When A Privacy Breach Is A PR Crisis: How To Avoid It

What would happen if your emails were disclosed for all to see? For most of us, it would be awkward at the very least, but for a public figure or corporation, disclosure of private communications amounts to a full-blown public relations crisis.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is currently dealing with a regular trickle of private emails made public through hacked correspondence made available by Wikileaks. So far, the disclosures have been more embarrassing than anything else, but the daily drip is a reminder of the risks of assuming that private communications will remain private. Another recent example – the 2014 hack of the email system at Sony Pictures Entertainment – was a grim lesson to companies all over the world. It resulted in lawsuits against Sony, the disruption of countless relationships, and ultimately the resignation of CEO Amy Pascal.

The unauthorized disclosure of private information is particularly tricky in crisis management terms. Experts tend to divide negative events into two groups. In the first group are bad things inflicted on an organization by external forces or criminal actors, like a weather disaster or a product tampering. These crises are typically a bit easier to deal with than some others because the organization is seen as a victim. In the second group are errors committed by or within the organization, like systemic sexual harassment or financial improprieties, which are tougher to handle because the organization is usually at fault.

What makes an email hack such a tricky crisis to manage through traditional PR techniques is that it should engender sympathy for the hacked individual or company, yet that natural response can be overwhelmed by sensational or salacious content. The organization’s response becomes even more important. Most choose to defend themselves by emphasizing the illegal nature of a typical hack, but it’s a very difficult position to maintain through several news cycles featuring hacked information.

There’s almost no way to come out unscathed if a leak or hack results in the disclosure of newsworthy information. In theory, the best response is to own up to the information, if accurate, and to apologize for harm done. But in the real world, such admissions may make the hacked party vulnerable to litigation or further reputation harm.

The best privacy crisis is the one that doesn’t happen, of course. Here’s what every organization should do to minimize the chances of private information becoming public.

Have a digital media policy. This is a no-brainer, but it needs to be read and understood by every employee and vendor/partner of any organization that’s at risk — and that means everyone. Make sure the policy is a living document that covers email and other digital content and digital archiving.

Convey a “commonsense” digital communications policy to employees. Today you simply cannot email, text or post on social media anything that shouldn’t be made public. In the “old days” (meaning the early days of email) we’d say don’t put anything in an email you wouldn’t want to be seen in the New York Times. It still holds.

Make sure clients and partners know your digital media policy. Many of the purported Clinton campaign emails are notes with advice, complaints, or criticism directed at John Podesta. For anyone working on a high-profile campaign or team, it’s impossible to prevent all those incoming emails, but I’d bet that campaign staff are discouraging substantive discussions via email and asking partners to use more secure communications.

Screen vendors and contractors.  You’re only as secure as your weakest link, as shown by the data security scandals brought on by trusted contractors like Edward Snowden or, more recently, Harold Martin. Most of us don’t handle data as sensitive as a federal agency like the NSA, but we can institute clear vendor security protocols and enforceable nondisclosure agreements for freelancers and contractors.

Use secure apps for sensitive communications. Secure messaging apps like Signal are getting popular for a reason. Everyone realizes the risk of a hack. For any team that traffics regularly in confidential or sensitive information, or simply as a matter of policy, they should consider communicating outside normal email through encrypted messaging apps and other secure tools.

Don’t tempt fate…or hackers. Most people know the story of LifeLock, the ID protection company whose CEO advertised his social security number as a challenge to would-be identity thieves. Of course, his identity was stolen and used to make an illegal $500 loan. The infamous Ashley Madison breach may have happened in part because hackers were outraged by the company’s privacy and security claims, which they saw as dishonest.

Invest in the best digital security you can afford. Cybersecurity, of course, is a first line of defense, but it does not guarantee you won’t be hacked. That’s why employee behavior needs to adapt to the security risks we all run every day.

