When agencies turn PR newbies loose on journalists

Mar 6, 2017
When agencies turn PR newbies loose on journalists

If you work in a newsroom, chances are at some point you may have found yourself wondering, “Are the people who work in PR agencies getting younger? And why is it my job to groom them?”

The simple answer is no, they’re not getting younger, you’re getting older. But they are staying the same age.

And yes, unfortunately, some PR agencies have come to rely on journalists to give their junior people a reality check, not unlike how teaching hospitals let med students learn on real patients. This has been the business model many agencies have followed for decades.

The cycle may be a familiar one.

Every so many months you’re introduced to yet another new, inexperienced PR agency pro representing a company or brand you cover. They’re usually nice enough, but they’re clueless, at least first. They don’t seem to know how newsrooms operate, and they have no idea of your deadline pressures. It seems to take forever for them to get back to you on simple requests. And just when they start to get the hang of things, they disappear, only to be replaced by another recent college grad, and the cycle starts all over.

Essentially, there are four reasons this keeps happening to you: economics; the staffing model at many large agencies; the billing model at many agencies and the nature of media relations work. Each one of these dynamics is not an isolated silo, so you’ll see some overlap or redundancy across each:

1. Economics

There are two specialties where many entry-level PR people tend to start in agencies.

One is social media, and the other is media relations.

This is often where they cut their teeth and are forced to prove themselves before being granted additional responsibilities. By definition, entry level people represent the lowest salaries on the roster, so agencies can afford to hire more of them to do the bulk of the task-oriented work in the agency, and basic media relations work is task-oriented.

At the same time, media relations is often the most sophisticated and strategic work you can do in PR. To reconcile this dichotomy, many big agencies have seasoned veterans who map out strategies and plans in advance, but the doers are junior-level people assigned execute those strategies under supervision.

2. Industry staffing model

Because media relations is a large part of what many agencies do, and because so many people are assigned to this area, the demographics at most agencies look like a pyramid in terms of salaries and experience.

The largest percentage of the staff make less money and have less experience. They form the wide foundation. The higher up you go, the ranks narrow.

In other words, many big agencies are dominated in sheer numbers by individuals in the steep learning phase of their careers. Still, firms do tend to work very hard to supervise and train these people, while monitoring them carefully to weed out those who aren’t cutting it.

3. Billing model

Since clients pay the bills, some big agencies have found that the best way to give clients maximum return for the least amount of money is to rely on less experienced, less expensive staff members.

You may have heard the term “feast or famine,” but you haven’t lived it until you’ve worked in a big agency.

To avoid having to go on hiring and firing binges, some big agencies have found that one way to manage fluctuating demand is to provide as much service as possible through the least expensive people on staff. This also helps an agency maintain minimal staffing levels through the lean periods.

4. Media relations work

Much of media relations work is redundant, especially in the consumer or brand areas.

Because core strategy and action plans are developed up front during the product or service development phase, once news is ready to be made, media relations tasks are predictable. Lots of writing of press materials, and lots of media outreach via phone, email and other digital means. Maybe even some event planning.

Now it’s time for the agency to execute, which means assigning junior staff members to conduct outreach.

The work I just described is not for everyone. In fact, if you look around the field, it’s for very few. Because of this, you may notice attrition which can be due to some of the following reasons:

  • Some young pros aren’t cut out for media relations or PR, and they are fired.
  • Some decide they don’t like PR and go back to school or switch careers.
  • Some decide they don’t like media relations and they gravitate to another aspect of the profession, like social media or internal communications.
  • Others decide they don’t like agency life, so they leave and go to work in a corporate setting.
  • A certain number will decide to take a break from their careers altogether for family reasons.
  • Those who remain with the agency will mature and age with some moving up into supervisory roles where management, business development and client service responsibilities occupy most of their time, so they simply can’t spend time on day-to-day media relations.

That may explain the inexperience issues but you still may be wondering why you seem to be grooming these people.

The truth is, big agencies invest huge sums of money and large amounts of time in development of new employees. They work very hard to make sure their new hires do not embarrass themselves, the agency or their clients. Still, at some point, they must learn and develop in the real world.

As with anything, the law of averages determines how and whether it all works out. The reality is, sometimes young PR pros do embarrass themselves, their agencies and clients. I’ve never met an agency manager who likes this or even accepts it, but nearly all recognize this is a common hazard of agency life.

Where does that leave you?

My recommendation is to take note of the PR people you find most helpful and keep them on your short list of who to call when you need something. In those agencies on which you find yourself relying more frequently, make sure to keep contact information for senior-level people you can call when you have a need that an entry-level staffer may not be equipped to handle.

Also, be aware that there is a vast PR community of smaller firms, veteran consultants and solo practitioners available to you, and that there is a difference.

Because they tend to have more experience and by this point have chosen to focus on media relations, chances are much better they know more instinctively what you need and when you need it, and will respond accordingly.

Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy.  He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.

Photo via Pixabay

About the author

#PR consultant, writer. Most tweets about #PublicRelations. @DuqEdu grad, @KetchumPR alum. #CrisisComms, Owner @ O’Brien Communications. @PghStPatsParade

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