Corporate Case Study <b>The Agency Business</b>: Large firms consider ways to include media-relations staff

While there is no consensus on the best way to integrate media-relations teams into the overall structure of larger firms, Matthew Creamer finds most agencies are taking one of two main approaches

While there is no consensus on the best way to integrate media-relations teams into the overall structure of larger firms, Matthew Creamer finds most agencies are taking one of two main approaches

Just about everyone who knows the PR industry agrees that having an understanding of how to deal with reporters is a fundamental part of the profession. But at the largest firms - with their complicated reporting hierarchies and relationships between far-flung regional offices and diverse sets of practices - there's no consensus on whether or how a team that specializes in media relations should be fit into the overall structure of an agency. Although each agency has its own peculiarities, tweaked for the client roster or the talent available at a given time, there are, for the most part, two approaches: either sprinkle media experts throughout various offices, practice areas, and account teams, or create a dedicated media-relations squad full of staffers who are experts on trends in journalism and who have a Rolodex full of national press contacts. Then these experts can be deployed to help on major publicity efforts or crisis response and in strategy sessions. For the most part, however, they're far removed from the day-to-day management of accounts Few boutiques or small agencies can afford this kind of team. At most, they'll have a single expert who freelances across accounts. Among the larger agencies, it's a different story, and they're by and large split on the matter. Golin/Harris International, for instance, has a core team of about three staffers that, when necessary, can be expanded to a seven-member outfit that can serve various offices in the agency. They're charged with building and maintaining press relationships, identifying new media outlets, and staying abreast of media issues. "We feel like we have the best of both worlds," says VP Jennifer Baker-Asiddao. "Our account teams pitch, and they do it very well. But by adding the strategic thinking and breadth and depth of knowledge from the media team, we're a stronger operation." On the other hand, Ogilvy Public Relations, another large agency, takes a different tack. Rather than a media-relations department, it has media specialists, who are assigned a set of accounts. One of these specialists, SVP Bob Brody, says the agency has four or five specialists in both the New York and Washington, DC, offices, though he wasn't sure how many it has globally. "A media department sometimes involves somebody rushing in with a press release and saying, 'The client wants this put out tomorrow. Can you start making some calls?'" says Brody. "The problem is that the person in the media department may not know what goes on between the lines of those press releases, whereas a media specialist involved regularly with an account will." Fleishman-Hillard works in a similar way. "Our media specialists are truly integrated into client teams, " says VP Anne Isenhower. "I work closely with the teams; I'm just the media-relations specialist." However, several PR pros say the notion that a media expert in a siloed department can spend time schmoozing with reporters is a bit pie-in-the-sky, if only because journalists don't have the time to take the kind of lingering lunches or backgrounding sessions key to building long-term relationships. As far as finding ways to keep media pros busy when there isn't immediate media strategizing or execution to be done, the key is involving the media department in other activities. That way, there isn't a problem finding a productive way to spend every billable hour. "We don't have that problem at Golin/Harris," Baker-Asiddao says, "because our media team also works on new business. Whenever we put new business plans together, there's always a big media component." While the integration of media relations might seem more relevant to the biggest agencies, midsize firms also wrestle with the issue. Since 1998, Widmeyer Communications has gone through three reorganizations. Each time, the firm's executives considered creating a media-relations "bullpen." And each time, they decided against it, largely because of a fear that such a team would be too disconnected from the accounts it would have to serve. However, says president and COO Joe Clayton, some of the reservations came from the fact that most of the agency's client work is media-oriented. "[Media relations] is too central to be segregated out, at least here," he says. "But we don't offer as diverse a set of services as multinational firms do. The percentage of clients that we do media work for is high. If there were a situation where that number dropped to 35% or 40% and we were doing a lot more branding stuff, for instance, then maybe that would be a model that argues in favor of a bullpen." Standalone media departments Pros 1. Provide time and resources to develop deep relationships with reporters 2. Provide an extra layer of expertise 3. Can help with new-business plans that are media-relations heavy Cons 1. Media experts might be unfamiliar with day-to-day specifics of accounts 2. Might be hard to work into certain billing structures 3. Can be used as a crutch by junior staffers not used to pitching media

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