5 Ways Great Visuals Enhance Public Relations

Excellent writing is the backbone of all good public relations, but today, any great story is made better by adding compelling visuals. According to NewsCred40% of people will respond better to visual information than plain text. With that said, we thought it a good time to review some excellent ways to make sure you’re incorporating images in a meaningful way in your communications.

Go beyond Google images

Despite its ease of use and plethora of pics, Google Images is the last place you want to go to pick pictures for a post or other image need. It is safe to assume that nearly all the images you find on Google or another search engine) are protected by copyright law. Using them without permission could result in legal action. Take some time to explore the sites that offer free or very low-cost public domain images like those found at Pexels, PicJumbo or others found in this article.

Size matters

And varies depending on your need. For a blog post – check with your hosting site to see how large you should go. The worst thing you can do is select an image that is too small and try to enlarge it for your purposes. This just looks blurry and unappealing so it pays to take some time to understand the requirements of each medium. For journalist submissions we are always told “hi-res” which is defined as over 300DPI. But it really pays to ask journalists what they prefer.

Learn about file-sharing

It used to be simple. You had an image that you attached to an email and sent off to a reporter. But file size has grown and email security settings have changed, so today we all use file-sharing services to send images to the press. Take advantage of  the free transfer services available. We like the one designed for creatives, WeTransfer, which provides a customizable link to send to your recipient – making the whole experience efficient and professional.

Know your file formats

If you really want to up your image game, get to know the different file formats and the pros and cons.

JPG (or JPEG) has become the standard image of the web. JPG images are ideal for rich color photographs, gradient images. JPGs are also “loosely,” which means they retain all color information but compress file size which can result in a loss of quality.

GIFs are lower quality images than JPGs and are great for those with simple illustrations and blocks of colors (not the best option for photographs). GIFs are also widely used in animation because it is the only file type that enables transparency and interlacing.

PNGs are becoming more popular. PNGs support many more colors than GIFs and they don’t degrade over time with re-saves like JPGs. This file type is good for logos, charts, etc.

SVG is vector format that will remain sharp and clear no matter what device you view it on.

Should you embed photos in press releases?

The jury is out on this question. Many PR agencies believe that photos embedded in releases trigger spam filters and are therefore never reaching many of the media to whom they send. On the other hand, if a story is truly visual, it warrants a good-quality photo to make a splash. We recommend doing some of your own research to see what your media contacts have to say.

A Public Relations Situation: Tips For Wrangling Reporters

In our occasional series, “A Public Relations Situation,” we examine real-life PR agency incidents and how our team has dealt with them. In so doing, we can impart some words of wisdom that may help you avoid or manage your own PR “situation.”

Media relations is the bread and butter of most PR agencies, and therefore cultivating and managing journalist contacts is key. But, what do you do when a media contact behaves in an unexpected or unprofessional way? Obviously, you want to maintain the relationship while maintaining professionalism. Here are a few recent examples of “reporters gone rogue” and how we turned the potential lemons into lemonade.

When a media contact bypasses the agency

There are good reasons for clients to let their agency reps manage media strategy and handle initial journalist contact. We help prepare the client for an interview or interaction, keep everyone on the same page, and, yes, occasionally shield the client from awkward situations or even recommend against an interview when it’s not warranted. Above all, we may serve as negotiators for a mutually beneficial outcome, and media know that.  But we’ve all had episodes where the journalist goes around us. In one case a writer was unhappy with a story embargo and contacted the client to complain. The client handled it by promptly turning it back over to us, which was absolutely correct. The lesson here is to make sure everyone knows the PR agency’s role and the reasons for it.

When a reporter does an interview, then vanishes

This is probably the most frustrating  media predicament a PR team can encounter. You’ve gone the extra mile to craft a relevant story pitch, determine the best reporter, make the case and have it all come together with a terrific interview. Then, nothing. We recently experienced this “media ghosting” with a major story for a technology client. It became embarrassing to report back to the client each week that we had no information, but we were polite and persistent in our follow-up. After a few months our persistence paid off big time, in the form of a great story. While no PR person wants to annoy a reporter or burn a relationship, we need and deserve to be kept in the loop. So we advise being courteous, but assertive.

