There’s no real question, a concentrated public relations (PR) effort can benefit any company. PR not only builds recognition but can increase sales, strengthen customer loyalty and set companies apart from their competitor in crowded and oversaturated markets.
A successfully deployed PR business-building strategy can yield significant and lasting results. “Two of our clients measured [return on investment] from PR and calculated it at $4 in new business to every $1 spent,” says Amy Bermar, president of Corporate Ink in Newton, Mass.
It all sounds great, but a good deal of success lie on the management of the PR agency. Otherwise you can find the focus of the effort shifting to their vision and your company suddenly redefined by their goals and expectations.
Here are a few guidelines that I recommend you consider when hiring a PR firm:
Make Sure There’s a Good Fit
Don’t get sucked in by fancy pitches and exquisitely furnished offices. If they don’t get the essence of your company or understand your market and its challenges, you are in for a wild ride. At the end of the contract you may feel like someone tried to force you into a tutu and turned you into a ballerina. Everything you’ve come to love and believe in your company will be redefined into something you can’t recognize and your budget will be blown.
There are a zillion agencies out there specializing in as many industries. Take the time to find the right one for you. Do your homework and interview carefully. It doesn’t hurt to visit their offices to get a feel for who they are and how they view themselves. And, don’t hesitate asking them to detail specific successes, then ask if you can call those companies for a reference.
It’s probably a good idea to make sure they have accreditation from the industry’s largest association, the Public Relations Society of America. Plus, you’ll want to make sure they have specific and comprehensive journalistic experience. PR is, after all, primarily about dealing with writers, editors and publications.
Finally, ask who in the agency you will be working with. It’s not uncommon to sign a contract with a big, well-known firm only to find you’re working entirely with junior staffers.
Phase in the Fees
Just about every agency is going to want to set up a retainer, and in most cases they’ll want a one-year contract at a minimum.
It will be to your advantage to start on project with a fixed price tag. That’ll allow you to, as the saying goes, date them before marrying them. It provides you with the opportunity to evaluate both the relationship and results.
You can always try the paying for customized services option. This allows you to use the cafeteria approach and only buy what you need/want. For example, you could hire a publicist to write as-needed press releases on an hourly basis.
Here are red flags to watch out for that usually indicate you’re in for trouble and won’t get what you pay for:
- A firm promises guaranteed results. Seriously, who can really guarantee anything?
- A firm spends too much time doing research. This is an easy way to build up the charges while staying away from the actual doing (where the real results can be measured).
- They don’t go into specifics. You should know exactly what is planned and how they intend to make things happen.
- You continuously get status reports, but they never seem to show ongoing results.
- You find a typo in anything they present to you.
Define and Measure Results
In many cases, agencies will promise a specific number of media placements over a given period of time. Normally it’s over a month. If they don’t, you’ll want to either hammer that into the contract or look for a different firm.
Tell them what you expect, such as:
- A certain number of column inches, air-time, sound bites or web hits.
- A feature in an influential journal.
- An measurable increase in customer awareness of your brand.
- A specific number of sales leads within a designated timeframe.
- Invitations for your executives or thought leaders to speak at events or seminars.
- Specific industry awards.
“Develop a survey before the publicist starts to set a milestone,” says Vince McMorrow at RMD Pubic Relations in Albany, Ohio. “After their work has had a chance to be absorbed by your market, re-survey to find if the needle has moved.” This will allow you to gauge and measure results.
Manage the Process
Managing the firm will be a big part of the overall success. Ask for regular reports, status memos and update presentations. All of them will be happy to send over progress reports but getting them back into your office, or scheduling meet-ups at theirs, forces a deeper back and forth, and allows for a more comprehensive discussion of tactics and results. It’s also smart because it gives you and the firm an opportunity to consider adjustments as you move through your initial strategy.
And, finally, it is incredibly important to have a realistic outlook for your intended goals. Lea Conner, at Conner Dudley Communications in Spokane, Wash., has the perfect example of a client who lost touch with reality, a self-published author who wanted to appear on TV talk shows to publicize her book. The two agreed to build up to major media over several months by creating marketing materials and having the author gain local media experience. A month later, the author grew impatient, wondering why she hadn’t yet been booked on The View or Oprah. “It’s easy for clients to get so caught up in their own dreams,” Connor says. “They fail to realize the amount of work it takes to achieve major results.”
I hope these guidelines will help you charter the sometimes murky waters of public relations and build a great relationship with the perfect agency.