, we were often in Washington on national defense matters and in Titusville [Fla.] for space shuttle launches."

The excitement of his previous job notwithstanding, Valencia says that today he is where he wants to be. "It would be very difficult to return to corporate public relations," he explains. "In agency public relations, there is something fulfilling about working with and meeting the needs of a range of clients. Here, you see a beginning, middle and end to your efforts. With corporate public relations it's sort of an ongoing challenge."

Lonnie Fogel, on the other hand, has done his time on the agency side of the business and has no plans to return. "In corporate PR you can really sink your teeth into your industry and get to know your subject," says Fogel, 37, director of public relations for Atlantabased Home Depot. His background includes corporate communication staff positions with two other industry leaders and client services assignments with a major PR firm.

Skills are much the same

After 27 years in corporate communication with Gulf Oil in Pittsburgh, Pa. Tom Latimer in 1985 took the helm of the Atlanta office of agency giant Hill and Knowlton. Latimer sees a great deal of overlap between the corporate and agency sides of the business.

"There isn't a heck of a lot of difference when it comes to skills, because the basic tools in our business are pretty standard," says Latimer, 56. "Crisis communication, for example, has certain guidelines whether you are dealing with a product recall or a hotel fire. They are handled from basically the same PR perspective."

Both sides of the business do require the same set of basic skills, according to Linda K. Peek, director of strategic communication for The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, although differences in culture tend to encourage different approaches to practicing public relations and often attract practitioners with different personalities.

"People who do well in agencies often do not fare as well in corporations because of their disdain for organization and structure," says Peek, whose background includes assignments with RJR Nabisco, USA Today, and the strategic communication firm Robinson Lake Lerer & Montgomery. "On the other hand, people with more tolerance for such things are more likely to favor and prosper in corporate environments," she adds.

In 1986, Jim Hill, Chicago, left his position as director of public relations and communication with Sara Lee Corp. to accept the top post with Burrell Public Relations, the largest minority-owned PR firm in the U.S. He took with him some valuable professional experience.

"One thing I learned on the corporate side was an uncompromising commitment to quality," says Hill, 44, now a rounding partner in the Chicagobased public, relations firm of Hill & Flowers. "If we couldn't do something right, we didn't do it. And that same philosophy is essential if you are going to be successful on the agency side."

Hill found that virtually all of his corporate communication skills transferred to agency public relations. "But even with 16 years of corporate experience, I had a hard time breaking into the agency business,"he says. "1 keep running into this anti-corporate bias. Agency people made it sound like corporate communicators would just get lost in the faster pace of the agency environment."

Is the agency pace faster?

Some communication professionals contend that agencies consistently demand a faster work pace than most corporate communication organizations, especially those in large companies. "That was the biggest adjustment for me," Hill says. "1 believe the faster pace of agencies is a result of their broad range of clients."

"Energizing" is the term to describe the diversity of the typical agency PR client base, according to Latimer. "One day I'm talking to a banker, the next day a retailer, then a manufacturing firm," he says. "It's not that corporate public relations is boring, but it simply does not offer that same kind of diversity."

Jeannine Addams disagrees. Agencies, she says, are not the only work places that offer a range of clients and assignments. President and CEO of the Atlanta-based public relations firm of Tarkenton & Addams, she served previously as news bureau director at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and as a vice president with two leading public relations agencies, Carl Byoir & Associates and Cohn & Wolfe Inc.

"My [Georgetown University] news bureau experience was as much agency as corporate in nature," says Addams, 41. "The university is like a large corporation, but we served a wider array of internal organizations than most corporations do. So the range of clients and the pace of work were a lot like agency PR." Addams' assignments included media relations for international activities, medical research, university sports events, visits by distinguished guests and crisis communication.

Cheryl A. Rubin is director of public relations for The Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. "There were times in agency PR when the pace and diversity had me spinning like a top," recalls Rubin, who worked for another nonprofit organization and a leading PR agency before joining the foundation. "But the pace is just as fast here because we run our public relations operation like a newsroom, and the foundation sees PR as a senior management function."

Hill, who spent several years early in his career as a public information director with a public television station, adds that PR professionals in many nonprofit organizations and small companies, in particular, probably wear a variety of hats and work at a pace comparable to that of their agency counterparts.

Stability, securty vs. high risk, high reward

Agency assignments can lead to fasttrack advancement -- and fast burnout, Fogel warns. In addition, long-term professional growth in agency public relations may be limited. "When you are doing PR for profit, you must spend a great deal of time chasing new business," he explains. "So sales skills can become more important to master than other professional skills."

