The summer months are behind us. School is back in session. It’s time to begin the serious work of planning for next year. For many organizations, those plans will include partnering with a public relations firm.
Whether you are hiring your first firm or undergoing an agency review, selecting the right agency is an important decision with broad implications. It’s important to understand that selecting the wrong PR firm can have lasting repercussions, including lost business, a damaged reputation and strained relationships with reporters.
A good PR firm, however, can become a trusted advisor, helping to strategically position your company with precisely-crafted messages and targeted communications to a variety of audiences.
When reviewing potential agency partners, here are some important tips:
- Beware of the bait and switch. When you meet with a prospective agency, you will no doubt meet with one or more people with a vice president or higher title. It is common practice to stack the deck with big titles during the “pitch” and planning phase, and leave implementation to junior associates—sometimes very junior. It is wise to ask those pitching your account: how much time will you spend working on my account?
- Go for experience. Before selecting a firm, get the account team’s names and bios. Ask probing questions to determine just how experienced the team is. Consider if you are comfortable with the associates representing your brand with the media. Keep in mind that if your company’s leadership is young, seniority in business partners can be especially helpful.
- Seek strong management controls. Nothing can ruin a communications program faster than blowing through a year’s budget in the first several months. Ask prospective agencies what controls they use to manage your budget and how they report their progress.
- Ask about the planning process. PR programs should be based on the marketing objectives of a company. For that reason, every PR plan should be customized for your business and industry. If an agency tells you what you need to do before understanding your marketing goals, keep looking.
- Look for a team that is professionally aggressive. The best agencies are those that continually learn about your industry, look at trends, and identify opportunities to insert your company into important issues. You should expect your agency to bring ideas and opportunities to you. You also should look for a team that has a history of developing trusting relationships with reporters, not one that will burn a bridge to get a story.
- Insist on messaging. Being able to talk about your company, why you’re important and how you’re different is imperative to a successful PR effort. Look for a PR firm that makes messaging development #1 and has a track record of creating memorable messaging.
- Seek a team of coaches. A good PR partner will help you improve your interviewing skills, will challenge you with new ideas and will help advance your brand.
- Factor in company culture. It’s likely that you’ll seek an agency with related industry experience, which is okay but not necessary. More importantly, look for an agency that can relate to your business culture and issues. If you’re a fast-growing company, a company that watches expenses closely, a family-owned business, etc., these issues should play a role in the match you make.
- Be wary of “yes” agencies. One reason you hire an agency is to employ independent thought and experience. If you talk to an agency that doesn’t challenge your ideas or offer new thoughts, you should keep looking.
- Ask about measurement. Determine if the agency is measuring the right things. Metrics should be based on your marketing goals. Ask questions like: how do you know if the PR program is successful? How do you continually improve the program? What role do I play in measurement?
Finally, don’t hire a firm based on its purported contacts. Some agencies will drop one reporter name after another to impress you. While having contacts helps, it’s more important to understand how the media works, to be skilled at packaging interesting stories to pitch that are relevant to the reporter, and to be able to quickly build relationships with reporters based on trust. These skills are important because reporters change beats and publications at a high rate.
With these 10 points in mind, you are sure to pick a great PR partner.