When a journalist won’t correct an error in a story

Hey, it happens. A reporter does a perfectly respectable job of covering your client’s story but trips up on a detail. It is a PR pro’s responsibility to reach out and ask for corrections. We aren’t talking here about misquotes (hard to prove if from a verbal interview) or the reporter that just hates your product but gives it an honest review. We mean errors – misspellings, wrong names, erroneous launch dates or incorrect background details. Most reporters will fix the problem in a timely way. Some, however, won’t. In our dealings with recalcitrant types, we’ve learned some tricks that help. Reach out as quickly as you can, communicate your request in a subject line if emailing to ensure the note is opened, and, of course, point out the error as politely as you can. Never “demand a retraction!” Have the correct information at the ready and follow up if you don’t get a response.

When a story is scrubbed

Once in a while, your greatest media relations fear is realized. A journalist covers your story – new product announcement, key funding round, etc. – but it never runs. This can be the result of the editor deciding there just isn’t enough “there there” or other, bigger news taking precedence. Whatever the cause, the best recourse is to have managed client expectations early on. The media are under no obligation to publish everything they express interest in and once in a while a story is scrubbed. The good news? Often the reporter who bears the bad news will feel encouraged to be receptive to your next query and a good relationship can come out of the situation.

When the story is great, but the headline isn’t

We once introduced a somewhat complicated new product feature for a tech client. A top publication wanted the exclusive and the reporter conducted an interview. Everything was perfect until we saw the misleading head. The reporter hadn’t really understood the concept so we thought if we provided some very clear explanations in a follow-up we might be able to get the title changed. In that case it worked. But that’s not always so. We were once told that a less-than-accurate headline for a B2B service story couldn’t be changed because the online pub had “set keywords we have to use in titles to grab readers.” We still say it’s always worth a try.

Social Hashtag Campaign Is A PR Winner For Excedrin

Tying a brand to a big news story is a time-honored public relations tactic for earning media coverage. Sometimes it’s about a fast-breaking event, like a data security executive commenting on a major hack. Often there’s a narrow window of opportunity to ride the wave. Then there are stories that dominate over months, offering more time for planning and programming, like – well, the U.S. presidential election.

Hitching a brand to politics is always tricky, and this election season has been a land mine for anything or anyone who doesn’t already have to be part of it. It’s been nasty, divisive, and occasionally NSFW. Definitely not a civics lesson for the kids.

That’s why I was impressed with Excedrin’s clever hashtag campaign around the third and (thankfully) final presidential debate. #DebateHeadache popped into my Twitter feed at exactly the right moment last night, and it’s been trending all day.

Unlike Bisquick’s bid to mix it up during the second presidential debate, the Excedrin campaign is a winner. The promoted tweet itself is blatantly commercial — something that rarely succeeds in engaging Twitter users. But it definitely hit a nerve. The tweet got more than 2,100 likes and 900 retweets in its first hours and generated lots of sympathetic new tweets that used the hashtag.

“The possibility of a #DebateHeadache is high. Be prepared with Excedrin.”

It’s successful because it zeroes in on the pain points of many election-watchers, from pundits and media to us ordinary voters. And it includes a statistic from a brand-sponsored survey, another tried-and-true tactic for generating buzz. Not original, but the social packaging and clever timing makes it fresh and easy to swallow. And though it’s been hijacked by partisans on Twitter (always a risk for a hashtag campaign), the idea is universal enough that the brand is protected from the ugliest aspects of the election season. We can all agree on one thing, that it’s been a giant headache and we can’t wait for it to be over.

