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Living the (Agency) Life

Written by Suzanne Boys (PhD), who is an Associate Professor and the Public Relations ProgramDirector in UC’s Department of Communication

This summer, I had the privilege of spending two weeks at Ketchum Atlanta as a Plank Center Educator Fellow . The goal of the fellowship program is twofold: exposing college professors to current PR practice and creating an exchange of information between educators and practitioners.

2015 Ketchum Fellows

As someone who came to public relations education indirectly, I was eager to spend two weeks immersed in agency life. I have to admit, though, that I was a little anxious as I drove from Cincinnati to Atlanta. I had limited communication with the Ketchum Atlanta office before the fellowship started, and I didn’t have a clear idea of what to expect. What is PR agency life really like, I wondered, and how will I fit into it?

Navigating my way through a copse of office high rises to Ketchum’s twelfth floor suite, waiting outside the locked glass doors for someone to buzz me in, and realizing I was thirty minutes early, I felt like an intern on her first day.

Ketchum bulding, Atlanta

Nerves aside, I was given a warm welcome by everyone in the office. During my two weeks there, I met with two senior human resources officers, VPs in charge of both brand and corporate accounts, the media specialist, a senior writer/content developer, the SVP of finance, the senior manager of organizational change services, a VP of social marketing, the business development team, a VP of digital, and several former fellows (i.e., interns) who had recently been hired into permanent positions. I also sat in on team meetings, listened in on conference calls with corporate and brand clients, participated in a virtual brainstorming session, listened to a client’s quarterly financial update, and browsed through myriad in-house documents, case studies, and collateral materials.

During my first week, I was invited to present to the entire office. Since one of my goals for the fellowship was understanding PR agency culture, I did an impromptu cultural analysis of the office. Although I presented my assessment just days into my visit, it was a great opportunity to vet my observations and get feedback from the entire group.

Three things stood out to me about the culture I was experiencing. First was how time and creativity hang in tension. Since the business runs on billable hours, everyone tracks their work in 15-minute increments. Their work however, hinges on creativity, communication, and relationships, all of which are difficult to quantify. Second was how layers of culture are managed across a complex organizational structure. Ketchum is a global agency divided by geographic region, functional specialty, account teams, and varying levels of seniority. Fluid teams form on an as-needed basis, and each person serves on multiple teams at any given time. This allows for maximum flexibility and specialization; it also requires workers to navigate palpably distinct subcultures in productive ways hour-by-hour. Third was how the organization enacts communication. Clearly communication is the heart of public relations, and just as clearly Ketchum Atlanta is an expressive organization comprised largely of extroverts. In this culture, a high value is placed on creative, persuasive, relationally-savvy messages. As a client-driven business, however, listening is crucial to PR. It was fascinating to see how an office of expressives leveraged listening. In addition, it was clear that there were some highly skilled introverts doing excellent work in the office. The culture at Ketchum was marked by a complex amalgam of introvert-extrovert behaviors and expressive-receptive communication.

Beyond agency culture, I learned more about current PR practice than I can capture in one blog post. I have pages of notes and dozens of ideas to share with my students. In my PR classes, I will put more emphasis on turning data into insights; assessing impacts over impressions; creating basic media lists; balancing earned, paid, shared, and owned media; learning how to read balance sheets; maximizing teamwork; doing facilitated brainstorming; and crafting visual pitches. In advising students headed onto the job market, I will encourage them to get additional social media/digital certifications; to take a basic finance course; to have at least one agency internship; to expect to start as technicians rather than strategists; to present themselves in personable, polished ways; to pursue post-grad internships; to take (pen and paper) notes from day one; to ask questions; to speak up; and to be (respectfully) ambitious.

As unsure I was about the experience going into my time in Atlanta, I was grateful coming out of it. My sincerest thanks to both Ketchum Atlanta and the Plank Center for making this invaluable experience possible.


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