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When Not To Hire A PR Firm

Like Tolstoy’s observation about unhappy families, relationships between clients and their PR agencies go bad for different reasons. That’s why I can’t respond directly to a piece in today’s Huffington Post that questions the relevance of PR firms today. Grant Cardone’s “Do PR Firms Make Sense Anymore?” recounts his failed and apparently fruitless relationships with three different public relations firms. To make matters worse, in Cardone’s view, a friend with a vertical website was able to generate more attention for his online video than his PR team.

So, what went wrong? I don’t know, and I don’t blame Cardone for throwing in the towel. But I doubt that the real lesson here is that PR firms are no longer relevant. It’s more likely that he didn’t choose the right partners, or that the relationships lost momentum and direction after the honeymoon. Like the single serial dater who can’t seem to meet the right partner, he might need a little “relationship intervention.”

Here then, is my own list of “red flags” that could signal a bad match between a PR team and a client.

1.   The chemistry’s great. Not that you shouldn’t get along with your agency team, but beware the too-dazzling first impression. I have a friend at an agency search firm who warns clients against the “chemistry test.”  What she really means is, don’t be seduced by charm. Look for compatibility instead.

2.  You’re from different worlds. Let’s say the agency team is ultra-hip, and your brand isn’t. Don’t count on becoming cool by association. It’s more likely that the union will end prematurely. This is where cultural compatibility (which is not to be confused with chemistry) comes in. A fast-moving, high-energy entrepreneur won’t be happy with a large, bureaucratic firm, and chances are, the reverse is true. Look for a cultural fit.

3.  They don’t listen. As with a self-involved first date, it’s a bad sign if the team leaders spend the entire time talking about themselves. There’s a fine line between salesmanship and self-centeredness. Look for a team where each person asks thoughtful questions and actually listens to the answers.

4.  You can’t commit. As in real life, don’t start something if you don’t have the financial and human resources to make it work. And, if your emotional investment comes with an expiration date, be honest and say so.

5.  You don’t communicate. Instead of a dog-and-pony show, try to structure your first meetings as a discussion. The firm will respect you, and you’ll find out more about them than you might in a canned presentation.

6.  You have baggage. Examine your own agency history, and your reputation, with a cold eye, and do the same with the firm you’re considering. Short relationships and high churn are almost always a red flag. If the problems are on your side, consider getting help from a recruitment professional. Like a good therapist, they may see what you can’t. If you want a reputable agency, your own reputation should be impeccable.

7.  They have issues…but haven’t learned from mistakes. Don’t just get references from current, happy clients; ask for permission to speak with a client who fired them. You may learn something by how they respond.

8.   You expect perfection. Expectations are the key to most relationships. If you don’t start with clear-cut goals, or if they’re wildly unrealistic, you need to let your agency adjust them. Make sure your team offers input and signs off on the goals, and listen to their counsel.

9.   You’re a user. Some clients churn through agencies in a continual search for fresh ideas; others are serial daters because they think they’ll keep their team on their toes. If you only want a short-term relationship, say so, and come up with a compensation structure that works for both parties.

10.  They’re virgins. Experience really, really counts in PR. Choose a firm with applicable expertise, where the experience resides with the team members, not in a distant office. Most importantly, make sure that one or more senior-level team members will be engaged in your program for the long term.

There. You’ve done all you can to ensure a mutually beneficial and lasting relationship. May your marriage be a long and happy one.

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