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What it’s really like to run a PR Agency

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Our Director, John Megaughin, is no stranger to the world of PR and communications, with no better time to look back on his career in the industry than now, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Clearbox.

John takes us through his experience of what it’s really like to run a PR agency. We feel extremely lucky to be a part of Clearbox’s journey, and we can’t wait for the big things that are yet to come - so, much like everything John does, let’s kick off the blog post with a football analogy…

Running a public relations/communications agency (or any business really) is a bit like managing a football team. Or having a Formula One team.

Typically (but not always), the team with the best players wins the most trophies. Or the F1 team with the best car wins the most titles.

In my opinion, running a PR agency is the same. It’s not easy by any means, but it’s much easier if you have a good team and good clients. Clearbox is VERY lucky to be in a position where the agency has great clients and a great team.

I’m not just saying that by the way – I love the team of people who work here and I feel very, very lucky to have the clients we do. We are based in Belfast, but we work with clients in Ireland, the UK, Sweden and the US. We have a sister agency who we love in Germany – Laika Berlin. The diversity of thinking we’re surrounded by every day is one of the best things about working at Clearbox.

Our agency is 10 years old this year and, in that decade, I’ve not yet landed on the magic formula for running a business. Believe me, if I had, I’d have bottled said formula, sold it to the highest bidder and I’d be writing this story from somewhere other than Ballymena.

Anyway, we’re getting away from the question at hand. What’s it really like to run a PR or communications agency? Well…

It’s full on.

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first – it’s a demanding role. Working in any media-facing business is a tall order, especially in 2023 and particularly when you work across different international markets. When my career began, we didn’t have social media networks and 24-hour rolling news, so your day had more of a defined start and finish.

Today, the demands of 24/7 news and social activity means you’re always on. Maybe not everyone feels like that, but honestly, I never switch off when it comes to thinking about stories and coming up with ideas.

I didn’t really think about this before, but I read, listen and watch news and content from the second I wake up until I go to bed. Whether it’s 5 Live in the car on the way to work, a podcast at lunchtime (likely the News Agents or the Arsecast) or Audible in the evening, I’m always bombarding myself with some form of media. I think it’s important to always know what’s happening inside and outside your own bubble and to do that, you’ve got to put the hours in when it comes to staying on top of things.

A great way to do that is through Twitter. Sorry, I mean X. It is open on my screen all day, every day. Like a live news feed of what’s going on. It’s my go-to source of news and it also helps me keep tabs on my two football teams (Arsenal and Ballymena United), when gigs and tours are announced or when Liam’s been tweeting about Noel again. All the important things…

It's challenging (in a good way).

Running any business is a challenge, but the ever-changing nature of the world we operate in makes running a PR agency a challenge that evolves every day. You’ve got to be hyper aware of news, be on top of finances, make sure you’re doing all your HR duties, check campaign updates, train your team, be contactable, respond instantly to everyone across multiple messaging and email platforms, plan resources, update projections and ensure the music playing in the office isn’t as terrible as it was yesterday. All of that can happen before 9.30am on a regular basis.

As well as staying on top of what’s happening here, across the UK and around the world when it comes to news, you’ve also got to be aware of the shifting dynamics of what employees want from their employer, what social media trends are topical and how political climates, borders and conflicts can impact campaigns you’re working on.

I spend a lot of time, often personal time, looking at what successful agencies in our industry are doing and learning from how they operate. I also spend lots of time looking at how other organisations outside my industry work.

Football teams, concert promoters, tech companies – if they’re at the top of their game, then I’m interested. How do they treat their team? What benefits do they offer? What’s their website like? How do they talk about their successes? I really think you can learn so much from just looking around and observing.

All of this takes a lot of time. That’s the biggest challenge for me – time.

Trying to fit it all in. Do I always manage it? Probably not. But I can honestly say that for the last 10 years, I’ve tried my best as often as I could.

It’s nerve-racking.

When I was a younger person than I am now, I used to be sick with nerves when I’d launch a campaign. Will the press cover the story? Will the press turn up to the event? Will the radio station do the interview?

Those nerves remain with me to this day. I might not always be the person calling a journalist or working with an influencer now, but I still get the same level of nerves when we’re doing a campaign. I badly want everything we do to be a success for our clients and having a strong desire to make sure things work keeps you on edge, but I think that’s a good thing.

I sometimes liken it to launching a boat – you’ve got to push it out to sea and hope it sails and doesn’t sink.

I care deeply about my job and the results my company produces for our clients. This level of care comes with many nerve-shredding moments as we wait for our work to do what we need it to do. If I was being logical, I’d tell myself that we have many more successes than failures and I should relax a bit, but I take nothing for granted and want everything we do to be brilliant. Plus, if you weren’t nervous, you wouldn’t care and if you didn’t care, you should shuffle off and do something else.

It’s very fluid.

If you’re the sort of person who likes a clear, defined plan or roadmap then running a PR agency isn’t the job for you. Don’t get me wrong – a lot of what we do is planned, but because things change in an instant, a lot of campaigns we work on are moved around, changed, and re-shaped, sometimes very last minute.

You’ve got to be able to adapt in an instant and be comfortable with constant changes in direction. For me, I think that’s exciting and makes your day a lot more interesting, but I understand it’s not what some people want from their job.

Having the ability to constantly adapt to a new way of thinking is a huge advantage in this game. Sometimes things don’t work as intended, but if you’re nimble, you can quickly re-shoot a video or re-cut a story so it hits different. I would guess that’s true of most businesses. Adapt or die, or whatever the saying is…

It’s rewarding.

I’ve had some of the best moments of my life and career while running this PR agency. I find it rewarding when a PR campaign achieves its objectives, when a social media campaign drives huge sales or when a CSR campaign has a positive community impact.

It’s not just the work – it’s also the people. I’ve worked with some amazing people during my time at Clearbox and seeing how they’ve grown while they’ve been with the company is the most rewarding thing of all.

Every single person who works at Clearbox today – including me – started life in the company with elements of feeling overwhelmed, being nervous, feeling unsure, or being tinged by self-doubt. When I think about the team we have today compared to when they joined the business, it really does make me smile.

· We have Alex, who joined us as a shy senior account executive five years ago and is now running large chunks of the business, adored by her clients.

· We have Amy, who had no previous experience in PR when she joined four years ago and is now one of the best communications managers I’ve ever worked with.

· We have Ella, who had never worked in a PR agency and is now the beating heart of some of our biggest and best campaigns.

· We have Hannah, who had a little social media experience when she joined us and now, she’s creating some of the best content you’ll find anywhere on this island (including our own).

· We have Jess, who joined us as a graduate in 2022 and is now managing clients with a grace and elegance rarely seen in this game.

· We have Zoe, who left school with a desire to work in PR and inspired us to create an apprenticeship programme that she easily passed in less than a year.

· We have Lauren and Sofia, who joined us mere weeks ago as graduates and are already producing a quality of work way beyond their years.

· We have Ruth, Gillian and Sam, on secondment at Amazon, delivering outstanding community support in the UK and around the world.

· We have Charlene, who makes sure our business is a safe, secure and inclusive place to work.

· We have Ciara and Gemma, two young people who joined us recently for a year-long placement and have already become part of our team. A karaoke office party will do that to you…

That’s the most rewarding thing – seeing people grow. I learn from them all every day and I couldn’t hope for a better group of colleagues.

In summary.

Running a PR agency, like any business, is hard work. Especially if you take it seriously. Running a PR agency can, at times, be all-encompassing, demanding, tough and time-consuming.

Would I have it any other way?

Nah. Bring it on.


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