While it is commendable to set your sights on the stars, chances are you will spend at least part of your PR career in the employ of a "small" public relations agency.
I've worked for both large and small firms and find that the small agency experience can provide a valuable training ground for talented, ambitious, young public relations professionals.
Is Bigger Best?
The big agency environment is highly formalized, bureaucratic, and rigidly structured. With its multiple levels of management and approvals for action, it seems to plod along compared to the "sprint" of a smaller shop. Entry level professionals will generally be assigned to a single account, often for long periods of time, entrusted with little responsibility, and saddled with the minutiae of agency life.
Life is not all bleak at big agencies. They have tremendous resources, big clients, large budgets, and name recognition. Some people are simply more comfortable in an institutional setting, others in an entrepreneurial environment; sooner or later, you'll have to decide which works for you.
Visibility Public Relations, Inc. is, in many ways, quite typical of the smaller, established agency. We differ from many PR firms in that we operate a fully computerized office, which significantly enhances our productivity, enabling us to service on average a dozen clients with four PR professionals (president, account supervisor, senior account executive, and account executive) and two administrative assistants.
Situated in a loft space with an open floor plan, in which each professional has a modular workstation and Macintosh computer, the physical layout mirrors our operating structure that of a team. We work closely under my supervision, sharing ideas, media contacts, and the day to day triumphs, anecdotes, and hassles of the business. In this environment, job titles are largely symbolic of one's professional tenure. In practice, each professional functions as an account executive, myself included, and is responsible for servicing three accounts.
Working on several accounts simultaneously provides excellent training, offers a constant challenge, ample variety, and sharpens one's ability to juggle projects and meet deadlines. It also means you are more accountable for the success of the PR program, placing more pressure upon your shoulders on a day to day basis, life in a small agency can be more demanding than in a large firm, but you'll certainly never be bored. As in other professions, if you hope to excel in public relations, don't expect to put in a 9 to 5 day.
In general, I think you'll find greater opportunities at smaller firms. The economics of profitably operating a small agency virtually requires hiring junior people. This places a certain responsibility on the manager or owner to train the newcomer in exchange for a relatively low entry level salary.
One's first PR job should, more than anything else, provide you with paid on the job training, the opportunity to observe and participate in the PR process up close, to develop a PR specialty or special interest, and to decide whether small is beautiful or the big agency or corporate route is more appealing.
How Far Is Up?
Cindy joined the firm as a junior AE four years ago. She had a freshly minted broadcast journalism degree from New York University, she months experience as a copy editor on a weekly newspaper, good people (interpersonal) skills, the ability to listen, the desire to learn, and the motivation to work hard to develop new PR skills.
In less than four years, she progressed through the ranks to account executive and, recently, to senior account executive, a title awarded in recognition of her successful handling of our largest account (Pfizer Pharmaceuticals) for the past two years. Her salary has increased commensurately, and she has become a fully vested participant in the company's profit sharing plan. Since I am rather strict about handing out titles, her success represents what I expect is close to a best case scenario for advancement at a small PR agency.
To be frank, I do not expect young professionals to be content to remain with a small agency forever. Long term, one's chances for career advancement can be severely limited at a small firm. There are simply fewer management spots. And small firms often pay less than big agencies or corporations. Because few management positions exist, unless the agency experiences sustained growth, opportunities for promotion remain limited. Realistically, once a young professional has learned all he or she can at a small agency, it's logical to seek new challenges.
If the PR world with its frenetic pace doesn't ultimately satisfy you, there can still be life after public relations. Unfortunately, much of what one learns as an account executive is not directly transferrable outside the realm of public relations. However, there is always a need for individuals with polished written and oral communication skills. There may be opportunities in related fields such as corporate communications, employee training, multi media, script writing, or executive recruiting.
And because a successful PR professional is, at heart, a good salesman, many doors to sales careers will open. The public relations profession is a lifelong learning experience, and knowledge has ways of opening doors to unexpected opportunities.
LEONARD STEIN has more than 20 years experience in marketing public relations with leading agencies and major corporations. He founded Visibility Public Relations in 1983, directing his practice toward emerging "Information Age" companies, consumer products manufacturers, and marketing services firms.
Prior to founding Visibility, Mr. Stein was director of public relations for Playboy Enterprises in New York City. He supervised the launch of The Playboy Channel and the Playboy Video line and directed public relations programs in support of Playboy's licensing division, the company's magazines (Playboy, Games), lifestyle guides, and book publishing division.
Mr. Stein's public relations agency experience includes positions at leading PR agencies, including Harshe, Rotman & Druck, Ketchum Communications and the Geltzer Company. Prior to joining the agency side of the business, Mr. Stein was an assistant vice president and public relations manager for Home Savings of America, the nation's leading thrift institution.
Mr. Stein, a native of Los Angeles, holds master's degrees in history and mass communications from California State University, Northridge, where he held California State Scholarships and a California State Graduate Fellowship. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and serves on its Technology Committee.