Excedrin’s debate prescription comes in contrast to the Bisquick hashtag campaign of ten days ago. #PancakesVsWaffles backfired, not only because it inserted the wholesome Bisquick brand into the social chatter about the second debate, but because it seemed to trivialize the real issues at stake. As Marijane wrote, it was the type of campaign that worked if the goal is press at any price, but it failed to generate the kind of organic response that makes a hashtag work. With its appeal to the masses and our long-suffering tolerance of things we can’t control, Excedrin’s is almost reminiscent of the old Alka-Seltzer ads of yore. Similar message, new package.

So, bravo, Excedrin. A successful hashtag campaign may look easy, but it’s like a viral video – far harder and more unpredictable than you think. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for election night.

What Public Relations Can Take From Contract Theory

What does the recent Nobel Prize have to do with good public relations agency business practices?

No, there’s not a Nobel for PR. But before you nod off in boredom, remember that a sound understanding of contract theory can enable smart negotiation and fair compensation.  As you enter into your next relationship with any business partner, it’s a good idea to bone up on the science of contracts.

However obscure it seems, this year’s Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences was awarded to two economists who have given the area a great deal of thought, and they make a good case for why PR specialists should also. Here are some of the questions you should ask as you construct your next letter of agreement, based on some of the tenets prescribed by Nobel recipients Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström.

Does the agreement offer each party the right incentives to work together? It’s easy to think that the only motivation needed to enter into a public relations agreement is proper monetary compensation. But that isn’t all. One of the most important things to agree upon in a contract for PR services is duration of the agreement. If a company has a very high bar for success – say, a large number of national placements for a product launch – and is only offering the firm a short-term arrangement, that likely constitutes a contract theory failure. But, then, you probably knew that.

Does the contract take future unknowns into account? Hart and Holmström helped pioneer the theory of incomplete contracts, or what to do when the unforeseen pops up, and who decides how to deal with it. Since no one can predict the future and there are too many variables to be codified in a single document, a contract should identify who has the right to make future decisions.

This is a significant power that has real resonance with PR agencies. For example, a start-up business with a category-creating product can’t predict who will enter the market as competitors, what bugs will need fixing or how first year sales will go. That’s the kind of opportunity where a firm’s knowledge of the theory of “incomplete contracts” may come in handy. One thing to contemplate with regard to client/agency incomplete contracts is who gets the power to make the future decisions. We imagine the client should insist because they bear the financial risk, but we think some type of a compromise could be struck. Perhaps the power could be shifted each time the contract is renewed? Could an agency exercise more control over the agreement if multiple risk factors occur at once? Could the two parties alternate in deciding? It’s something to think about.

Can rewards be linked to performance outcomes? This topic is often debated among PR professionals. Is it a good idea to pay a bonus to an agency who can actually link increased sales to key media results? Or should some additional reward (company stock, for example) be given to the team that meets and exceeds placement goals?

On the face of it, bonuses like this seem attractive, but only if base compensation is equitable to begin with. The Nobel team also looked at ways that performance rewards can distort work efforts, sometimes negatively, so they must be negotiated with care. Economists Hart and Holmström argue that companies in lower-risk businesses can best afford to offer their employees smaller base salaries and greater incentives based on performance. In our analysis of the PR business, we conclude that our industry doesn’t neatly fall into the category of “lower-risk” business. We consider PR a higher- risk field based on certain “known” unknowns (C-suite decision-making, business climate, competition and media response to our overtures, to name a few). This is why most in the industry shy away from lowering fees in favor of performance-based incentives, at least during a full-employment economy when competition for talent is fierce.

The bottom line is that we should all negotiate with care rather than always blindly following a contract template. Legal agreements have governed the practice of public relations since the days of Edward Bernays. As technology improves and organizations become more complex, the theory and practice of PR contract design will only become more critical to creating and sustaining successful – and profitable – relationships.

Reporter Fahrenthold Crowdsources His Way To Glory

People who work in media and public relations like to say that click-bait headlines and hot takes have replaced traditional, “shoe-leather” reporting – the type that involves long hours of investigation, dogged pursuit of sources, and boring background interviews. Some even say the internet killed “real” journalism.

