Or rather, don’t hire a PR firm based solely on a great reputation. While a brand name is a good place to start your search, it doesn’t guarantee success. The biggest factor for an impactful program is the people who’ll be working your business. Take the time early on to get to know the individuals, not just the firm’s principals. You won’t see much of them on your account day to day. If you’re in the hunt for a PR firm right now, here’s some inside baseball that’ll help you make a better decision.
Terabytes of pixels have been bent explaining why you should or shouldn’t hire a firm. We’re not getting into all that right now. Let’s assume you’ve read and weighed all the articles you had the patience for and went ahead with the decision anyway. Congratulations! Now the due diligence really begins.
First, get to know the people your top firm choices have proposed for your teams. It’s essential and frankly, if you’re not hearing from them in the vetting process, be concerned. Teams are together for specific reasons and you’re not doing your job if you don’t find out why. Some questions you need to ask:
What’s the team’s experience profile look like?
Look for a group that strikes a balance between experienced professionals and mid-level people. Too much senior anything and you’ll get a whole lot of strategy and consultation, but little implementation. Alternately, if the whole team regularly uses the term “on fleek,” you’ll be stuck prodding them for ideas.
Senior level strategists are essential because no amount of Twitter followers replaces business acumen and the ability to recognize new opportunities across a turbulent mediascape. They may have even been through an online crisis or two.
Conversely, early and mid-level professionals bring energy, passion and new perspective. And, their billable rates allow for more time spent getting your story out. You need both groups represented on your team.
What’s the team’s domain expertise?
“That’s silly, what do you mean ‘what’s the team’s domain expertise?’ Wouldn’t it be in my industry?” Not necessarily. Depending on the firm, you might get a team struggling to hit a certain revenue goal. Staffers who aren’t quite profitable from across the organization can be corralled and pitched together to get their firm’s “revenue by PR professional” up. While this is good for the firm it’s bad for your program.
You’re looking for people who can effortlessly answer most of the basic questions about your company’s industry, and hopefully communicate deeper domain knowledge, too. Find and insist those players be a part of your team. You don’t want to spend your first month’s retainer paying for their market education. With the exception of firms that focus specifically on one industry, or have built niche practices within the larger group, most PR consultancies are made up of generalists.
Has anyone on the team ever sold anything before?
Seriously, ask. Even if they sold T-shirts in a prior life; the more they know what it takes to get someone to part with their money, the better off your program will be. PR is an exercise in altering someone’s behavior or perception for your own or another’s benefit. Selling and PR share the same base DNA code. If no one on your proposed team has ever sold anything before, ask for a different team.
The solid Rolodex is a myth.
Sort of. The days when PR firms traded on the strength of their media relationships is just about over, with some exceptions. Why? Because the media landscape is so fractured and diverse. There are more outlets, on more channels serving more platforms. Reporters come and go and change beats far more quickly than ever before, making it difficult to get into a groove.
But they still have an audience to serve and no reporter worth her byline will take a weak story pitch, even from a friend. There’s too much competition and the parameters by which reporters are measured have changed drastically, too. If a story won’t get clicks, it probably won’t get written. A solid network is still important, but it’s far more important for an agency team to be great at jelling, telling and selling a story.
Media relations alone doesn’t cut it.
This is probably a no-brainer for anyone reading this but most firms saw the writing on the wall back in 2005-2006; media relations alone won’t keep the lights on. The future is social, digital, marketing services and creative and that future is now.
Ask your people what else they do to keep their programs ahead of that curve. How do they measure? What other tools are part of their daily routine? Are they employing other channels like Medium, Buzzfeed or their owned properties? How do they track for coverage, competitor moves and potential crisis situations? Can they see what effect their programs have on their clients’ businesses?
Avoid PR firms that sprinkle a digital or social person across their client base. If those skill sets aren’t an integral part of every team at the firm you hire, you’ll just toss money away.
There’s no real science to evaluating PR firms—it’s more of an art, but asking the right questions of the right people within a firm is a good starting point. You’re looking to strike up a partnership. Evaluating the firm by its people, not just the name, ought to be approached as you would anything you’d consider a strategic advantage for your business. The right people make all the difference in communications.
Joel Richman (@xylem)
Keep in Touch
Want fresh perspective on communications trends & strategy? Sign up for the SHIFT/ahead newsletter.