As brands set plans and budgets for 2018, engaging a public relations firm may be at the top of the list. Finding the right agency partner can begin with an online search to narrow the field to a short list of agencies invited to share capabilities. Next steps include a face-to-face meeting, a formal proposal and substantive follow-up conversations. Here are some of the possible signs of trouble that should give a decision-maker pause.
A poorly designed website
An agency with a disappointing website seems unlikely to make anyone’s short list. But maybe the website looks good at first glance, and it isn’t until a few clicks in that shortcomings appear. Site design can be an individual choice, but there are some things a PR website should NOT have. They include: poor navigation, a cumbersome contact page, little or no shareable content, out-of-date blog posts, or media hits with broken links.
The canned proposal
A good PR firm will demonstrate relevant experience through a customized proposal rather than an off-the-shelf document with vague or boilerplate information. Most qualified agency teams will want to stand out with a tailored response that makes a strong case for demonstrable success in similar work, a team well-suited for the assignment and scrupulous attention to detail. Most of all, the proposal should be customized to the client’s goals and needs.
Continuity is important in any client-agency relationship. Clients have a right to expect that the staff on the pitch team are the same players they’ll be working with once the deal is sealed. Warning signs during the wooing process include evidence of recent staff turnover, a poor Glassdoor rating or persistent employee complaints about the company. Another red flag occurs when the meetings are run solely by a senior executive with a business development or marketing title. It’s always a good idea to press the agency about its staff turnover rate and to make sure there’s good chemistry with the entire team, not just the head sales guy who will disappear once the contract is signed.
We consider this a major red flag. If a prospective agency partner continually changes the time for a conference call or asks for an extension on preparing its capabilities, count on the fact that they won’t have time for your business. Unfailing punctuality and adherence to deadlines are signs of a buttoned-up shop. Once again, some conflicts are unavoidable. But if an agency wants the account badly enough, it will move heaven and earth to make sure all scheduled meetings take place and all deadlines are met.
Inattention/lack of preparation
Whether on an information-gathering phone call or in a face-to-face meeting, prospective agencies need to be present, pay attention and ask smart questions. We find it helpful to draft a list of solid questions ahead of time and assign roles. Of course, for any in-person presentation, we allow time for a rehearsal which helps the team master their parts and eliminate redundancies. It also helps participants achieve a level of confidence and fluency in the presentation — offering an edge on reading the room and focusing on what’s important to the client.
When creating the perfect team for a potential engagement, an agency might need to use a consultant with specialized experience. This could be anyone from an investor relations pro to someone who can expertly navigate local politics, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the prospective client should make sure that the consultant is committed to the process, and that the team’s expertise doesn’t hinge on a single individual. The savvy client can usually determine this and will want to consider how much faith they will have in such a construct.
No attention to outcomes measurement
No brand wants to enter into a PR engagement without a clear understanding of how the work will be measured against goals and metrics should be included in a PR proposal. Today’s PR firms can usually customize a measurement program for a particular campaign. We have many tools at our disposal, including basic media monitoring services, social listening and tagging services, Google analytics and sentiment analysis engines. But most importantly, the outcomes should be evaluated by their relevance to the client’s business goals.
No client references
Once a decision is imminent, a prospective client may ask an agency for references. Most agencies will offer two or even three, and a mix of current and past clients is good. But if a PR firm can’t recommend any current clients, it could mean it’s not on sure enough footing with any of them to make the ask. On the other hand, no agency wants to wear out its references, so many will wait until the field has been narrowed or the agreement is being negotiated before they agree to share client references. That’s not reluctance; it’s just good business.
The smell test
Sometimes there’s no obvious reason why an agency fails with a prospective client. It can be a general lack of chemistry or just a sense that there isn’t a great personality fit. In discussions with clients past and present, we’ve heard about an offhand remark, a glance at a cellphone, or a question out of left field that turned off a client decision-maker. When your gut tells you something’s not right, there’s usually a reason for it.