Thinking about hiring a PR firm? Before you get too far, take these 10 tips into account.

So, you’re thinking it’s time to hire a PR firm?

Great, I can help! I have hired 6 or 7 (and fired a few).

While the process might seem simple, in truth it is hard to do well. By “well” I mean hiring the right firm, for the right reasons, with goals set to deliver a positive impact. The first few times I went through the process it felt overwhelming, but over the years I have built up a list of tips that help me choose the right PR firm every time. I think my tip list might help you, too!

If you made it this far into the article, congratulations, you’ve already realized the value of PR. If not, and as a refresher, think of PR as key top of funnel customer touch point. As marketers know, we must touch our prospective customers a few times before they buy and there are many ways to do that, PR being one of the most powerful. If done right, PR subtly touches prospects in the media they consume and world they live in every day.

The best PR is barely noticeable as PR, and in truth, it is all around us everyday. Since PR pros outnumber journalists in the US by 4:1, it’s impossible to ignore the impact and influence that PR, and more importantly the companies they represent, have on media. In addition, it’s important to recognize the volume of noise PR pros create for journalists. Just imagine how many pitches each journalist must hear/read every day since PR pros outnumber them so greatly. As such, every PR pitch must stand out, relationships make a huge difference and successfully placing a story is MUCH more time consuming and difficult than people think. No, I’m sorry to say, PR isn’t as simple as writing a press release.

All this is to say that PR is not easy. It does not happen fast. And it is very difficult to do with one person. As such, many of us hire teams to manage PR in house, and many of us hire a firm. As you’ll read in the tips section, both have their merits, and both have downfalls. If you are thinking of hiring a PR firm, the following tips should help you through he process!

10 Tips to consider when you hire a PR Firm:

  • Tip #1 – When you hire a PR firm, decide on PR/Firm goals before you do anything else!

As with all PR and marketing programs, I always advise defining goals before getting too far into making decisions about retaining an agency. We must recognize that strategy is the first step to success and leads to tactical execution. I am a firm believer that good strategy starts with goals. As you look to hire a PR firm, decide what you are trying to achieve. A few great examples are: brand awareness, thought leadership, attention for a specific product or program, etc.

  • Tip #2 – When you hire a PR firm, make sure you have considered all options.

How does a company tackle PR effectively? Hire a PR firm? Hire in-house? The answer will be different for every company, but I venture to say it is generally a combination of the two for a very good reason: a PR firm that isn’t managed by someone who understands PR will never fully realize the firm’s full potential.  A PR firm needs brand and product knowledge and most importantly, access to the right internal people for both strategy and execution, and an internal PR person makes this possible. This combination of in-house and PR firm is not always possible, so you’ll need to decide what your budget warrants. If you don’t plan to have an internal PR person, your PR agency is likely best managed by the CMO.

  • Tip #3 – When you hire a PR firm, decide on RFP or no RFP process?

You can always just hire a firm that you already know or have heard good things about. However, if you have never hired a PR firm I strongly advise going through the formal request for proposal (RFP) process. And, more importantly, I advise that you hire a PR pro with specific RFP experience to help lead the process if it’s your first time. If you have never been through an RFP to hire a PR agency, the process will seem daunting. Generally the first steps are to define what you are trying to achieve, your goals, what you actually want the firm to do, and then come up with a list of 10-ish prospective firms. This list can be tricky, because you want to carefully weigh PR firm capabilities to your goal expectations. From there you contact each firm to gauge their interest and issue a request for qualifications (RFQ), a document that will help you to whittle down the prospect list. Those that choose to participate will send qualifications to be reviewed against the others and you’ll select a few (I recommend 3) agencies that will formally pitch/compete for your business. Each will bring a team to pitch you, and you select one from the three. While this may not seem so bad, it is time consuming and if you do not have experience or a network of potential agencies, the process will feel overwhelming.

  • Tip #4 – When you hire a PR firm, determine your PR Agency budget.

Seems like a simple tip, right? In some ways it is, but it is important to make a firm decision on your top-line budget. Agencies are expensive and you’ll need to make sure you clearly articulate your top-line budget, including base retainer, overages, expenses and incidentals. Believe me, it can add up.  Make sure you have a clear path that requires written approval for any month expense that exceeds your budget.

  • Tip #5 – When you hire a PR firm, decide what size PR firm is right for you.

PR firms come in all different shapes and sizes, and the firm that’s right for you might not be the firm you’d predict. There are many reasons to go with large PR firms (global reach, massive relationship networks, fantastic experience) and just as many reasons to choose a boutique PR firm (smaller, more closely knit teams, local expertise, niche industries, etc.). One thing to keep in mind is how much your budget dollars will mean to the firm you hire. For instance, often a $15,000/month retainer could be one of the largest accounts if you hire a small PR firm, but a very small account if you are hire large PR firm. Keep in mind; the bigger clients usually get the A-team. If your budget is modest, you may want to consider a smaller boutique firm.

  • Tip #6 – When you hire a PR firm, make specific requests regarding their pitch presentation.

When you hire a firm, especially when you implement a formal RFP process, there will be a formal presentation when your prospective agencies pitch you in effort to win your business. Before that meeting I recommend making three very specific asks:

1 – Ask that they only send people who will be on you account from day one to the meeting. This way you will not get caught up in a situation where you’re pitched by the A-team, but assigned to the D-team.  Bait and switch situations can be painful and should be avoided at all costs.

2 – Ask that everyone who will be on your team be involved in the presentation, not just the team lead. In the end you will work with everyone, you’ll want to know how each one thinks.

3 – Ask agencies keep their “about us” description and back-patting slides to a minimum. After all, if you weren’t interested in the PR firm they would not be in the room, you’ve already done your homework!

  • Tip #7 – When you hire a PR firm, don’t ignore the importance of chemistry.

Make sure you like the team you are hiring. Of course it is important that they are qualified and will do a great job, but it’s equally important that you like them and want to work with them. It’s really no different than hiring people to your own internal team, you want to be excited to work with them everyday!

  • Tip #8 – When you hire a PR firm, look to hire an extension your team, not just an agency.

Tip #7 really leads me to tip #8. I firmly believe that you should think of your PR firm as part of your team, not as a 3rd party. While your PR firm team will work with more than just your account, you should never feel like they are working with anyone but you. My advice is to tell prospective PR firms, from the first time you meet, that you work with agencies differently than most clients; you want to hire an extension to your team, you’re not looking for an average client/agency relationship.

  • Tip #9 – When you hire a PR firm, make sure they have at least one idea you’re excited about!

In the pitch meetings, if the PR firms have done their homework and prepared properly, they will present a few different PR campaign ideas based on your RFP requirements. I generally take these ideas with a grain of salt, after all these PR firms are not fully on-boarded and have limited knowledge of your brand. That said, at least one of the ideas should be out-of-the-box and cool enough to get you excited!

  • Tip #10 – When you hire a PR firm, understand your contract.

Once you decide on which PR firm you want to hire, you will move to contract and/or statement of work (SOW).  Make sure you review it carefully, with a lawyer if possible, and understand all key terms (cost/budget, duration, team, hours you receive based on budget, how they will report out results, etc.). I have yet to see a PR firm contract that I have not red-lined substantially, which they fully expect. If something seems off, red-line it and negotiate. Most of the time PR firms are agreeable assuming your asks are reasonable.

I don’t intend to claim that these 10 tips will make the process easy. But, I do promise that these tips will make the process of hiring a PR firm less painful and they will help you to make an informed and wise choice.