But one reporter has turned that trope on its head. Years from now David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post may be remembered as the one who broke the now-infamous Donald Trump “Access Hollywood” video, in which Trump is heard bragging about, er, grabbing women’s body parts. But long before the “groper” video, Fahrenthold had pursued several Trump stories in a very innovative way.

Earlier this year he set out to explore Trump’s record of charitable giving. Fahrenthold was struck by how often the GOP nominee had mentioned the “millions and millions” he donated to worthy causes, so he set out to document Trump’s philanthropy, combing through records from the late 1980s and calling hundreds of nonprofits.

But instead of documenting his findings (or mostly, the lack of them) in a spreadsheet, he scribbled down responses by hand on a lined notepad and regularly tweeted the list to track his progress. Even more unusual, Fahrenthold actively crowdsourced through his tweets, asking followers for help in tracking down any stray contributions from the Trump Foundation or Trump himself, and tweeting regularly about the progress of his calls and interviews. At one point, he put out an all-points-search for a six-foot-tall portrait of himself that Trump reportedly bought with Foundation funds.  The transaction not only violates a rule against “self-dealing” (spending nonprofit money on personal items) but it added a note of comic relief to the investigation.

The upshot was a series of excellent and deeply reported stories on Trump’s anemic charitable giving, as well as his use of the Trump Foundation to settle personal expenses, which is prohibited under legal rules.

Maybe more importantly, Fahrenthold has set a new standard for the work of reporting. First, he’s been utterly transparent, speaking directly to readers through social media and even soliciting their help in his investigations. This is unusual given the typical journalistic penchant for keeping leads and story progress close to the vest, for fear of being scooped or of having potential avenues of inquiry closed off by those who anticipate negative coverage.

He has also succeeded in digging out a fact-based narrative that would probably never have come to light amid the election year noise. In an interview with Nieman Lab, Fahrenthold noted that his approach stands out from conventional reporting about Trump as a candidate. “If you cover Trump’s words, you’re always just chasing your tail and letting him set the narrative. It’s hard to pin him down. With this, you’re judging him by his actions, not his words,” he explained.

Finally, Fahrenthold’s methods offer a window into the inglorious spadework, dull follow-up, and attention to detail that characterizes solid reporting.  And it proves that, far from supplanting traditional journalism, social media, with its vast reach and influence, can complement it.

Many think that Fahrenthold’s a good bet to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Whatever the case, his unique approach has probably had a permanent impact on the way we look at journalism, and even on the way reporting works, and that’s a good thing.

PR Turns Over A New Leaf With These Fall Books

Fall is an ideal time to crack open a book, and there are plenty of choices out there to stimulate a public relations professional’s appetite for ideas and inspiration. Take time out from catching the latest viral video (we like this one) or binge-watching an addictive show like “Narcos” and pick up a book that will let you explore something in depth.
The options are endless – from self-help to examinations of real-life events with the media front and center, to pure fiction. In the past, we’ve suggested books we found appealing to PR and marketing types, and here are some more fall recommendations that are sure to provoke new thoughts.

Write like a “Boss.” The Boss, to be more specific. Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run, has been met with effusive praise, and with good reason. There’s an undeniable link between his storytelling chops and his famously evocative song lyrics. As we always say, the best way to improve your own writing is to read a variety of others. It’s no coincidence that superlative songsmiths are getting their due this fall, as Bob Dylan demonstrated earlier this week, winning the Nobel Prize for literature.

When media meets politics. With Election Day just around the corner, what better way to get into the spirit by reading one of the most celebrated books ever written about politics? All The President’s Men follows two Washington Post reporters – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – who delve into one of the deepest investigations in American history to expose Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. This masterpiece of the journalistic process includes many themes and ideas that can be applied to public relations, including “on-the-record vs. off” media rules, how to handle crisis situations, and proof that hard work and persistence pay off in the end.

