From Robert Geller:
I have been asked on more than one occasion to provide advice about choosing a public relations firm. After the urge to shout: “Me! Me! Please, pick me!!” subsides (after all, I am in the business), I generally step back and take a more objective approach. Those who ask - often friends and family who are starting tech companies or work for tech-focused businesses - are counting on me for impartial advice. The very real chance exists that the PR agency I work for may not be a good fit for their needs. And we want to stay on top of our game, and reminding ourselves and others about objective criteria for choosing an agency is one way to do this.
The following list of features is a summary of advice I have given over the years. I hope that you find it helpful.
1. Agency Size, Location and Fee Structure
Most agencies work on a monthly retainer or fee which corresponds to a fixed number of hours or specific deliverables/results. This helps to ensure a consistent on-going effort and dedicated team, and provides a predictable monthly budgetary amount for clients. Some charge by the hour and handle individual projects.
In PR you have a wide range of resources ranging from freelancers and 1-2 person shops that handle clients for $2-$4K / a month, to the largest agencies that generally won’t even look at you unless you can spend at least $10K a month. The boutiques and mid-size firms fall somewhere in the middle.
Ultimately, regardless of agency size, the key things to consider are the creativity, experience/contacts and energy of the team. There are freelancers who can do this and agencies of all sizes, too. Make sure whoever you are talking to is not overloaded with existing commitments.
It can also help to consider the size of your program relative to other clients in the agency’s roster. While it may feel good for a large, well-known agency to accept a smaller-than-typical fee, you should understand that it is not necessarily the squeaky wheel but the larger fee accounts that get the most attention.
Is location important? Not quite as much as many people think, unless you are considering a PR program that is exclusively local or regional. More and more business is done online and over the phone these days.
2. Agency Style
As part of your evaluation, try to better understand the philosophy and style of the agency. No, this doesn’t mean Communism, Zen Buddhism, or Democracy, but more the style and feel of the agency itself. Ideally, the prospective agency's team will ask you many questions – smart questions that reflect market awareness and due diligence. This team is hopefully in search of ideas and knowledge that they can use to support media dialog and drive proactive campaigns – the types of PR that keep visibility high in between client-driven news. One thing to intentionally avoid is the type of agency or freelancer that sits around and waits for press releases and client direction.
3. Agency and Team Experience
Make sure that the experience of the agency is relevant, especially if it is a highly technical or specialized area. Have they achieved success with similar types of clients? The skills and work required to launch new companies and products are different than those needed to defend the position of market leaders. Don’t necessarily be awed by work with market leaders if you are a startup.
Above and beyond the agency track record, what about the experience of the team? What should you look for? Before answering this, examine your needs. Are you looking for help with strategy, execution, writing, or all of the above? Do you have any PR-savvy people on your internal team, or will you be relying on the agency for all PR smarts and implementation? Make sure that the agency team provides a nice counterbalance to your existing skill set.
4. Social and Traditional Media
I am a big believer in integrated programs spanning social and traditional media. Despite the growth of social media, it is hard to deny the importance of coverage in major media to generate initial buzz and drive online chatter. By the same token, PR teams that are not effective in listening, engaging, and having clients heard through social media channels are at a real disadvantage.
Make sure that the agency has contacts and a track record with relevant media and analyst targets, and can demonstrate proficiency with social media.
5. PR Industry Awards, Requests for Proposals (RFPs)
I include the two items in the same category because their presence tends to favor larger agencies. There is nothing inherently wrong with a company using RFPs to help level the playing field and to provide structure to the PR firm selection process. Awards are impressive, and lack of them may seem to be a red flag.
It is a simple fact that larger agencies have teams dedicated to responding to RFPs and filling out the paperwork needed to submit applications for awards. Also, they tend to have a larger selection of clients to cherry pick from when it comes to awards. Agencies that look great on paper are not necessarily the best fit.
Tying it All Together
In sum, meet with the prospective PR company's team. Make sure it is the actual team that will support your account should you hire the agency (some shops still unfortunately bait and switch, sending in the rain makers and muckety mucks to charm you and then throwing junior staff at the account).
Kick their tires a bit. Share what you are looking for and ask them to respond with their ideas and approach. Make sure the skill sets, ideas and chemistry are right. You will be on your way to selecting a great partner and getting the PR results you are seeking.
Thank you, Robert Geller and George Morin, Senior Account Executive, with Fusion PR for sharing a Handshake 1.0 photo with Handshake 2.0!
Robert Geller is Executive Vice President with Fusion Public Relations. He writes the blog Flack's Revenge. Bob has been a treasured advisor to Handshake 2.0 from its start.