How one organization took advantage of a major transition to move away from third-party vendors and build an in-house communications team.
Public relations professionals have many fantasies. Some of us want to save the world. Others want to see a social media campaign go viral, produce an award-winning website, or make a video with a Chihuahua. But at some point, almost all of us have fantasized about dropping our consultants and doing everything ourselves.
That’s not because we don’t value our vendors; the vast majority of communications consultants do great work. But given the occasional crossed wires and missed deadlines, it often seems like it would be easier to do everything internally.
I am living that dream.
In 2011, the Pew Charitable Trusts was in the last stage of transitioning from a foundation to a public charity. Pew had brought former grantees in-house. It had opened a Washington, DC office and hired campaign staff. A new budget system was in place, and successful projects were working to fulfill Pew’s mission of informing the public, improving public policy, and invigorating civic life. But the communications operation was working much as it had a decade earlier.
With most funds allocated not to operating expenses but to Pew’s various programs, each of the organization’s 40-plus projects had its own in-house communications officer with a network of supporting consultants—PR firms, graphic designers, writers, copyeditors, videographers, and photographers. All of this led to unavoidable communications confusion for Pew, including multiple sub-brands and dozens of websites.
To address the challenge, Pew CEO Rebecca Rimel hired a consulting firm to assess the infrastructure. Its recommendations were unequivocal: Get rid of your vendors, they said. Build an in-house team and consolidate communications into one central division.
Thus began our great adventure in DIY PR. I joined Pew in 2012 with directions to carry out the consultant’s advice. I met with more than a dozen of the freelancers we had been using, and hired several to found our multimedia and graphic-design teams. Then Pew started recruiting. We hired the best and most well-connected leaders we could find to head new editorial, digital and creative, and strategic-planning divisions. And we brought the scattered communications experts already at Pew under one division and hired new staff to fill the gaps.
Before long, I was running a mid-sized public relations agency, devoted to a single client, with the existing communications officers working as “embeds” alongside fully functional “service teams.” The quality and consistency of our work product was demonstrably better. Staff were forming strategic partnerships with policy teams and helping to shape campaign strategies from the start. And an internal evaluation showed that we had saved the institution more than a million dollars in a single year.
Easy, right? Not so fast. There were some hard-learned lessons along the way, including:
Project management matters. Several months in, I realized that the communications “embeds” were smart, persistent, and media-savvy. But some understandably had trouble juggling media pitching, along with managing timelines and reviews for all of the communications products that were under simultaneous development. So we diverted four positions from other roles to make the trains run on time, explain processes, and align internal resources.
The buck stops here. If you struggle to make your internal clients happy now, just imagine the tough conversations you’ll have without outside vendors to blame things on! Coming in early, accepting criticism, fixing mistakes, negotiating and renegotiating deadlines, and managing expectations are our stock in trade. But we also get 100 percent of the praise when we produce a video to explain a complicated policy goal; create a piece of collateral material that helps persuade a bank to improve their disclosure practices; or give a print publication new reach, engagement, and impact online. This visible connection to the programmatic work has made our internal partnerships richer and the wins more rewarding.
You’ll always need some help. Whether it’s Pew with our commitment to in-house communications expertise or the Center for American Progress with an astounding 50 percent of its budget committed to outreach, we all have days when the demand is so high we can’t meet it without outside help. For us that means having a few vendors available to meet “surge capacity,” particularly in far-flung locations or for rush projects. That said, knowing the strength of our internal bench allows us to negotiate with consultants more knowledgably, avoid expensive retainer relationships, and maximize the value of every dollar.
Change management never ends. The nature of our business means that communicators generally excel at managing change, as I learned in prior stints in Congress, the executive branch, and Brookings. But for an internal reorganization as far-reaching as Pew, we needed “listening tours” across our organization to understand how we could improve. We documented our processes and procedures, held internal brown bags to share results and lessons, and yes, explained the same changes multiple times and in multiple ways. Internal communications is an under-appreciated skill, and you can never tire of the task—just when you think you have reached critical understanding, change comes again and it’s back to the starting line.
Looking back on what we have established for Pew, I can attest that building communications into an organization’s strategy from day one is both exhilarating and exhausting work. But the power of nonprofit communications lies in our collective ability to come together under a single banner—that of making a difference. And that is a dream fulfilled.
Melissa Skolfield is senior vice president for communications at the Pew Charitable Trusts