So You Want a Career in Public Relations?


While most of this blog discusses the intersection of online and offline, I still believe that good offline communications has its roots in online. But in a town where I know more non-practicing lawyers (those with law degrees who decided AFTER that they got jobs in law firms that it was not a fit), I’ll offer my humble assessment of what life is like in a variety of positions and organizations within the world of public relations.  Some of this is sourced from PRSA’s “Careers in Public Relations,” but I am writing this with the understanding that PRSA is not likely to write a piece that says “Working in PR is Hell.”

So here goes:

Where you work

You have a few different options if you want a career in public relations.  You can work for an agency (where a lot of younger people get their start), or you can go in house at a corporation, non-profit or even the federal government, which is surprisingly, the nation’s largest employer of people working in a public relations or public affairs capacity.

What You Need to Bring to the Table

There are three items that I think set people apart in the field of public relations:

  1. The ability to write well, telling a story and in a convincing fashion
  2. Intraprenuerialism – I made the work up, but you need to operate in an entrepreneurial fashion within an organization; and
  3. Intellectual curiosity –   Asking the right questions at the right times sets people apart.

The Pros and Cons

Working in-house at an organization

Here are a few ideas about comparing “in house” vs. working for an agency. Working for the government, private sector or non-profit, you will have:

  • One client  – or really one employer and one issue.  You may have multiple “internal clients,” but you are likely to have only one major issue to work on.
  • Advice-giving:  You will be responsible to provide advice, counsel and support to a relatively small number of people, compared to an agency.
  • Involvement: Unlike when you work in a big agency and can float in and out of projects, you will likely be involved from start to finish
  • “Corporate” environment – some argue that this is less stressful than an agency, but it depends largely upon the issue that you are working on.
  • Slower advancement.  If you are in a good position in-house, you may be a staff of five people or less.  This creates less opportunities for advancement.
  • Lower pay.  This varies region to region, but my own experiences have taught me that the agency life demands more, thus pays more.

Working for an agency

  • Multiple clients – expect to be working for multiple clients (I once had 14 at the same time), and all of which want to think that they are your most important client.  The variety is interesting, but this can be extremely stressful.
  • Responsible for firm’s primary objectives; contribute to firm’s growth.  A lot of people get so involved in client work that they forget who writes the paychecks:  the agency.  If you work for a PR agency, you are responsible for accomplishing their primary objectives, which are mainly delivering good client service and growing the business.  The higher up you go in a PR firm, the more pressure there s to develop business and keep the pipeline of business going.
  • Long-term, project or retainer work – since you don’t have “one client,” most of your work will have a beginning, a middle and an end.  Then you’ll get five minutes to take a breath and you will be on to the next assignment.  There are some people who thrives on this and there are other people who prefer less “variety.”
  • Advancement – PR agencies are bigger than most in-house PR shops.  Bigger places means more room for advancement.
  • “Combat pay.”  Since the work is stressful and demanding, you will likely earn a better salary at an agency, but don’t forget that when a client or major project goes away, your job could go with it.
  • More “figure it out” – especially at a junior level, most of the people who thrive at an agency at those who can apply critical thinking skills and just plan figure things out with minimal instruction.

There is a LOT that I could add to this, but I am more interested in hearing others’ perspectives.  Please chime in early and often.




  1. While my PR career has been solely in government work, I was a reporter in a large daily (in newsrooms you are fired and called unpleasant things every other day, but it’s exciting) and I would think the level of competition among coworkers would also be a major difference between the two paths. I am the communications manager with one of the largest D.C. Government agencies and my team has to work together closely and seamlessly to bang out campaigns and come up with ideas that cost less and deliver more. We are rewarded together and there is a lot more internal and hyper-internal marketing involved. Anecdotally, I know the agencies are extremely competitive and this causes a different and more harmful stress that I would assume wastes a lot of time and resources on ‘one-upping’ coworkers. Interested to see what agency professionals say?

  2. This is a useful discussion – an indeed, I’ve served on both sides and found that agency life is a mile-wide and an inch deep. Vis-à-vis, in-house work is very focuses…maybe a ¼ mile wide, but much, much deeper. In-house work, at least for smaller companies like tech-start-ups, will also tend to develop broader marketing skills for market research, direct marketing, trade shows, product marketing and above all…business strategy.

