How to effectively manage communications contractors

Is it better to centralize your pool of communications contractors or allow each manager to hire their own agencies and freelancers?

Small organizations have fewer dilemmas: one business, one person responsible for communications (comms manager or the CEO themselves), one PR agency, or a freelance contractor.

But problems can occur as the size of an organization grows. More businesses mean even more products, more separate budgets, and more managers responsible for justifying those budgets with results. Each manager is likely to mind their own business and strive to spend their budgets in the most efficient ways. After all,  this is what they are held accountable for.

Many years ago, a friend was hired by an organization that had fewer than 300 employees and 4 or 5 PR agencies on retainer. While he was supposed to be responsible for communications, his predecessor also told him about the nightmare she had been living. She was trying to help all product managers do their product PR and manage their PR agencies simultaneously. Nobody was happy. The managers felt they were not getting adequate support, she was overwhelmed and extremely tired and the contractors felt like they had two masters, out of whom the product manager was more important because he or she was paying the bill.

My friend knew something had to change. Despite its many PR contractors, the company’s product-related activities were not implemented in a strategic way. The organization was hemorrhaging money on PR services. He estimated that the same results could be obtained with half of the total budget. So creating a centralized, small contractor pool with – let’s say – two agencies and coordinating their activities in order to build company reputation seemed like a win-win for everybody.

And he faced a wall.

Although everyone theoretically understood his reasoning, nobody was willing to surrender the freedom and control they had. The upper management also agreed but was unwilling to enforce any practical changes. He failed, and his career there was short-lived.

But the company was doing well, still managing communications in a decentralized way. Business was growing. Customers were happy, product managers continued to meet their financial goals and get bonuses. Corporate communications were still non-existent, but nobody seemed to miss it. In the end, my friend reached a conclusion that maybe his problem was not his persuasive skills, but rather that he failed to identify the true needs of the organization.

A centralized pool of communications contractors coordinated by the comms team has clear benefits.

It facilitates a strategic approach to working with partners that can protect the organization’s reputation. Everything we communicate – about the company, individual products, CSR activities – contributes to the overall goal of building the organization’s reputation. In return, individual businesses can profit from this underlying reputation and increase their sales with smaller expenses in other areas, like advertising.

The overall PR spending of a centralized pool is also significantly lower compared to the “each business on its own” approach. There are fewer overlapping responsibilities and internally competitive activities (two press briefings on the same day). In a crisis, the response will also usually be more streamlined as done on higher management levels and taking into account the whole organization, not just an individual business.

The key is to analyze the business goals of the organization and treat them as a starting point for setting up the communications structure. The old truth that communication exists to support the business is still valid here. Yes, our personal preferences are important. After all, they are based on many years of our experience. But they should not limit us in finding the best solutions for each organization we serve. One size does not fit all.

Jacek Ławrecki is the head of communications for Poland at European energy company Fortum as well as a freelance PR consultant in aviation 

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