Review: How to Succeed in a PR Agency

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of our Insights, formerly PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

How to Succeed in a PR Agency
By Kristin Johnson and Shalon Roth
2019, Routledge

You need to be good with numbers

The authors – one based out of New York and the other out of London – have written this book as a practical guide for those with fewer than 10 years experience in public relations.

Though the majority of those working in public relations work in-house for organisations, rather than for agencies/consultancies, it’s this sector that provides so many of the work experience, internship and graduate opportunities in public relations. Indeed, many graduates view working on the agency side as a rite of passage, even if they subsequently find fulfilment in-house. So this is a useful book – and it’s surprising to find that isn’t joining a crowded field.

I don’t know of many comparable books: there was The PR Agency Handbook published last year and the PRCA has a forthcoming book Grow, Build, Sell, Live: A Practical Guide to Running and Building an Agency and Enjoying It written more for entrepreneurs and bosses than for those looking to find work.

So, for those wanting to develop a career on the agency side, this is a good starting point. As the authors write: ‘there was nothing in our education, past work experience, or technical capability that would sufficiently prepare us for the complexity and demands that PR agency life entails. It took years of successes and failures, big and small, for us to truly get it.’

This useful book distils their experience. It explains the distinction between privately-owned and publicly-held agencies, and discusses the new business cycle. It comes into its own when discussing money.

‘The reality is – like it or not – that if you’re going to be successful in any business, including PR and client services, then you need to be good with numbers. Why? Money, honey.’

It’s an important message: that PR people need to be good with numbers. It’s not just that agencies need to bill for work and run at a profit, it’s that everything done on behalf of the client needs to be accountable and measurable. Hours need to be counted, outputs calculated and outcomes evaluated.

There’s lots on numbers and on spreadsheets in this short book. But that’s not all there is. There’s a section on ethics.

‘It matters because your career in PR is based on your reputation, and your reputation is your greatest asset. In order to nurture that asset, you have to know who you are and what you stand for – as an individual and as a professional.’

There are sections on writing (including the valuable advice that you should assume that anything you put in writing could go public) and leadership (‘if you want to be a successful leader, practice making decisions even if there’s ambiguity, incomplete information, or you’re in an unfamiliar domain’).

This hints at a problem I’ve encountered. Perfectionists tend to be rewarded at school and university with high grades and prizes. Yet these same perfectionists don’t always succeed in public relations work, if only because you can rarely complete one task perfectly without others being neglected. Those who apply the Pareto principle (the 80/20 rule) or an agile approach tend to cope better.

I’ve also noticed that students and graduates can lack self-belief. So chapter 12 (‘Achieving Authenticity’) provides valuable lessons in how to ‘get comfortable in your own skin’.

There’s good advice on the soft skills of client handling (how to avoid saying ‘no’ without always saying ‘yes’).

Late on in the book, good use is made of a parable. The point of the story is that a bricklayer should be focused on their task – the precise construction of a wall from bricks. But they should also see that their input contributes to the construction of a complete building. Yet they don’t all think about the purpose of that building – in this story a cancer research laboratory.

This speaks to much junior work in public relations. Individuals produce content, they chase coverage – but they may not spend much time thinking about the purpose of the content or of the coverage. There’s a confusion over means and ends that gets repeated in public when individuals and teams celebrate their latest piece of media coverage secured for a client. Industry awards submissions are still too often muddled over the distinction between outputs and outcomes.

Yet, there’s more to public relations. What about relationships?

As the authors warn, ‘client relationships can take a lot of time and energy to build, but without a personal bond, you’re just a vendor and your work is simply a transaction.’

Writing content – even gaining coverage – are not beyond the imminent capability of artificial intelligence. Yet clients don’t want to be advised by a robot. They don’t want a relationship with a machine.

This is a short and sound book. For a more sophisticated take on the soft skills needed to succeed in public relations, I recommend Sandra Stahl’s book published last year and reviewed here.

No short book can attempt to cover everything, but some questions needed addressing. I know it’s standard practice to call these businesses ‘agencies’, but isn’t ‘consultancy’ more accurate on the grounds that clients pay fees for professional advice, whereas agency businesses (think sports agents and estate agencies) are funded by a percentage commission? The authors talk about the desired status of trusted adviser, so shouldn’t we start by thinking of ourselves in this light?

Setting this aside – and accepting that I’ve lost the argument over agency/consultancy – I would have welcomed some discussion of the porous and shifting distinctions between the services provided by PR agencies, advertising agencies, digital marketing and SEO teams, even management consultancies. In a book that’s about future-proofing, finding a viable niche in the professional services ecosystem is vital. This could easily have been added into the useful introduction to the various ownership models.

I’ll leave the final word to one of their profiled experts. Cheng Liang, a consultant with Ruder Finn Asia, is quoted saying ‘at the end of the day, PR people also have to be “numbers people”.’

The message is loud and clear.