    I’m not sure the “combat pay” reference is quite right. Survey data I’ve read from pretty credible sources like the Council of PR firms consistently show that in-house PR types make more than their agency counterparts. It may seem counterintuitive, but it true. The better agencies pay better for good people…after all people are the business model.

    All aside, I can assure you from first hand experience — that the extra $200 a month soldiers get for serving in a combat zone doesn’t truly measure up enough to make a difference. The tax break, however, is substantial.

  3. Mike, I think that depends on the agency. I’d heard similar stories (of the “horror” variety) about such competitiveness among co-workers at agencies before I went to work for one. Nothing could have been further from the truth–one of the governing tenants at the agency I worked for was: “Teamwork is Everything.” At that agency, in that office, and especially our practice group, that meant something.

    Mark, to your question, obviously I’ve been on the agency side, and liked the change and variety provided by working for multiple clients. The one thing I didn’t really ever like was the billable hours model–I think it penalizes workers who are more efficient and/or work quickly. Since agencies count on the revenue expected when they estimate how many hours will go into a project, if it’s completed more quickly than expected, you just get more work loaded on. There’s little room to breathe, sometimes. And this is coming from someone who loved, loved, loved her work!

    That same push for billables is one of the reasons there are so many non-practicing lawyers around, I think.


  4. Thanks guys. Both are great contributions.


  5. As a PR and Marketing Manager for a non-profit organization, I found it interesting to read the posting and compare my own situation. There were similarities to each, however, I found in the end I felt most aligned with the in-house description.

    I felt the advice-giving and involvement seemed to match and the same with lower pay. However, I sometimes feel like I don’t just have one client as we usually work with other organizations to use our budgets as wisely as possible. Sometimes, this ends with doing the PR work for both as they might not have a PR/Mrkt person on staff. I felt like I had similarities with the agency in that they have accounts leave and their job is at risk, a simliar scenario to having grants or programming cut and losing a full-time staff member. Additionally, as budgets might not allow for a “full” staff, a “figure it out” mentality happens by default as there may be no one to ask.

    It is especially interesting that the text and your writing tell us that the largest employer in the public relations field is the government, however, they really aren’t supposed to have public relations positions in government and therefore, as the book says, “camouflage to hide it from Congress and teh press”, the positions.

  6. Government not supposed to have any PR positions? Where does that come from?

    I do think that too often government leaders, at least local, think PR is only about media … “I can handle media calls,” they say. But only about 10 percent of my job is media related. The rest is marketing, branding, advertising, internal/external document creation, internal communications. I think all of these “fields” end up in one basket in government or “in-house” shops at companies/organizations while the agencies are definitely more segmented from what I understand.

  7. Adriana Gallegos Says: September 3, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    It is interesting to read about the pros and cons for working in house and at an agency. After working at an agency and dealing with clients from the federal government I realized that I wanted to do what they were doing. The federal government would give us very interesting projects to work on, but we were stuck doing all the dirty work while our client would be the face to the project and travel to all the events we planned for them. It seems like the in house public relations personnel had it good.

  8. I feel exactly where Adriana is coming from on that one. Because I am the Assistant Communications Manager for an international development firm in DC, I get to see a lot of what’s going on behind closed doors that most would never have a clue even existed! I guess my duties would be considered “in-house” yet we’re a privately owned firm.

    However, I have some control and say over content and branding and to a certain degree media relations. The project I’m working on currently has so many layers and responsibilities, I’m only 1/2 of a communications team so a lot of the PR work is done through a consultant. While the consultant does the “grunt work,” my colleagues and I get to bask in the glow and accept the accolades and go to all the cool events which is some what rewarding.

    Where I fall short is, if my consultant screws up, I’m responsible for correcting the screw up yet and still they (the consultants) get paid the mega dollars by yours truly (my firm)and I remain on a payroll that barely reaches today’s proposed median income.

    So you tell me who really has it good? Lol!