Hustle and flow…and grow? What would fall be without a dynamic business tome or two to help PR people find their passion and prosper? This season has seen the publication of Hustle by Neil Patel, Patrick Vlaskovits, and Jonas Koffler―three of the nation’s top entrepreneurs and consultants―teaming to teach us that the secret to career happiness lies in making manageable tweaks and placing small bets on pursuits that propel you from who you are today to the person you’re destined to become. Hustle shows us to look at work and life through a new lens―one based on discovering projects you enjoy and the people and opportunities that support your talents, growth, income, and happiness.

For pure relaxation. Your most demanding assignment is finally finished. You survived the stress of a new business presentation and deserve some excellent escapist fiction to take you away. For many, nothing does the job better than crime fiction. And one of the best is out with a new whodunit that we promise you won’t be able to put down, even when CNN issues a new presidential poll. The book is The Trespasser by Irish novelist Tana French. French always imbues her thrillers with something dark, and the results are compelling. For a great example of how an obsession can lead to unchecked online chat and ultimate disaster, also read French’s Broken Harbor.

Funny, insightful takes on pop culture.  Want an edge when coming up with creative ideas for consumer PR campaigns? It helps to know what’s in and what’s out and who made the cover of People Magazine last week. To help you stay on top of your pop stars and your movie stars, we offer up The Must List by the editors of Entertainment Weekly, who you can trust to have their fingers on the relevant and the not so. Remember, it’s often said that the best PR people have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things pop culture!

Bisquick’s Flapjack Flap? Public Relations Weighs In

When companies seek clever ways to leverage hot topics and gain some positive public relations in the process, it helps to vet the idea for relevance and the execution for tone. While Bisquick’s product may be yummy, its #PancakesvsWaffles Twitter hashtag campaign lacked taste – and good judgment – all the way around.

The obvious reason was timing. It was a week that saw a nominee boast about groping women in the most vulgar terms, and the news media ate it up.

The link to the election was also questionable. Even if 2016 weren’t unprecedented for its family-unfriendly content, it’s not a logical association. PR pundits should ask themselves if it’s really intuitive to put pancakes and waffles alongside a political debate, especially in real time. Are breakfast foods a natural link to politics in your mind? No, they’re not. And the public didn’t bite.

Almost immediately, Twitter was flooded with pleas to stop the blatant marketing tie-in and begged the question – do you want your wholesome pancake and waffle mix mixing it up with Trump and his crass comments?

We understand the lure of real-time marketing and clever hashtag campaigns. Who can forget Oreo’s brilliant “dunk in the dark” tweets during the famous Super Bowl blackout of 2013?  Where that campaign was genuine, true to the brand and fun in its spontaneity, the pancake waffle weigh-in was just illogical and offensive.

How should a brand decide when to get in on a hot cultural moment and when to sit one out? Here’s a primer:

What’s the campaign goal? If it’s “press at any price” and controversy is part of your brand’s DNA anyway, then go for it. Align with the outlandish and don’t think twice. This has continued to work well for Kenneth Cole, who uses his advertising and social media to make provocative statements like the “Boots on the Ground” campaign at Fashion Week. This approach doesn’t work for every brand, however. It pays to conduct some smart strategizing ahead of any such link to a hot topic to weigh out the pros and cons.

Will your target audience “get it?” This appears to be the biggest part of the Bisquick fail – no one saw the relevance. Who wants to see a beloved brand catch heat when most are weary of partisan rhetoric and on edge about the whole process? Since Bisquick stands for comfort food that evokes childhood, maybe it should stay in that comfort zone. The brand might be wiser to cook up a campaign that counters the bitter political fighting with something sweet and syrupy that makes us forget about the nastiness.