Fogel admits, however, that agency public relations does have its appeal, and he encourages young professionals to take their first PR job with the best firm they can find. "The agency business is very entrepreneurial, a place to gain a range of experience in a highpressure environment," he says. "It's a great launching pad for a career in public relations."

One practitioner who agrees with the value of starting out in agency public relations is Donna M. Garland, 27, marketing publications editor for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo. Before joining Hallmark in 1989, Garland spent two yeats with small PR agencies, occasionally working with large firms in joint-venture arrangements.

"In an agency, you have more autonomy to evaluate challenges, make decisions, and carry them out," Garland explains. "You are trusted on an individual level to know what you are doing and to come up with creative ideas."

Corporate communication, on the other hand, necessarily operates more on a group mentality, according to Garland. "As a professional communicator, you think like the company thinks because you have to communicate its key messages to your audiences," she says.

Agencies also offer a broader range of creative and professional challenges by their very nature. Preparing a speech, writing a press release, and planning a special event all in one day is not an unusual range of activity at a PR agency. But the high-reward agency environment is also high-risk, Garland maintains, inherently less stable than corporate public relations, especially in terms of job security.

"Corporations occasionally may downsize and cut their public relations staffs, "Garland says. "But in agency public relations, a client's whim can cost you your job."

Hill and Knowlton's Latimer disagrees with the notion that employment with today's agencies is necessarily less secure than working for their corporate counterparts. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, major corporations kept most employees on staff for entire careers. But today there are downsizings and demands to compete in global markets," he says. "Meanwhile, agencies have grown more stable. In the seven years that I've headed this office, I've never had to lay off someone as a result of a downturn in business."

Garland concedes that agencies are more stable today and that employees at major agencies, in particular, are better insulated from the effects of sudden decreases in billings. Nonetheless, she maintains, agencies are profit centers where success is closely tied to profit, and that means, "you must justify your existence every day."

Many corporate shops are set up like agencies

The two sides of the business seem to be on common ground when it comes to structure, as well as professional skills. In fact, more than half of corporate communications departments are set up like independent, in-house agencies, according to a survey described in PR Reporter, October 22, 1990. But operating a corporate communication function like..a.n outside. agency is not a new development, say some seasoned corporate PR veterans.

"It makes sense," says Hill, who ran his departments like an agency when he was a public relations manager at Johnson Wax and later at Sara Lee. "We had a range of internal clients and divisions. If the Raid or Off or Pledge brand [at Johnson Wax] needed a PR plan, we did it."

Latimer adopted a similar approach at Gulf, where, as director of advertising and public relations, he managed more than 80 subordinates and provided communication support to at least eight divisions. But even when internal communication operations function like agencies, the comparison is incomplete, says Latimer. "All of my clients at Gulf were energyrelated," he explains. "And, to be honest, they could not go out and get another agency."

Do corporate clients get their money's worth from agencies?

As Latimer's statement implies, if you are an outside public relations counselor, your clients can shop for another agency -- which means that client relationships and client satisfaction are, or should be, mattets of the utmost importance. Yet, a survey in O'Dwyer's PR Services Report, July 1991, suggests that many agency/client relationships may not be faring well.

According to the article, only "about seven percent of corporate PR executives in a recent poll agreed strongly" that most "PR agencies give clients their money's worth." Even more striking is the fact that only 29 percent of agency executives strongly agreed with the same statement.

Addams says she is not surprised. She believes that agencies must begin to charge less money, do more work and listen more closely to their clients.

"In the past, agencies have gone to clients with a tool box m hand. We've been so intent on selling saws or drills or hammers to our clients that we didn't pay enough attention to what they saw as their real needs," says Addams. :"Today's agencies have to' be very' ' entrepreneurial with clients. We have to keep our overhead down so that our fees can fit our clients' budgets. To put it another way, if our clients don't work in plush offices and drive fancy company cars, why should we?"

Fault exists on both sides, according to Peek at Coca Cola. "Agencies and clients must share the responsibility for making the relationship work," she explains, stressing the importance of basics such as establishing an agreement with specific terms and reaching mutual consensus on what constitutes success.

"In the best of all worlds, public relations agencies are treated like extensions of the client's communication staff," Peek says. "Cooperation is the key to making that happen."

Esther Silver-Parker is assistant vice president for public relations for AT&T's southern region, based in Atlanta, Ga. She is a member of the Communication World editorial advisory committee.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Silver-Parker, Esther
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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