  9. Lindsey Brothers Says: September 4, 2008 at 11:37 am

    Thank you so much for so many insightful comments! These are very helpful in understanding the differences between agency, in house, non-profit, and government public relations. I wish I had been given this information as an undergrad!

    One of the previous postings stirred my curiosity. I decided to dig around and learn more about the government and the term “public relations.” I focused on this because while working at the Pentagon I never once came across the term “public relations.” At the time I was told the military could not use the term “public relations” and therefore the term was “public affairs.”

    This doesn’t mean that the government wasn’t/isn’t able to hire PR firms for certain projects, dubbed “public relations.” Just look at the campaign, “That Guy,” which targets underage drinking by service members and was created and launched by Fleishman Hillard (

    The path of public relations in the government has changed a lot over time. Throughout history (starting around the Civil War era) the government took an active role in publicity, promotional, and informational campaigns. However, change came about after Congress put limits on government spending for public relations. The term was eliminated and replaced with “public affairs, information specialists, communications officers,” etc. Despite the name change, this didn’t stop the practice of public relations. Most of this information was found on, a good link that is an easy read. I highly recommend this quick read if you want to get a better understanding about this topic.

    Although most government communications practices are targeted at the public, much is targeted to internal agencies/branches’ audiences. The office I was assigned to (Air Force Public Affairs) was broken down into seven different offices. My office dealt with training General Officers to be comfortable and professional in front of media; confirming that books about to be published by former service members were free of classified information; producing a daily news brief of Air Force media stories; and most interestingly, working with Hollywood movie producers when a movie involved anything Air Force related. I never once talked to a member of the media.

    There is so much to say about working for the government in a communications capacity (not just for my little office within the Air Force). Thank you Mark for getting us started on this topic and thank you to those that have posted. This is a wonderful topic that I’m eager to read more feedback on.

  10. Oops! I almost forgot my point…

    So yeah, from a corporate stance yes it is less stressful but being 1/2 of the entire communications team proves that my chances at advancing are, quite possibly, slim to none (a very grim reality) and as mentioned before my pay isn’t as astronomical as my consultant’s (let’s just say my consultant earns about a third of my total salary on a monthly basis; and we’re just one client).

    No, money isn’t everything, but a nice fat paycheck never hurt anybody. Besides the way I see it is, if I’m going to end up practically doing the work myself, then what am I really paying you for? I’ll take the fast-paced, trash talking, bullet sweating, vast approaching deadlines, burning the midnight oil stresses any day, so long as I’m getting paid well to do it and endure it!

  11. Becky Richardson Says: September 4, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    “Intrapreneurialism” is a great term. It perfectly captures how our PR team had to operate at the non-profit I worked for many years ago. Much like your description of working “in-house,” we had one client (or cause) we were serving–and with a meager budget, ingenuity was the name of the game. True, we were not paid well, but we were passionate about what we did–and we learned to work in an “intrapreneurial” way. Passion bred curiosity and resourcefulness–in addition to tremendous teamwork.

    Thanks for nutshell descriptions of both PR tracks–and for the advice. I am looking forward to learning more this semester.

  12. The contrast between ‘in house’ and agency jobs is quite interesting and helpful. Thanks Mark.

    My experience has been mixed, and I personally enjoy working as an in house PR/communications professional for several reasons.

    First, my only ‘agency’ experience per se was in entertainment pr, in my hometown of Los Angeles. As Mark mentioned in his assessment of agency jobs, you have to balance multiple clients and convince all of them that they are special. In the entertainment industry, that is simply not always the case. I find it hard to ‘sell’ a person or idea or company that I dont believe in, and as a PR professional, that is not really an option. We often had ‘celebrity’ clients that were only celebrities in their minds, yet they expected to be featured on the cover of Us Weekly and got mad when none of the major magazines wanted to interview them. You cant exactly tell them that nobody knows who they are or cares…its your job to make them care. I find that level of stress in PR undesirable, so I moved to in house and have been happy with that decision.

