Selecting a Public Relations Firm

Here's a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Good public relations can take your company to new heights and leave your competition eating your dust. But here's something that's a little less obvious—how should you go about selecting a public relations firm that can do the job for you?

First Things First

Before you get started, take some time and define the role of PR within your organization and what you hope to accomplish. Make a list of specific objectives you'd like to achieve. That will help to drive the search for a PR firm.

Recognize that you may not need a public relations firm. Sometimes it makes more sense to hire an internal person for PR or make use of a freelancer.

Use a freelancer or internal PR person when:

  • You can find someone who is talented and knows your industry well.
  • You know the person will be around for a while. You don't want to invest a lot of time to get them up to speed on your business and then find they've decided to do something else for a living.
  • Your PR needs are simple. You don't need help with many specialized PR disciplines such as investor relations and crisis management. You don't have so much PR activity that one person couldn't possibly handle it.
  • Your PR budget is small and precludes your engaging a PR firm. If you can't afford $5,000 per month, you probably won't be able to secure a competent agency.

Once You've Determined You Need a PR Firm, Should You Go Big or Go Small?

Does size make a difference? Is big bad and small beautiful? Does using a big agency mean getting a big invoice? Do big agencies have lower service levels because they have more clients and care less about each one? Are small agencies unable to provide high service levels because they don't have enough resources?

Here's our take on it. Size doesn't matter. Performance matters. Ability matters. Knowledge of your industry matters. Connections and relationships matter. Experience matters. Dedication, devotion and passion matter.

In short, you want to pick an agency that gets the job done.

Small agencies frequently outperform large agencies because they've got something to prove, and entrepreneurial passion goes a long way. In some cases, the small firms specialize in very specific niche markets and they know the terrain so well that nobody can compete with them.

At the same time, big agencies can be the right solution in many cases and can also deliver great results. If international PR is required, a big agency may be the right answer.

There is the issue of money though — big companies have big overhead to cover. An industry rule of thumb is that you can't engage a big international agency unless you are going to spend at least $20,000 per month on public relations.

OK, So How Do You Get Started?

First, go back to your specific objectives for PR. That will translate directly into requirements for the agency. For example, which do you need more -- specialist PR skills or specific knowledge of your business sector? Understanding your needs will help you to create a short list of agencies.

Build your short list of agencies by thinking about companies you admire. Who has great PR? Then find out who represents them. Try not to do this with your competitors because most PR firms won't serve two competing companies at the same time. That's a conflict of interest.

Ask your friends and business colleagues who they think highly of. Better yet, talk to journalists. They typically loathe bad PR firms and love the good ones that make their lives easier, and they are happy to help out the good ones with a reference.

Once you've got the short list (or maybe you've narrowed it down to one firm that you absolute know will do a great job for you), pick up the phone and call them. The service you get in that initial solicitation can be quite telling. If they call you back promptly, they probably call the media back promptly and that can translate into good coverage. If they come in and give a solid, polished presentation, that's a good sign.

Preparing for the Meetings

Share your objectives with them before you meet with them. Then see how well they tailor their presentation to you. The best firms are always thinking about you, not about themselves. If they come in and generically toot their horns about themselves but never give any sign that they've researched your business and thought about your objectives, that's a very bad sign.

If you are evaluating multiple agencies at the same time, inform the agencies of their competition. They often will give you some insights on their competition. Take those insights with a grain of salt, and give high marks to those agencies that take the high road and don't disparage their competition.

Some other words of wisdom on soliciting agency presentations include:

  • Provide the agencies with relevant background materials. If necessary, have the agencies sign a non-disclosure agreement.
  • Be sure to schedule the presentations within as short a timeframe as possible so you can compare and contrast them better.
  • Let the agencies know who the decision-makers are within your organization and be sure they attend all presentations.
  • Ask them to present specific budgets. What will they do for how much?
  • Tell the agencies that you want to meet the people who they guarantee will be working on your account. Watch out for the “bait and switch”. The senior guy amazes you in the pitch meeting but the newbie just out of college ends up doing all the work on your account.

How Can You Tell Who Will Perform Well For You?

Getting a sense for who will deliver the goods isn't rocket science. After you've met with the PR firm, you get a sense for their breadth of practice areas, abilities, service levels, and professionalism.

In general, you want smart people working for you. If a PR person doesn't think strategically and impress you with their understanding of your business and your industry, cross them off the list. The good ones will raise issues or ideas that you haven't even thought of yet.

Beyond that basic intelligence criteria, look for people with passion, who work around the clock, and who can communicate well (so well that you'd fall in love with them if you were a journalist or an analyst).

How Formal Should the Evaluation Be?

This is a matter of personal preference. You may want to formally evaluate and score the agencies against a checklist or you may want to go with your gut after thinking through a few key questions. Do their people seem to be of high quality? Is there a good cultural fit between the two organizations? Are you impressed by them? Have they done good work for other clients? Do they seem to have the right number of resources available to service you well?

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