Chances Are You Will Work for a "Small" PR Firm

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The public relations field may be dominated by several giant, multi national firms, but it is basically an industry populated by a multitude of "David's" in which entrepreneurial zeal runs high.

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 often 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 do 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), two administrative assistants, and a part time bookkeeper.

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 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 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 meager 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.

A Typical Day at a Small Firm

Monday presents a good example of a typical day at Visibility. In the morning, I meet with each PR professional to review their "to do" lists for the coming week. The same procedure holds for all levels, with the more experienced professionals requiring less supervision and support throughout the week. We operate on the Socratic principle: People are urged to think things through on their own, determine a course of action, present their decisions to me, and be ready to defend them. The professional staff is urged to ask questions before making decisions. I never criticize one for asking questions; it is far better to appear unsure than to boldly err, procedurally or strategically.

In the course of a typical day, an account executive might spend the morning writing a news release and photo caption, a company backgrounder, or an executive biography or doing research or interviews toward this end. Drafts of the materials are then faxed to the client for review, and revisions taken over the telephone for immediate document entry via computer. Next, client media lists are reviewed and customized for the specific project, and a work order, describing exactly what is to be mailed to whom, will be completed. The afternoon might be spent telephoning reporters to present a client's story or point of view on a particular issue, preparing a rough layout for an article reprint, or reviewing clippings and writing thank you notes to editors who have printed news of our clients.

The day's progress is not as tidy as this example reflects. Reporters may call at any time, especially near deadline, with questions or to request interviews, photos, or sample products. The account executive must break his routine to order a messenger or prepare an overnight mail package. Or a client may call with news, questions, or a request. This often occurs at lunch or 5 P.M. A successful account person is a juggler who always knows exactly which balls are in play and can keep them in the air, with (seemingly) little effort. Grace under pressure is a valued ability.

Dedicated public relations professionals don't punch the clock. The work day often extends in both directions according to the needs of our clients. One may come in early for a breakfast meeting or meet after the work day. The evening, without telephone interruptions, can be the best time to put in some undisturbed writing or thinking time. And, finally, there is the required reading, the homework of the professional. Account executives must keep up with their clients' industries, which mean reading the leading trade journals. The best time to do this is on the train or at home at night.

Who we're all Looking For

An entry level candidate must be energetic and eager to learn the PR business from the ground up. And, since I'm the boss, they must do things my way (what boss is different?). Candidates are more appealing if they demonstrate related communications job experience, whether in journalism, broadcasting, marketing, advertising, production, etc. Whether one majors in public relations or in journalism, it is still important to obtain a solid grounding in all communications processes, as well as in the liberal arts, sociology, psychology, business, etc.

In my opinion, the days of entering the public relations profession without a college degree are essentially over, especially as the Public Relations Society of America strives to secure the status of "profession" for its members. It is also increasingly rare that small agencies will hire college graduates fresh out of school, unless they have interned or can demonstrate exceptionally strong journalism skills or PR credentials. But many of these potential "rising stars" can hope to land their first job at a medium size or even a large PR firm. The older generation of journalists made the transition to public relations most successfully, followed by a generation of liberal arts graduates (I have a masters degree in history), and, more recently, by public relations and journalism majors. Today, the pendulum appears to again be swinging back in favor of those with a broader liberal arts education.

Classroom success in itself is not enough. Successful job candidates should be able to demonstrate involvement in extracurricular activities, especially those related to their chosen profession. Involvement especially leadership in the PRSSA chapter or journalism society, editorship or reporting for the college paper, internships with local firms, or volunteer PR work for nonprofit organizations is what can set you apart from your peers.

In my experience, intensely curious, self motivated generalists are better candidates than narrowly focused, academic specialists or MBAs. However, if one hopes to earn the full respect of one's superiors and clients, especially if one hopes to enter the corporate or big agency arena, I cannot stress enough the importance of a solid understanding of basic business principles, the marketing process, and financial markets. In addition, becoming consummate public relations professional virtually requires a desire to understand how the media works and a curiosity to widely explore its print and electronic offerings, even if they aren't of personal interest, in order to understand the mentality of those to whom they do appeal. So read new magazines, watch new TV programs. And learn.


Internships, especially at small firms, provide a close up of the real PR world, which I believe helps students make a smoother transition from academe to the working world. Obtaining an internship may be difficult outside of major cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, and academic policy differs from school to school. We've hired several interns, and I would heartily recommend it to any aspiring public relations professional. Wherever you live or study, there are public relations internship opportunities, but you may have to create one for yourself. Follow your personal interests. Do you like animals? Visit the zoo or ASPCA. They usually have a public relations department. Volunteer. If you can't get paid, at least you can arrange to get credit and a letter of recommendation.

What You'll Earn

To attract qualified talent in New York, small agencies must offer salaries commensurate with larger firms. Our typical entry level position is the junior account executive, who can expect to earn between $21,000 to $24,000 the first year on the job. The junior AE spot is basically a six month to one year training period. I prefer college educated individuals with little direct PR experience, because they are still free of bad habits or preconceived notions of the field. Every agency has its own way of doing things and "training" someone is a luxury in which the small agency manager simply cannot afford to indulge.

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, six 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.

Am I Stuck Here Forever?

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 less 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, industrial 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.
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