Thinking about hiring a PR firm? Before you set out on your quest, take these 10 tips into account.
While the process of hiring a PR agency might seem simple, in truth, it is hard to do well. By “well” I mean hiring the right company, for the right reasons, with goals set to deliver a positive impact for your brand. The first few times I went through the process it felt overwhelming, but over the years I've built up a list of tips that help me choose the right one every time. I think my tip list might help you, too, so here it is!
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 strong believer that a good public relations strategy starts with goals. As you look to hire a consultancy, decide what you are trying to achieve. A few great examples are: brand awareness, thought leadership, attention for a specific product or program, etc.
How does a company tackle public relations 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.
You can always just hire a company 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 speakig, the first steps are to define what you are trying to achieve, your goals, what you actually want the company 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 public relations organisation 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.
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.
PR firms come in all different shapes and sizes, and the one that’s right for you might not be the one 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 public relations agency (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 one 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 hiring large PR organisation. Keep in mind; the bigger clients usually get the A-team. If your budget is modest, you may want to consider a smaller boutique company.
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 is 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!
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 #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.
In the pitch meetings, if the PR agency 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!
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 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.