Does the effort have buy-in up and down the organization? We’ve talked before about the importance of selling strategic PR to the C-suite (and other decision-makers) for comprehensive company buy-in. What works best is demonstrating the measurable benefits and ROI to the organization. These would include the obvious PR exposure and less obvious – perhaps engagement of an untapped audience or an opportunity to create a strong advertising tie-in. And don’t discount the personal. For example, we know that the CEO of one our client companies is a weekend musician, so a campaign idea with a music component may strike a chord with him.

Can the campaign be executed across platforms? The best ideas are workable across media platforms. Brands like Dove always seem to do it right. It extended the life of this Facebook contest through all manner of permutations on YouTube,  Twitter (#Mybeautymysay) and of course, through traditional media relations. The “beauty” of this campaign is how well the brand knows its audience combined with a meaningful message and flawless execution. Twitter alone, by contrast, can be a harsh community, with little room for course corrections.

Does the idea have staying power? Some campaigns like these for National Doughnut Day and Veteran’s Day are replicable year after year, but still manage to resonate. In any public relations program, we look for an idea that sticks in the consumer’s mind. Is there any chance the public will be thinking about Bisquick on Election Day? Odds are no.
The current presidential race is so divisive and exhausting that unless you can find a legitimate PR angle related to a bipartisan issue (how about a shorter campaign season?) or a civic call-to-action (a true get-out-the-vote campaign), it’s probably best to turn down the heat and stay out of the politics kitchen until after November 8.

15 Top Questions To Ask During A PR Agency Search

Selecting the right public relations agency is a bit like dating, and it can be fraught with some of the same perils and challenges. It’s easy to be swept off your feet by a charismatic team, or dazzled by a slick presentation. How do you get both style and substance, as well as the perfect fit or the closest thing to it?

It helps to break down the PR agency search process into key phases and to articulate questions to elicit the best responses.

Initial Vetting of PR Agencies

Many companies looking to bring on a PR partner distill their goals and needs into an RFI (Request for Information) as a starting point.  In my view the RFI is an easier early vetting tool than a full-blown RFP (Request for Proposal), which requires far more time and creative input from participating agencies.  Many organizations may not need a lengthy or very formal document, but it’s essential to convey your goals and needs to all agency teams who may want to play. Remember, you want a talented agency team that can accomplish great things for your brand, not just a group that has perfected the bureaucratic art of responding to RFPs. The most relevant questions for this phase are client-driven. Before preparing the RFI, think about the following.

What are our specific public relations goals?

What mistakes or missed opportunities do we want to avoid? What successes do we want to build on?

What are our key criteria for an agency partner? Here, consider factors like size; a smaller agency will likely have gentler fees, but a large multinational will offer the greatest depth of experience. Then there’s location. Do you prefer a team in your own time zone? Is familiarity with local media important? The essential factor is likely to be relevant experience. Decide what your needs are and whether some are dealbreakers, and whittle the list accordingly.

What are the most important business challenges we face in the coming year? You’ll likely get the best responses by being candid about needs and challenges, and all participating agency teams should sign an NDA.

Who will ultimately decide on the PR agency? (Pro tip: these individuals should be involved in the process.)


Meeting with PR Firm Hopefuls: Sample Questions for Agencies

It’s best to narrow the field before meeting with agency teams, and to spend more time with fewer agencies to better understand intangibles like workstyle, chemistry, and individual expertise. Below are some questions that go beyond the obvious, designed to draw out the agency’s best thinking and unique attributes.

What are our biggest communications challenges in your view? You want a team that has thought through problems and opportunities and who will speak their mind. It’s good to find an enthusiastic group, but if all they can offer is praise and eagerness, you may not get the best counsel down the road.

Describe your ideal client. This shows your good intentions and elicits the qualities that are valued by the agency team and may contribute to a positive outcome.

How will your team perform better or differently than the others we’re seeing? There’s no “right” answer here, and the best agencies may show that they’re sizing you up as much as you are them. That’s a good sign.

