Do you really need a PR agency? And if you think you do, what should they be doing for you?
The PR industry is changing and the faltering economy means MarComm initiatives are often the first to get cut in reduction of company budgets. There's even disagreements within the PR community over what our industry is and what it isn't. No wonder potential clients often scratch their heads when agencies come through with their capability presentations. One agency totes their strong media relations skills (a core PR component - a fact I think we can all agree upon), while others demonstrate their digital, production, and social media capabilities. For a company that is looking to establish or expand its current public relations program, trying to find an agency that fits their needs and budget can look like a daunting task. FWIW here's what I think companies looking to hire an agency should consider:
Determine Objectives/Priorities in Accordance with the Company's Business Plan : What do you hope to get out of working with an agency? Most companies tend to answer this question tactically: More media coverage? Market penetration/development? Content development? Service/product launch? Trade show support? Event planning? Figure out some core business goals and objectives that you believe PR activities can help you achieve and then give the agencies you contact a head's up on what you wish to accomplish. A good agency should help you think strategically to help you best reach any of your goals and objectives. Consider having agencies you contact sign a non-disclosure agreement so planning is based on as much information as possible.
Vetting process: Almost every agency you contact is going to come through with a capabilities presentation. It will highlight the agency history, structure, clients, awards, relevant case studies, and then overall capabilities. Any agency coming through should demonstrate that they spent some time thinking about your company. Don't expect an agency to know your business thoroughly, but most good PR firms will invest some business development time to try to learn as much as possible about your company's media presence, target audiences and overview of the competitive landscape.
As you meet with agencies, you may want to narrow your decision to two or three final choices. Send follow-up questions on how an agency would help your company address certain issues or needs. Ask for proposals or an average cost of services to get a better sense of how budget dollars will be used.
Ask for references and case studies: Don't take a PR firm's word that they're good. A PR agency should be willing to refer you to references that will be able to give you answers on what it's like to work with them and the type of successes they have had. Awards are great, but they don't give you the emotional intelligence needed to determine which agency is best for you.
Resources: Determine what resources you have to devote to your agency. This is NOT just money. Is there a point of contact in the company that will have frequent contact with the agency? This is very important as the agency will want to know who to contact in order to accomplish goals.
Meet your team: Ask who will be doing and supervising the work on behalf of your company. Ask to meet them BEFORE you sign a contract. This way, you will be able to gauge your comfort level of which team you feel will do the best job for your company. Also ask about formal reporting and account structure.
Information Overload: Once an agency is chosen, they will request a deep dive to learn as much about your company as possible. Give the agency as much information as possible. The history, structure, issues, products, services and immediate communication needs a company may have should be disclosed.
Give them your current marketing collateral and make sure they know any core messages that you want associated with the company's brand. The more information you provide, the better the agency will be at helping to develop, execute and measure an appropriate communication campaign.
Be Open: Once you hire an agency, be open to new suggestions and ideas that your agency has to help you achieve your goals and objectives. Social media, Web 2.0 communication strategies, multi-media and digital strategy tactics may be discussed. Ask the agency to justify their recommendations with studies or research to show that it is a good investment of your PR budget. Ask for how these initiatives will be measured to ensure maximum ROI.
My professional philosophy: Don't hire an agency to get you media coverage. Hire an agency to get you intelligence and then capitalize on what you learn to address your target audiences. If you do this well, you will have no problem getting the coveted press coverage and industry attention that most companies want.