Hiring a PR firm for the corporate communications mix is a sizable undertaking but it usually boils down to picking the right people. As such identifying and selecting a firm is a big decision that deserves a thorough examination of the proposed team.
As the employers I’ve represented have grown larger, the firms I’ve engaged have grown smaller. That’s not by accident, and though I’ve managed a half-dozen or so firms in my tenure, including international firms, I tend to favor a smaller shops, that are nimble, highly responsive, provide access to the firm’s leadership and by virtue of being a small business, have some of their own skin in the game.
My views on hiring the best PR firm for an organization are pretty strong and I’d like to believe based on a broad perspective. Here’s what has worked for me and I hope of assistance to you.
1. When should you consider hiring a PR firm
It’s simple: when the workload exceeds your capacity or capability, it’s worthwhile to look at outside resources. It’s important to recognize one’s own strengths and weaknesses when considering capabilities.
I’ve long believed PR agency work is a mile-wide and an inch deep, while the inverse is true when you are an in-house resource (inch wide and a mile deep). That broad perspective can bring creative new ideas for approaching communications.
So when you have a need for additional resources or skill sets, keep an open mind about what else might be possible.
2. PR firm capabilities
Several years ago it became apparent that the future of marketing looks more like public relations. The web has fundamentally changed the overall approach driving many marketing programs — it’s forced marketing integration — and content marketing incorporates core PR principles that have long been the basis of effective media relations.
To that end, a key requirement of a PR firm is its capacity to conceptualize and develop web content that can meet combined needs of prospects, customer and influencers, including the media.
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3. Process-driven PR
Process must present a balance. On one hand, good processes are a path for standardization, efficiency and scale. On the other, too much process can inhibit creativity. Look for process on core programs – the foundation programs of media relations, content development or content distribution. Account management is another key area for process — a cadence for producing, reporting and measurement.
4. A PR firm’s size
I’ve grown indifferent to a PR firm’s size because I’ve found larger agencies tend to have high turnover among the rank and file – those likely working on your account – and so the education process is cyclical and inefficient. There’s less loyalty both from large firms to their teams and vice versa (which has a profound influence on the culture).
Most large agencies more or less function like a collection of independent businesses, where for example, the New York and San Francisco offices are managed independently, and in some ways, competitive. Some firms mitigate this by staffing accounts with representatives from multiple offices, or building cross-functional teams, but the account members in these cases usually still report to the business leader in their geographical location.
In this case, you’ll also find yourself spend more time managing representatives when they are geographically disparate. You cannot expect a firm to work in a silo (that’s a recipe for disaster), but you also don’t want to spend gobs of time going over the same thing over and over again.
As I’ve written above, I tend to find a better value among smaller agencies or boutique PR firms, but if there’s one area where a larger firm might hold an edge, it’s when a business is seeking to build awareness in an international community.
5. PR firms and pricing
Most firms bill-by-the-hour, though I have managed agencies where the team works on a flat fee. Usually, this is in the form of a set number of deliverables each month. If the team is efficient, the firm earns a better profit margin.
Unfortunately, if the team isn’t efficient, or the work isn’t up quality standards, the firm grows disillusioned with the margins, the dynamics face setbacks, and you end up spending much more of your time educating, reviewing and managing projects. I don’t want to spend time this way — I want proactive people that identify with the same goals and can act independently with enough direction.
For larger firms, your business will have to spend at least $15,000 a month to get the desired results. If you squeeze spending, your work won’t get the attention it deserves amid competing client priorities. It’s here a small fish in a big pond metaphor captures the essence. In my experience, this transforms into a downward spiral that plays out over a precious period of time. To the contrary, $5,000 or $10,000 in a small firm is a big chunk of business.
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6. Evaluate a PR firm’s own marketing efforts
A firm that hasn’t made PR, content or social media part of its own culture, probably isn’t going to be able to do that sort of work for you. Like a skinny chef, if they can’t do it for themselves, how are they going to do it for you?
Look for evidence of experimentation, thought leadership for new or creative ideas, and firms that can talk about metrics, math and analytics so common in modern business – the sorts of things you’ll need to report to your boss or higher headquarters.
7. The PR firm RFP process
Requests for proposals or RFPs are a contentious topic among firms. The critique is they spend hours preparing creative proposals without pay, only to see a business adopt some of the creative ideas while hiring another firm. It’s a valid complaint and corporate communications should be sensitive to it if they want the business relationship to get a solid start.
Even so, some proposal-like process is desirable and I like to follow a simple plan for evaluating agencies:
a) keep a short list on hand of firms that cross your radar;
b) send an abbreviated RFP – one page with five questions – intended to reveal firm’s approach, how it thinks, responsiveness and most importantly who, by name, will work on your account;
c) invite a smaller list of firms, say one to three, that handle this well, to a short pitch
d) make a decision.
8. Look closely at the PR account team
The single most important step in my view is looking at the people who the firm says will be working on your account. The influencer that represents the firm publicly or the vice president is probably never going to touch your account, and if they do, it eats up your retainer quickly.
The worst thing for a budget is a senior firm executive that parachutes into an account call once a month, hasn’t followed your projects in the thirty days since the last call, and then dominates the conversation in an effort to demonstrate value.
It’s the junior people that do the work, so take the time to review their web presence and look for:
a) Enthusiasm – enthusiasm is the single most valuable attribute; you can train people on products, features and benefits, but you cannot teach enthusiasm;
b) Demonstrated passion – I like to see account executives and account managers with a rich history of activity on social media, blogs and contributed articles. I want to know that those individuals don’t merely close their laptop at the end of the day, but are so passionate about their work, they are out there learning, experimenting with new platforms, writing and engaging the profession of their choice;
c) Tenure – nobody wants to hire an employee that skips from job-to-job and the same is true of an agency. It’s a Catch 22 of sorts because I’ve also found the people that do skip around are very good, in-demand and can leave if they so choose. So one or two movers on an account isn’t a big concern, but if every member of the proposed team has a year or less with an agency it’s a big red flag.
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If there’s an underlying theme to the points made above it’s that the people at a PR firm that matter above all. In the professional services model it’s the people that deliver the services – so invest the time to time to examine the team.
What would you add?
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Photo credit: Flickr, Vinoth Chandar, (CC BY 2.0)