Recently we addressed some surefire signs that a start-up or other business is ready to hire a public relations agency. Interestingly, there are also some very good reasons to hold off on taking that step. Here are some crucial benchmarks to consider.
To set up a PR partnership for success, it’s important to take the temperature in the C-suite and to look the company up and down to assess readiness. Here’s what to consider.
You don’t know what you want.
Even a promising client-agency relationship can get into trouble when the client company is vague about goals, or if individual executives have different ideas about deliverables and outcomes. It’s best to articulate goals, service expectations, and deliverables in the RFP or search document shared with the prospective agency partners, and to seek their input if needed. Any good PR agency will be glad for the opportunity to offer their thoughts.
You have no story.
But, you thought that was the agency’s job, right? Well, it is, but only in part. Before retaining an outside PR firm, an organization should have an idea of the story it wants to tell. As one serial start-up veteran told us, “Once it’s out there, it’s out there, so make it the one you can stand behind for the long haul.” Not all stories have the drama of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s anecdote about being inspired by a police scanner (and its short bursts of information.) And most don’t have the poignancy of Magoosh founder Bhavin Parikh’s experience. He lost his co-founder to lung cancer less than a year after the test prep company began to experience real growth, which certainly heightened the challenges involved. Yet every story has elements of interest, and, most importantly, it must be honest, authentic, and accepted by the company’s most important stakeholders.
There’s no clear company mission.
Similarly, a clear and cogent mission is the heart of any company. It serves to inspire employee engagement, foster customer loyalty, and boost company performance. The company mission defines what it stands for — its purpose and reason for existence. But many founders launch head-on into business because someone has a great idea for a product or service but very little beyond that. A strong mission statement serves as a set of goals around which employees, clients and customers can rally. Even if the company goal is a very simple one, for example, “To spread the power of optimism” (from t-shirt brand Life is Good), it’s imperative to settle on a mission and believe in it as the company grows and adds marketing, PR and other partners. A PR agency can be an indispensable asset in guiding a nascent company mission and helping to shape a final version, but there’s no point in spinning wheels if the foundation’s not laid. We once worked with an app developer that changed the company’s mission so often that it ultimately “failed to launch.”
Company leadership is in flux.
Today’s B2B public relations is as much about thought leadership as it is about generating earned media or other types of executive visibility. Thought leadership typically involves tapping into the company’s braintrust of key executives to share ideas with relevant audiences. So if an organization is in flux at the top, it may not be a great time to engage PR counsel. We’ve seen examples of infighting, mergers or premature starts that result in a lack of cohesive leadership. And, as a result, it may be difficult for the public relations campaign that demands focus and participation from senior management. Businesses where leadership is in flux should tap a PR expert or agency team for strategic advice ahead of rolling out a campaign.
There’s no one to manage the agency.
Occasionally companies think that a good agency, once retained and brief on business goals, can operate independently, with no client input or involvement. Or, they may mistakenly assign a very junior-level employee to manage the agency team, or place PR under another department where it’s unlikely to thrive, like Customer Relations or HR. Public relations is a considerable investment and an agency relationship is not to be entered into if the company can’t afford the costs involved — both financially and in reasonably senior-level management time.
There’s confusion about what PR can and cannot do for the company.
PR can do a great deal. For example, it’s most effective at packaging a company’s story to resonate with reporters, amplifying a sales and marketing effort, helping shape the image and thought capital of key executives and making news for a brand during “quiet periods.” However, if a potential client is looking at PR as a substitute for advertising, or thinking good PR can overcome a bad product or faulty design, that is a mistake. Any organization that’s unsure about PR’s potential should have a preliminary with a group of agencies about what they feel it can – and cannot – accomplish. That will save time and even tears down the road.