    I primarily enjoy the strategic planning element of being in an in house communications team. As noted in previous comments, you often get to see a project through from beginning to end, and a lot of the strategy and planning is done internally. I personally dont enjoy the pitching aspect of PR (dont ask me how I manage to love PR and hate pitching…its an interesting phenomenon lol). I prefer to do the writing, strategy and implementation of strategic PR plans…thus, I ultimately dont see myself ever going back to the high-stress, please everybody agency environment.

  13. Mia, one quick shout-out for consultants here. Yes, the dollars when you look at them “raw” are higher. But, keep in mind some of the less tangible things: they likely are paying for their own health insurance, taxes, etc. They have to fund their own 401K/retirement plans. And, they are only as good as the completion of the project, at least from my prior work both with contractors and as one. Hopefully your agency writes its consultant contracts with clear deliverables, and if they don’t meet the deliverables, payment should be reduced or withheld (and, there is the other risk of being a consultant).

    Trust me, being on the consultant side has benefits, but there are significant trade offs too!

  14. Since I didn’t work in PR so far I don’t really have any knowledge on working “in house” or for an agency that I can share.
    I find the posting very useful for someone in my position. I had no clue what are the pros and cons about working for an agency versus “in house”. I must admit I believed that working for an organization offers more advantages than working for an agency – now I have to reconsider.
    Mark, you said a lot of younger people get their start in an agency. Is the agency the place where a beginner is expected to start or is it just a matter of choice?

  15. Mark Story Says: September 6, 2008 at 8:37 am

    These are all great comments, everyone.

    A couple of notes:

    – The Office of Management and Budget prohibits federeal agencies from spending money that would essentially tell taxpayers how wonderful they are. You could *argue* that this is “public relations.” That’s why you see so many people with “public affairs” in government in their job titles. It’s semantics.

    Second and full disclosure — Jenn and I worked for the same, global agency but in different offices — and while teamwork is everything, especially in a down economy, the pressure to develop new business — and keep the pipeline full — is tremendous. My personal experiences are that this and the long hours are what drive people out of the business.

    But thanks to everyone for the comments. And just to tease it, I have a BIG posting coming on Monday.


  16. Shout out to Jen: Touche! You hit the nail on the head with that one!


  17. Thirayu Sannikorn Says: September 6, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Thanks Mark. I found that this post is very useful one for me as I had so little experience in PR area. The pros and cons here could give me pictures of what PR be and how they’re different. Mark, one question, to what you said that lots of young people start their job at agency, is that because working in agency can give wider understanding of pr? I do stay on the agency side as I believe that multiple clients can be a good aspect of career in public relation for beginner.

  18. Paulina Ibarra Says: September 6, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    All these postings are extremely interesting, but I particularly got caught up on the discussion on government agencies not been able to hire PR agencies to do work for them… While I don’t work for a government agency, the World Bank is a tax-exempt international organization working to reduce poverty and we are not suppose to have PR firms working for us either. In instead, we have Communications Officers managing crisis communications, who are part of “External Affairs” and whenever there is a crisis we manage to do what we can to “manage the crisis”. In many cases, this is more like a PR campaign than anything else… (Do you remember the wonderful communications crisis situation that we had at the Bank last year with what was his name?) There are many, many ways to disguise PR campaigns…

    Now to shoot at Lindsey and “That Guy” campaign: Mark, correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that kind of campaign a PSA campaign? Isn’t that just another form for government agencies to do PR while providing a public service? Can you help us make the distinction between a PR Campaign and a PSA Campaign?

  19. Mark Story Says: September 6, 2008 at 3:11 pm


    Just to be clear, federal government agencies can indeed purchase the services of outside vendors to help in their communications efforts – it’s usually for purposes of public education, just like the that Lindsey mentioned (Lindsey – did you know that I worked at Fleishman when we built that?).


  20. Mark Story Says: September 6, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    And about the public service part: Tricare, the healthcare side of the Armed Forces, paid for the “That Guy” campaign to curb binge drinking. You could call it “public” service, but the target audience is still clearly members of the military.


  21. I don’t have any PR experience, so this has been very helpful to me and has gotten me thinking in what sector I would like to start. Though initially I have thought about working for a non-profit(in-house); now that I know it’s hard to move up, I’m considering an agency. Other’s feedback on their own experience has also opened my eyes to both sides of the spectrum and I noticed that there are many other things that I need to consider before I start making my way into the working world of PR.

