Barnardos’ Irene Saunders: How can an agency be an expert if they’re just briefed by a client?

Irene SaundersFormer CommsCon publicist of the year Irene Saunders is senior publicist for Barnardos Australia. Mumbrella’s Miranda Ward spoke to Saunders about the pros and cons of working clientside compared to an agency. 

What attracted you to working in-house as opposed to working for an agency?

The reason I got into promotions, as it was called back in the day, was because I had a passion for music. I needed to work for a record company in order to be close to music. It never crossed my mind to work for an agency because I wanted to work with artists in the music industry so I became a publicist within a record label. For me it’s always been about what you’re promoting not just the process of what you’re promoting, what you’re promoting has to be something you’re passionate about.

Everything I’ve worked in I had to believe in and immerse myself in rather than just promoting a different product or brand every day, that never appealed to me.

What attracted you to working for an organisation like Barnardos?

That was after I had my own children and I wanted to get into the not-for-profit space and wanting to help make a difference in the community. Knowing what Barnardos does for children, it’s very close to my heart in terms of caring for children so that’s what appealed at the time.

What are the challenges about working as an in-house PR professional?

There’s more pluses than negatives because when you’re a publicist or you’re promoting something you have to be the expert and I don’t know how an agency can feel they’re expert really if they are just briefed by a client.

If you’re a publicist in-house for something as complex as foster care and adoption you never stop learning. There’s legislation, policy, case-studies of individual children, there’s incredible depth of knowledge you need. You need to be the expert, you need to educate the average person or the media about what’s going on.

Possibly within a welfare organisation, they’re not very publicity hungry. They just want to do their job and keep children safe. They can, maybe, see as what you do as necessary or it’s not saving lives.  For them to look through a marketing lense and realise if the message gets out to more people we might get more foster carers or get more donations from the public, so we can then do more of our work.

That’s now been done over the last few years. When I joined they were very publicity adverse and saw it as bad if we got in the papers. Proving to them it could be a good thing was a learning curve.

The in-house PR role has been described as the paradise of the PR industry – why do you think that is?

I thought publicists liked to chop and change and it was old-school to want to be in-house!

It’s probably because you can get your teeth into it and become the expert and be close to what you love. I’m inside and part of the team, I see it first-hand. I’m not just hearing about it at a briefing.

How does the in-house PR function change from industry to industry?

The music industry is really different. The structure of it, how strong, back in the day, radio is, it would make or break you.

Music is also so different because you had new releases every week and radio would play maybe three, it was very competitive.

It was very cut-throat. It was very fast-paced but it was great training for me to be able to handle anything else.

In music we did less with the high-brow media and the print media to a certain extent, it was more radio based.

What are the challenges facing PR professionals?

It seems to be brands becoming news sources or having to have content. I’m a bit old-school because I really don’t know, there’s so much content out there now that I do long for the days that it was purely you dealt with the media, your contact at the newspaper or a magazine.

It’s competing for space and the traditional media is under pressure from the new media so all the old journos are going and the people you’re dealing with they’re so pushed for time that they don’t have the time to write a story. You’re providing them with ready made content and they need to video and images and they pretty much need a written piece already to trot in rather than putting their own spin on it.

The pace, the quantity of content and the competition for space makes it quite different. It’s less organic. There’s more opportunities but there’s still the same number of people in the audience so the message can get diluted across a number of channels.

  • Miranda Ward is the public relations and publishing editor for Mumbrella

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