Should I go in-house or work for an agency when I graduate college?
You have worked hard in college and want to take the best first step. You know that your first job can put you on a strong upward trajectory. You also probably see that corporate positions seem to offer you a little more money and might not make you jump through as many hoops to get the job. What should you do?
When I attend Public Relations Society of America events, I'm asked this question a few times a month by eager graduates who are exploring internships and first jobs.
Generally, I encourage anxious recent grads to find an agency that has a strong commitment to education and invests in its new employees. That may often be a larger agency that can afford to put together a training program that highlights writing, media relations, social media and digital marketing. Big or small, don't hesitate to ask the agency about their training program. At a basic level you are entering into a trade - you will work hard for them for less money if they agree to give you a top-notch education in public relations.
In my experience, companies offer you less public relations training, but more general marketing and business skills. These are very valuable, but I believe it works best if you get these skills after you have spent a few years of intense PR training. When you work at a company, there will only be a small handful of PR practitioners. Their collective experience is smaller than a PR agency so they can't expose you to all the different areas of communications. In-house PR jobs often focus on a specific PR task that may not be interesting to you and will not help you design your career path.
How do I know this? Well, I started out my career doing just the opposite of my advice. I got a job working for a start-up that luckily had a very progressive PR department with a manager that was wonderfully interested in training me. I got lots of opportunities to learn because she regularly sent our team to luncheons, seminars and conferences. I had a wonderful training ground, but I believe that situation was quite unusual. When I switched to an agency later in my career, I saw that people agency staffers were exposed to a wide set of experiences that a corporate PR department simply can't reproduce. Two or three years at a strong agency is like getting a master's degree in PR and provides you with more options.
To determine if the agencies you are investigating have strong training programs, I'd recommend that you make friends with someone at that agency that is in their first or second year on the job. You can make contact with them at local PRSA event, through LinkedIn or other professional networking mixer. Buy your new friend lunch and pick their brain. Specifically, you want to learn the number of hours a year they are allowed or required to spend in training. In the first few years, you should be spending a minimum of 20 to 40 hours a year in training classes provided by the employer - either on-site or at off-site seminars. A few writing classes here and there simply won't cut it. You need to find a culture of continuous learning that is supported by the agency executives.
You may just want to get in the door without all this fuss, but please be sure you are getting in the right door. It won't do you a lot of good to work hard for two years at a job that isn't giving you that extra polish you need to kick-off your career.
Way before you get to graduation, you should become very involved with your local PRSSA and PRSA chapter. These organizations are often closely aligned with the local agencies and their senior people sit on the board. Volunteer to help on a committee that has lots of interaction with professionals. Once you have developed a relationship of trust, your new colleagues can give you the honest assessment of the agencies in your area. I recommend that you cultivate at least three or four different relationships to get the most accurate information.
There are many paths to success in PR. If an agency job is not right for you, be sure to plan out your path by talking to a lot of professionals. To broaden my experience when I worked on the corporate side, I attended the PRSA National conference each year because it gave me a look at financial relations, analyst relations, digital marketing and client relations. Along with regular attendance at local PRSA events, I felt that I got the extra education I needed to be successful.
Agency or in-house? If you have questions or comments, I'd love to hear them.