You have greater exposure to all areas of the business.
In my new role I've spoken at board meetings, written bids, organised development events, selected telecoms hardware and managed the staff awards scheme, all of which I'd never done before. This early exposure to different parts of the organisation has meant I have a greater understanding of its culture and objectives. I think as a sector, PR practitioners need to understand the range of management functions to be truly effective. We can use this knowledge to shape the organisation's ambitions, strategies and plans. (Here's an interesting presentation by Brett Attwood about why and how to go about that.)
You may be one of one.
I'm the only communications professional in my team. Going from an office where I spoke the same language as my colleagues, where we had the same mindset and approach, to a team where I was the only one of my type was a jolt. Now my immediate colleagues are Resident Engagement and Performance Management specialists, so our joint projects take in a variety of perspectives. Although it was new to me, I think this way of working benefits the business and our customers. It reduces silos and encourages a more rounded approach to problem solving. I'm fortunate to still have the opportunity to bounce ideas round and share best practice in Orbit's monthly group communications meetings with PR colleagues from different regions.
The volume of work is limitless in-house.
At an agency, you do what you are paid to do. You sell the client your time or a specific product and once you have delivered, you invoice them. In-house hours in the day are the only limitation on workload and because you are 'there', you get asked to do lots of things that you wouldn't do if you were working externally. I think this has enriched my understanding and it's certainly benefitted my CV, but it's made me think carefully about how I manage my time and prioritise my work. (I keep saying I'm going to take up the Getting Things Done way of working, if only I could find the time!)
You need to pay extra attention to the external focus.
Naturally, the focus shifts from external to internal as you move in-house. The majority of drains on your time come from colleagues meaning there is less time to spend proactively shaping the external perception. A good practitioner needs to be aware of this and keep it front of mind. I've found it important to pay extra attention to developing and maintaining formal and informal channels to pick up external perceptions.
So which is better?
Neither agency or in-house practitioners have the edge: both have inherent strengths and weaknesses. It's important that the client understands those before structuring their resources. Every organisation is different and will require a unique approach, there is no one size fits all and ultimately, it comes down to the relationships the practitioner forges that determines how effective he or she is.
I'd welcome any comments on how you think in-house and agencies differ.