The argument as to whether or not an organisation with a well-staffed and well-equipped public relations department still needs the services of an outside consultant may never cease, well, as long as organisations exist, or, should we say, as long as life itself exists.
Why bother about a consultant who may not be found when needed most, and whose cost you may not be able to contend with, especially against the background of other competing and more pressing needs?
This argument comes to the front burner as organisations look for ways to cut costs and increase the bottom-line. Cutting costs may mean increasing attention to capacity building, with the aim of providing, in-house, the same services for which the organisation spends huge sums to obtain from outside. It is the only way to remain afloat in a sea of competition that gets stiffer by the day, in an environment where the cost of doing business has continued to maintain an upward spiral.
It shouldn’t be difficult to argue against retention of a consultant, if the numerous advantages of having an in-house PR department are taken into consideration.
Firstly, the in-house practitioner is a bona fide employee whose loyalty to the organisation can never be in doubt. He has every reason to be loyal, and not do anything to undermine the organisation’s integrity, interests and existence. The organisation is his only source of livelihood. He is therefore likely to give his all, indeed, die on the job, to ensure the success of the organisation, since it is the only guarantee he will continue to put food on the table.
Secondly, the in-house practitioner is the custodian of the organisation’s history, philosophy, culture and objectives. He works nearly twenty- four-seven to uphold them, since they form the core essence of his job. The third advantage of an in-house staff is the fact that he is always available and can be reached anywhere on the planet, especially in time of crisis. But it’s not all a basket of advantages.
The flip side of an in-house PR man is that he is expected to be a jack of all trades, with the obvious consequence of being a master of none. Not being a superman, the possibility that he would be knowledgeable about all the aspects of public relations is almost non-existent. Yet, that is what the organisation expects him to do – know all.
Public Relations is about telling the truth, nothing else. But in most cases, the in-house man finds himself having to choose between telling the truth that might cost him his job and telling a lie to keep his job, which could hurt the organisation in the long run.
Who is the employee that would look his chief executive officer in the face to tell him that the stories he hears about his escapades in clubhouses could damage the image of the organisation if they found their way into the gossip magazines or social media? He tries as much as he can to ensure the unpalatable information he gets about his boss does not get to him, and prays nothing untoward happens, since he would be called upon to fix the damage. Is this where the external consultant comes in?
Yes. As his name implies, he is a consultant, meaning that he possesses the skill that the in-house staff my not possess. There is a high probability he may not attempt to be a jack of all trades. He chooses a few niche areas in which he has competencies, and attempts to deliver the best. He has access to the best and most sophisticated equipment, and invests on the latest technology to ensure he delivers world-class services that can be expected from a consultant.
Many years of handling similar public relations projects for diverse clients makes him a specialist and gives him the competence that organisations may not find in-house. What’s more, it is not difficult for him to learn from the mistake of one client while solving a problem for another. It all adds up to why his cost is usually higher. But despite the cost, it almost always happens that organisations get value for their money, that is, those that are ready to spare no expense to get the best.
The consultant owes no allegiance to the chief executive officer of the organisation he is working for, if it means protecting his job at the expense of his integrity. The one that is worth his onions would not think for a minute about turning his back on the organisation if his professional opinion would not be respected, even if it is not what the organisation’s leaders want to hear. He has no reason to tell the management what they want to hear, if he knows it to be a lie, because the integrity he has built over the years means more to him than the money.
Do we still have consultants in this mould? They are very few. The advantage of retaining the services of an external consultant also comes with disadvantages. One, the organisation cannot vouch for his loyalty, for, it is just one of the clients he works for. There is no guarantee he will not use information obtained from client A to solve a problem for client B, and in some worse cases, both clients may operate in the same industry. He cannot be trusted to be morally above board in matters like this.
The consultant is an itinerant service provider. An organisation might need his attention most at the same time he is giving his attention to another client in another environment. In time of crisis, the organisation could be left holding the short end of the stick if the in-house staff does not have the skill to handle the crisis. What is the way out? For organisations that can afford the expense, it is best to retain the services of an outside consultant, no matter the competence of those inside. This would create the synergistic competence that is needed to achieve the PR objectives of the organisation.
The organisation benefits from the competence and skill of the consultant who must use the deep knowledge of the PR Department about the organisation to achieve set goals. The foregoing is, however, dependent upon the relationship that exists between the consultant and the PR Department.
In a situation in which the two parties work with mutual suspicion and distrust, the organisation may find itself not achieving its objectives and, in extreme cases, paying a heavy cost, image-wise. Cases like this arise when there is envy on the part of the in-house staff, which may come about from the feeling that he makes substantial contributions to the achievement of set objectives or, in some cases, does all the work, while the consultant takes the money and gets all the attention – the Biblical prophet that is without honour at home. But despite a few factors that could discourage it, experience has shown that it is always to an organisation’s advantage to engage the services of a consultant, even if it has a PR Department.
The bigger the organisation, the wider its publics and therefore, the greater the need for an outside consultant. The way to ensure the purpose of hiring a consultant is achieved is by defining his roles very clearly, as opposed to the ones played by the staff, in order to avoid unnecessary clashes that could cost the organisation its image and reputation.