5 min read

In-house PR versus Digital PR agencies: Is it a culture problem?

In-house PR versus Digital PR agencies: Is it a culture problem?

It's a tale as old as time. Cady Heron versus Regina George. The Joker versus Batman. Captain Hook versus Peter Pan. And who could forget, in-house PR versus agency Digital PR? The ultimate PR debate. Much like the ongoing debate around traditional versus Digital PR, in PR culture, there seems to be an unwritten rule that you must dread working with a client's in-house PR team. But it's all a bit daft, really, isn't it?  

A large part of these misconceptions digital PR practitioners face when they begin working with a client’s in-house PR team stems from the fact that their traditional counterparts are usually not as informed in the nuances of Digital PR and how it functions differently from traditional. It is our responsibility as Digital PRs, to ensure that we are taking conscious steps to educate in-house PR teams on why we do things the way we do. 

And I say educate lightly there; it’s not a case of just informing them and then getting on with it. It’s about bringing them on board by genuinely – and continually - ensuring that they understand and support the role of Digital PR and how that differentiates from their work for the duration of the partnership.  

Time and time again in the PR industry, we’re pitted against each other. “Traditional PR is better than digital PR”. “In-house PR works better than outsourcing PR from an agency”. “Digital PR isn’t good at brand”, yadda, yadda, yadda. But it’s about time we put the misconceptions to the side and actively build genuine relationships with our client’s in-house PR teams, not just viewing them as threats: they might just be the key to unlocking ultimate success.


Getting to know you, getting to know all about you...

One of the most incremental things you can do to break down the ‘us versus them’ narrative is to ensure proper communication between your team and your client’s internal PR teams. For people so passionate about comms, it’s pretty ironic that communication problems may be the most crucial reason behind this cultural misunderstanding in PR. 

When you're first introduced to a client's in-house PR teams, kick off this relationship with an introductory call akin to the onboarding calls you would've had with the client. You’ve already won their business and now you have to win their trust - and that just might be even trickier to do. 

This introductory call allows you to tell them about yourself and your experience and share the results you've achieved through excellent Digital PR. More importantly, it allows you to tell them why you do what you do and why that's different from what they do. 

It's also an excellent opportunity to show respect for the in-house team. Prepare stakeholder questions for them, with every single question under the sun. I'm not saying you need to ask them all but coming to these things prepared allows you to ensure that you're covering all bases possible:  

  • Would they like to be included in the ideation process? 
  • What have they been working on? 
  • What challenges do they face? 
  • Are there any publications they struggle to get coverage from? 
  • Would they like to be included in ideation sessions? 
  • Can you pick up any comms tasks on their behalf to make their everyday PR tasks more manageable? 

In short, it’s all about giving them an opportunity to feel heard and to know that they can trust the work your team does without worrying that you’ll overlook the brand element they’ve spent years developing. 


The value of respecting boundaries 

As with any new relationship, you don’t jump in and immediately expect to do whatever you want. There are boundaries that have already been set, and that must be respected in order to allow a new relationship to flourish. And although a common difficulty with boundaries between in-house PR and agency PR teams is that these boundaries can sometimes feel one-sided, they don’t have to be. Setting boundaries for both parties is a surefire way to keep conflict at bay. After all, healthy boundaries build trust.  

On the subject of boundaries, it can be frustrating when an in-house PR team has restrictions on certain journalists or publications. But try to open up the conversations to really understand why these restrictions are in place. You cannot work around a ‘problem’ or come up with a solution if you don’t fully understand the route of it in the first place. After all, trust is earned.  

One of the in-house PR teams at a client of ours has restrictions on the vertical of publications we can pitch to as their SEO agency. Instead of allowing this to frustrate us, we began branching out from the ideas we thought we should be doing into ideas that we might never have thought of doing before but that still worked exceptionally well for the client. 

Respecting these boundaries and channelling our energy into solutions allowed us to set ourselves apart from their work, eliminating any natural feelings of threat for both parties. It allowed us to carve out our niche, find our place in the client’s comms strategy, and show the value of our strategies in doing so.  


Learning to understand the difference between feedback and criticism 

The most important duty of an in-house PR team is to ensure that all comms are company-centric. They’re quite literally the voice of the business, so it’s crucial to take their feedback on board, but it’s only natural to find that receiving feedback is a criticism when the two are so easily confused.  

The eyebrow theory can be applied to understand the differences between feedback and criticism. They are sisters, not twins. But I’d maybe remove them once more. Let’s call them distant cousins. They are very different, but their similar qualities can make it feel like the two are very closely related. But they’re not. Criticism is rarely productive. It looks back on what you’ve done and offers no reason for its comments, nor any suggestions on how to move you forward, leaving you with nothing but a damaged ego and in a worse place than you started. Feedback, however, does just that – it feeds you. In short, criticism deflates, but feedback inspires.

If your client’s internal PR team returns to a press release you have sent and requests that certain phrases be reworded or removed because they’re mitigating potential risk for the brand, think realistically. Are they really doing this to criticise your writing skills and don’t want to see the campaign succeed? Or are they doing it because they get paid to foresee potential issues for the brand? If you’re more inclined to agree with the latter, then it may be helpful to read my next point...  


Changing mindsets with consistent communication 

I attended the Confidence Live conference at the beginning of 2023, and Kirsty Hulse spoke about the concept of ‘fixed mindsets’ versus ‘growth mindsets’. Part of the culture problem so many people have when working with in-house pr teams is having a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset means that we see the relationship as unchangeable – and that’s just not true. A fixed mindset person would let any negative experiences they’ve had working with in-house PR teams affect how they approach all future opportunities. In essence, how you approach things affects what you achieve. 

Of course, it’s not just PR practitioners who are agency-side that can have this fixed mindset: it’s a two-way street that ultimately links back to the threat of ‘competition’. However, someone with a growth mindset would view working with an in-house PR team as an opportunity to collaborate. Two minds are better than one, and all that jazz.  

By proper communication, I mean consistent meetings and email comms, not just a "Here's the final press release; please provide feedback by the end of the week" number. Consistent communication isn't a one-shoe-fits-all sort of thing where you can shoehorn the same process onto every client. Some teams might want you to be involved in a weekly comms call; others might prefer email. But whatever they request, respect it (within reason of what you need to be able to execute your Digital PR duties).  

Equally, on that latter point, you must also communicate what is effective for your team. Communicate your own expectations; this can be especially important if you have reactive work in your scope of work for a client. If you haven't communicated your own expectations, then you can't really be frustrated if you pitch a reactive idea, and the in-house PR team doesn't get back to you within the hour. That would be something someone with a fixed mindset would do. If a situation like this happens, you must put your growth mindset cap on and understand how you use this to effectively communicate expectations with the client going forward.  

If we’re not actively taking steps to understand each other’s ways of working, then we’ll never be able to change the all-too-common misconceptions when it comes to different PR verticals working together. We’re all cogs in the same weird and wonderful machine, and it’s time we started to implement cultural norms of togetherness, not divisiveness.   


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