Marijane Funess December 21, 2016 | 03:29:00

How To Pick The Right PR Firm

Whether you run a tech start-up or manage an established brand, you may be looking to bring on a top public relations firm in the coming year. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to bringing on an outside PR team, and the search process can be daunting. Here are some shortcuts and advice to make the search go as smoothly as possible.

Define your goals. This is obvious, but in some cases an organization’s goals are not crystal clear, or a cross-functional search team may not be perfectly aligned, so all should be hammered out in advance. Some companies retain a PR agency simply to generate as many media placements as possible. If that’s the case, don’t pretend otherwise. Others want to maximize a product launch or mitigate reputation damage, while still others may simply want to attract funding from VC companies.

The goals will inform the type of program and the nature of the relationship. The most successful clients view an agency as a strategic partner and an extension of their own communications team, privy to C-level thinking and fully trusted with confidential material. But if a full partnership isn’t possible, the engagement can still be a productive one. The parameters simply must be communicated at the outset. Quality input leads to quality output; it’s as simple as that.

Stick to your timeline. The PR search can be painless for company decision-makers and competing firms if it’s well organized and the timeline is realistic. The goal is to allow ample time to meet with agency teams, gather capabilities information, create a shortlist and review proposals. To maximize a relationship with a potential firm, it’s important to prioritize the search process because to do otherwise sends a signal that you’re not serious. When companies veer off the original timeline, there’s a risk that a shortlisted firm will take on a competing project and be unable to work with you. Additionally, if too much time elapses, your company goals may shift, making existing proposals obsolete.

Discuss budget early in the process.  A potential client will occasionally begin a PR agency search with no idea of what they should spend. There’s no magic formula, but there are ways to help determine an appropriate PR budget. The first step is to determine goals, desired outcomes, and the importance of earned media and thought leadership in the overall communications mix. Also ask:  What is the overall marketing commitment? What industry or competitive initiatives are anticipated? What is the product launch timeframe?  Answers to these questions will help determine the PR program’s scope. A crowded news calendar with regular announcements and events will require a more robust budget than a slow build for a new company. Once a budget is set, it should be shared. There’s nothing more frustrating than going down the road with an agency team, only to find they consider your budget too small to achieve desired results. For more tips on budgeting, research how agencies set budgets and the different ways they bill clients.

Dissect the client case studies. Client references are great, but does anyone ever offer a less than positive contact? A better way to determine agency fit is through careful examination of case studies that are relevant to your needs. Agency teams are happy to share cases with dazzling media results, so insist on a wide range of examples of work done for brands like yours, and avoid over-focusing on those that seem like a slam-dunk, like a sexy new product, a new category with inherent news appeal, or a celebrity-studded influencer program. Above all, make sure you’re speaking to the team  members who actually did the work. It’s also helpful to ask how stellar media coverage or branded content pickup helped further business goals — in other words, look at outcomes over outputs. Those who have worked closely with clients to increase inbound leads, generate sales, or drive partnerships are worth considering for your short list.

Know who will handle your business. The best PR teams include a mix of veterans and fresh young talent. Before you sign, you should know who your team is and what their roles are. Ideally, you have access to the most senior staffer when discussing strategy and key decisions, but highly qualified junior staffers may handle other tasks. If so, they should be present at all meetings. Meeting face-to-face early in the process for a chemistry check is also advised to make sure personalities mesh well and to assess what kind of time and talent commitment they can offer.

Assign some homework. A smart way to see how an agency would rise to a particular, relevant challenge is to offer a PR scenario and task teams with drafting a strategic approach to meeting it. The responses can yield insight into the agency’s grasp of your business and its ability to size up a situation and offer meaningful solutions in something close to real time. Other potential assignments should be more open-ended. One enormous benefit of an agency relationship is the unbiased thinking that an experienced communications team can offer, and it’s smart to ask for a taste of that.

Finally, consider firms who do good PR for themselves.  Part of any criteria for choosing a PR firm should be how well they promote themselves. Things to look for include quality and quantity of fresh content on the firm’s website; its social media footprint and reputation; industry awards and recognition; and occasional quotes from company leadership in major articles like this.

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