  22. I have no experience in PR and as someone that is looking at this field and deciding on the path to embark on, I find this post very useful. The comparison of agency vs. in-house has provided a lot of insight. It’s interesting that an agency spreads a person among multiple clients, while working in-house spreads a person among many tasks, beginning to end. It all depends on the person I suppose, and not only what interests them the most, but their own work ethic and preferences of their work environment. For someone like me, who prefers something fast-paced and constantly changing, the agency seems most ideal. But, being in-house seems to give a person more of an opportunity to work on a project from beginning to end, and being involved in all of the details. Looking at the comments that everyone has posted, it seems that there are pros and cons to both sides. This has given me quite a bit to think about.

  23. Thank you Mark for the clear comparison among these two types of PR jobs. Just like Mamie, I have no experience in the actual PR industry and this article certainly help me gain a basic understanding of the field. What surprised me is the salary fact. One of my friends who has experience working in PR agency and then Nike PR department told me that how “less stressful” and “more profitable” her later “in-house” PR job is. I guess it might still depends on the scale of the company and how much emphasis the company put on PR. Regardless of payment, I do enjoy working from the beginning of a project till the very end. In that sense, I feel more involved and more control of the entire task. I guess it also can be more energy-consuming to try to build good relationship with different clients every time. However, I guess it’s also good to start in PR agency in order to learn as much as I can for building a more solid foundation that would assist me in later career in working in in-house organization.

  24. I have not had the opportunity to work in a corporate or agency yet but I did work as a student publicist at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in the Office of Special Events. We worked with the regional media (local and Mexican media) pitching our concerts and events as well as internal university communications with on campus events for students. I would have to say that working with the university sounds similar to working in a corporate environment since there is a certain “Intraprenuerialism” that you need to have in order to stay afloat. Communication was controlled internally yet working with “meet and greet” events after concerts with the general public required a lot of creativity, strategic planning as well as buy in from both the media as well as the public.
    I have worked in a federally contracted corporate setting with over 25,000 plus members internationally and was not impressed with the work of our corporate communications group. I literally saw one press release go out once a month filled with tons of fluff and thought, what else do they do the rest of the month. I started to think that it would take them one month to create a press release. It definitely proves that there are much smaller groups that work within corporations, but what is going on the rest of the time they are not writing that once a month press release. If I had to make a choice of where I would want to be, I would have to say that I would pick an agency for the mere fact that it appears to live and breath PR with ongoing madness. Call me crazy but I would probably be willing to juggle and take a risk in working in an agency. It seems to be everchanging. I like change! Working in a coporate setting gives me the impression that it would become stagnent after a while.

  25. Emily Howard Says: September 9, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    I have an interesting perspective because I work as a partner/vendor directly with PR/Corp Comm contacts and teams within agencies, corporations, governments and a handful of non-profits. It is helpful to hear what goes on behind the scenes because my perception is on the outside looking in. I hear the differences through my clients and also attending networking events but it is nice to have it broken down into simple pros and cons.

    While I don’t have any internal experience with government, corporation or non-profit, I did have an internship with a PR agency. My experience was less focused on teamwork and more focused on the competitive aspect. I think the concentration of how each agency is set up is dependent on the internal structure. I have found, with my limited experience, that each agency is different and some appreciate the competitive nature and some focus on the teamwork.

  26. Emily Howard Says: September 9, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    I have an interesting perspective because I work as a partner/vendor directly with PR/Corp Comm contacts and teams within agencies, corporations, governments and a handful of non-profits. It is helpful to hear what goes on behind the scenes because my perception is on the outside looking in. I hear the differences through my clients and also attending networking events but it is nice to have it broken down into simple pros and cons.

    While I don’t have any internal experience with government, corporation or non-profit, I did have an internship with a PR agency. My experience was less focused on teamwork and more focused on the competitive aspect. I think the concentration of how each agency is set up is dependent on the internal structure. I have found, with my limited experience, that each agency is different and some appreciate the competitive nature and some focus on the teamwork.

