Deciding it’s time to invest in PR is one thing, but selecting the right agency is another. It’s time-consuming, occasionally intimidating, and often confusing. What’s more, the people who are skilled at internal communications aren’t always prepared to conduct an agency search. Here’s a cheat sheet on finding the right PR firm while saving time and frustration.
Skip the RFP
Instead, rely on a one-pager that outlines the goals for partnering with a PR agency. It should contain both agency deliverables as well as the all-important business objectives for seeking outside support. Don’t worry about offering background on the company unless it’s relevant information that can’t be obtained through the agency’s own research.
Limit the “deciders”
A large committee will be time-consuming and unwieldy. It’s better to solicit buy-in on the goals for bringing on an agency from a broader group of stakeholders but to keep the selection group small. The benefits are obvious. But if the company founder or chief executive will be involved in the agency program, he or she should be part of the decision process.
Be clear on your goals
If the internal stakeholders can’t agree on goals, you’re not ready to bring on an agency team. If the goals are vague (“raise visibility” or “build buzz”) it’s best to qualify them and attach specific parameters or metrics. An agency may offer their own way of quantifying deliverables and measuring goals, but the objectives should be articulated by the client.
Determine your must-haves
For most companies the must-have list includes relevant sector experience, geographical coverage, and the absence of conflicts, but it’s also worthwhile to think about agency size. Bottom line, if your budget is less than $15,000 per month, you should limit your search to smaller agencies (loosely defined as those with annual billings under $5 million.)
Seek relevant recommendations
Nothing will save time and resources like quality recommendations for your initial list. But the trick is to make sure the recommendations are based on the experience of someone you know and trust, not a random LinkedIn contact or a board member’s wife’s PR firm. Professional groups are very useful, but always ask for names from those who have first-hand knowledge of the agency in question.
Winnow the agency list in advance of meetings
Three agencies for serious consideration is an ideal number, and five is a good maximum. If you must start with a large group of potential agencies and can’t cut the list through research, send the agencies a 2-page questionnaire to ensure relevant experience, desirable geography and suitable size. Then cut the list and proceed with meetings.
Set a budget
Some businesses are coy about budget because they’re hoping to get a good deal through competition, and that can actually work in a poor economy. But in today’s environment, if you don’t share your budget range, you’re likely to waste time or get proposals that are unrealistic or not suitable. In the worst case, you’ll eliminate the strongest agencies because they don’t feel compelled to pitch for accounts without full information.
Ask for a conversation, not a presentation
One problem with the dog-and-pony route is that it rewards salesmanship and preparation at the expense of quality thinking. All are important, so it’s wise to aim for an in-depth meeting that affords the time for a substantive conversation about upcoming issues, roadblocks, and opportunities.