How do you ensure quality and accountability within the agency team? You want a team that is responsive and committed to quality without being stifled by process.

Tell me about the last client who fired you. If they can’t admit this has happened, they’re probably not being candid.

Defining Success in the PR Agency Relationship

This is arguably the most important phase of the agency search process, but if often receives short shrift. Listen carefully to how the agencies under consideration define and measure outcomes. You want to do everything you can to set the relationship up for success.

What will the outcomes look like after three months? Client needs differ, but be wary of a team who overpromises. And remember that in most cases, strategic PR is better at building brand visibility and reputation over time than it is at generating fast sales.

Tell me about your greatest success over the past six months. This is a good question to ask every team member to better define the role and priorities of each.

What tools and methods do you use to measure impact? The key here is to be on the same page and to avoid surprises in the form of extra charges.

How much should we invest in outcomes measurement? It’s very important to be realistic about measuring outcomes and to recognize the cost of research if it’s warranted.

Is our budget sufficient to accomplish our goals? You want a team that will focus on positive outcomes, not merely adding services to pad their billings. And no one wants to hear later that the budget was too small to ensure success.

Want To Tell Your Story? Tell Your Public Relations Firm

In a public relations agency, there’s nothing we like better than working with a company whose marketing or comms leader picks up the phone regularly and says, “do you think there’s a story here?”

Crafting and packaging compelling stories and conveying them to the right audience is the essence of building a brand through PR. Yet we’re only as good as what we get out of our business partners. The question then becomes how to elicit thoughtful and interesting stories or nuggets of future narratives from clients and colleagues. We have identified some ways companies can work with PR firms to make sure their stories are told in as meaningful a way as possible.

Use meetings to get quality input. Are you really listening to your colleagues during a staff meeting? If so, you should be able to glean what’s going on in different departments up and down the organization and learn something that could be packaged as a story. Recently, a client who met with staff in a remote office heard about a first-of-its-kind study being conducted by the local team in collaboration with a nearby university. This led to a story pitch unlike anything the client had done before, ultimately resulting in interest from the major paper in the community.

Leverage all milestones. Certainly most company leaders know to clue their PR partners in on major funding news or personnel changes. And, celebrating a company anniversary can be a winning PR move. But there are other company achievements that also make interesting stories. For “deals” shopping app Retale, we’ve made media noise each time we hit a downloads goal. We’ve also leveraged each partnership the company has formed, no matter the size, to great effect.

Make the most of media monitoring. Sure, we all like to keep up to date with relevant news, but media monitoring can also help spark ideas by noting current trends and hot buttons to add currency to ongoing PR work. For example, seeing how a competitor handles negative news can turn into a positive story about your company’s advantages. A hot media headline might not seem relevant, but it might be worth talking to your PR agency and to see what they think.  In our work with Wearsafe, the wearable “panic button” for personal safety, the plethora of stories focused on campus security provided optimal opportunities for coverage.

Take a stand. For some clients, their own industry can provide great opportunity to take a position or adopt a point of view and earn positive press for it.  When the infamous UK Brexit vote took place, currency exchange client HiFX voiced bold predictions about the “divorce”  making them a sought-after authority on all things finance.  Similarly, ultrasound pain device manufacturer ZetrOZ chose to speak out on the opioid epidemic in the US. The company struck PR gold with worker’s compensation and insurance industry pubs – exactly the company’s target audience.

Adopt a formal interview process. Another way we’ve worked with clients to draw out good intel for PR purposes is through formal interviews. We conduct formal sessions with key players and use open-ended questions to make sure we pry the best out of them. It’s important to go into the conversation knowing that the PR team is on their side and that nothing will be released without their review; still, there are some who don’t like being interviewed. In those cases, we recommend a simple questionnaire that they can complete and return.

However you do it, the secret to finding and mining the best stories boils down to close communication. When in doubt, err on the side of over-communicating with colleagues and partners. The results are nearly always worth it.