    I have learned a lot already through this discussion and am interested reading all of the feedback. I am anxious to apply this knowledge in my career.

  27. Joe Osborne Says: September 10, 2008 at 8:26 am

    I am young in my career but, to speak from my personal experience, am so glad I worked for an agency early on. I’ve found all of the pros and cons to be true in my internship and career experiences. For other young PR professionals I know and myself, the “figure it out” pro is the deal-breaker recruiting catch for agencies. The truth is no matter what division of the industry you work in after you get a degree, you will most likely be making the same entry level salary – give or take a couple thousand dollars. I liked the idea of working at a place where I was given more responsibility and – if work got stale – could help on other accounts.

    I recommend every young PR undergraduate to at least intern or get one job at an agency, if they can help it. I’m not inferring that one can’t obtain the same experience in an in-house, PA, or freelance capacity. But because of the specific demands and operating structure of the agency, one is forced to absorb those dynamics and perform accordingly. For me, they were writing workshops, PR strategy, and ethics courses all rolled into one. I consider my jobs at agencies to be extremely valuable experiences.

  28. Heather Lovett Says: September 10, 2008 at 9:12 am

    I found this post very interesting. I have never worked in house, but I felt like it was viewed as a step up by all junior staff at my agency. I feel most people get their start at an agency because inhouse corporations prefer seasoned professionals that will be low maintenance in the training department. I do agree with Mark’s assessment of working for an agency. I was, however, surprised that with inhouse the pay was lower and there is slower advancement (although this makes sense now). I always thought inhouse took on professionals so they would not have to pay an arm and a leg for agency promotions. I assumed they would compensate their professional accordingly. Mark, I’m curious, which do you prefer?

  29. Reading into the text and reading the above pros/cons that Mark has included, I seemed to take interest in the fact that some agency professionals say a problem with being “outside” the organization and working with a client is that they are treated like outsiders, sometimes seem to “threaten” full-time staffers territory and can really have a rough time in working together with a company or organization. For those of you who are in agency work or Mark, since you were, any light on this? Does this happen? Is it rare enough that its not too bothersome?

  30. Shilpika Das Says: September 10, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    This post was very informative, highlighting the differences between both large agencies and government and non-profit organizations. As a former journalist, my biggest challenge as a PR professional was giving up my “objectivity.” Working in a PR role was definitely a big change and the transition was not easy.
    What surprised me most while working for a large non-profit organization in DC was the tediously slow pace at which the firm churned out its press materials – after endless revisions, insertion of “official” language and numerous sign offs. Having worked with daily deadlines and quick turnarounds, the environment suddenly felt sluggish. I often felt the message got lost in a sea of industry mumbo-jumbo. Effective PR? Perhaps not.
    I think the key here is “intraprenuerialism.”
    Judging from the comments here, I have a lot to learn about Public Relations. The posts here have been an enlightening read. I hope I can learn how to strike the right balance between objectivity, creativity and effective PR.

  31. Nikiforos Gkrestas Says: September 10, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    Well, first of all i must make clear that i have no previous experience neither in the communication field nor in the business environment in general. So, i guess that my contribution at this moment will be quite poor… However, i’m providing some thoughts crossing my mind in a theoretical level. Everything i read in this article makes really sense even for a naive and amateur communicator as myself! I completely agree with the distinctions and the differencies between working in-house or for a PR agent. I can only talk about visions and dreams right now. And as a Linguist, as a person who adores the way that human communication works and the way it can affect people’s lives, i find pretty challenging (even if it is really exhausting) to work for a PR agency with all that variety of clients and cases even with the risk of a job loss. But this is only a first thought, a first approach… The experience from the class and, furthermore, from the active participation in the market place, will prove if i’m right or wrong.

    Nikiforos Gkrestas

  32. Good comments all.

  33. The PR industry, especially in Orange County, California, is VERY sexist against men. MOST, if not nearly all the PR firms here are made up of only women, and my boyfriends was literally turned down a job because he was a male. — PR firm in Tustin said, “We don’t hire men anymore, but thanks for considering us”…they told him that DURING the first 5 minutes of the interview. Illegal or just plain unethical?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow by Email
%d bloggers like this: