Hiring a PR Firm? Read This First

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Posted: September 10, 2014 | Modern Marketing

 You’ve spent days, weeks, maybe months defining your messaging and creating a great communication strategy to go with it. Well done – that’s definitely the hard part! But now it’s time to execute on that strategy.

If you don’t have an internal PR team in place, or an agency you already trust to handle your strategy, it’s time to get one – especially if your company is expanding into new markets. Choosing the right PR firm, however, can be a challenge. Start by getting advice from your network on agencies they have worked with – there’s nothing like a recommendation to put you on the right track. As you conduct your research, here are six things you’ll need to consider:

1. Industry / Media Expertise

As you engage with prospective agencies, it’s important to ask if that agency has existing relationships with all your target media, both in the new and more traditional circles. As I recently discovered, finding an agency with strong relationships in both the tech sector and marketing media isn’t easy. In my view, the ability to go out and establish those relationships far outweighs their pre-existence, but if expediency is important to you, an agency that has a head start there may be a better fit for your organisation.

Consider also where your potential new agency’s contacts are. Global, or pan-region agencies may have a broader list of contacts – but they also might not have the depth of contacts in your target area, compared to that a niche or boutique agency.

Finally, does the agency fully understand the new media landscape? The line between earned and paid promotions is blurry, and an agency’s ability to connect your company not only to the earned, but also the paid side is becoming increasingly important.

2. Big vs Small

Most companies doing business internationally face this decision at some point: whether to go with one large PR firm with offices around the world, or appoint individual PR partners in each target market. There are pros and cons to both.

As I’ve mentioned, larger agencies have access to huge networks, but their access in a specific area might lack the depth of smaller local agencies. There’s also a general perception that small agencies give you more “bang for your buck,” because being a large client for a small agency usually guarantees more focus and attention to your account.

On the other hand, if a larger agency is trying to build a new practice or get in front of a new audience, they might give the same amount of attention to “smaller” accounts as they would to large anchor accounts. Be sure to ask about their strategy!

3. Creativity

We live in a noisy world, and rising above that noise is probably one of the biggest challenges marketers face today. “Bread and butter” PR techniques, including press releases, bye-lined articles, industry commentary etc. all have a very important role to play there.

But standing out in our noisy world is not about shouting louder, it’s about sounding different. If the proposal from your prospective PR agency does not include at least one creative idea for telling your company’s story, it could be a sign that they are not automatically thinking outside of the box – this would be a red flag for me.

4. Compatibility

Your PR agency is going to be an extension of your communications team, so the importance of compatibility cannot be overstated. There are two dimensions to this:

Organisational: Are the two companies (your organization and the agency) a good fit culturally? If your organisation is like mine, and has a maniacal focus on metrics and ROI, will your new PR partner be comfortable with that? If tight turnarounds and short deadlines the norm for your team, will the PR agency be able to work effectively in that environment? What about coverage? Markets are global, and news travels fast – should an urgent need arise, can your PR partner guarantee you a prompt response?

People: Most PR firms have highly experienced, talented professionals who are excellent at devising PR strategy. Ensure that these strategists are involved at the outset, and don’t dive into the relationship until you’ve established a strong strategy – a strategy in sync with your sales and marketing goals for that market.

You’ll also want to know whether there’s a good personality fit between the individuals who will be working together day to day. It’s absolutely critical to find out who will be on your account team before choosing a partner. Larger agencies in particular are rumored to send senior people to deliver the pitch, only to pass the account on to less experienced colleagues once the deal is done. Be sure to meet the people you’ll be working with on an on-going basis – chemistry is key.

5. Budget

As with everything in your marketing initiatives, it’s important to set your budget up front. Come to an agreement with your PR agency about what results you can expect for the price.

If you’re soliciting proposals from a few potential agencies, make sure to compare apples to apples. While almost all agencies work on a monthly retainer basis, what’s included in that retainer varies wildly. The usual suspects appearing on an “Extras” list include travel and expenses; clipping services; wire services; and additional translations. Decide what’s important to you – is a strong social media presence supported by a minimum number of daily tweets more important to you than a thought-leadership piece in a leading newspaper? In short, ensure that your priorities are included in the monthly retainer. Doing so will avoid any nasty surprises when the invoice comes in!

Note: Some agencies will charge for writing bye-lined articles, but others will only charge if that article is published in your target media. Find out whether the agencies you’re speaking to are open to the second option – it’s a much better deal for your company.

6. Metrics

How are you going to measure the success of your PR initiatives? The first thing to stress is that, unlike the instant gratification you may get from a campaign in your demand generation programs, reaping the rewards from your PR programs takes a little more time.

Take each of the goals defined in your strategy and decide what success looks like for each one. Note that this may vary by market or region, especially if you operate in a “new space” and there are market maturity issues to factor in. Then, in partnership with your new PR partner, determine what you will track to show progress there. For example, you might want to track clippings by tier, sector, type etc., and  also track the growth in those numbers. Avoid measuring the success of your PR campaigns entirely in terms of Facebook likes, advertising equivalency, media impressions or other “vanity” metrics. These can’t be directly connected to the things your C-Suite cares about: revenue and ROI.

Finally, keep in mind that your work is just beginning! Don’t expect your workload to drop once you’ve hired your new PR partner. Ensure that your spokespeople are media-trained and certified on company messaging, then get involved – be available to speak to media, blog and tweet.

The success of your PR partner will be a direct result of the support you provide. Strategy, planning, messaging, content, customer stories, regular updates, reviews, and shared best practice are all building blocks for successful ongoing partnerships.

Do you have any other tips for hiring a PR firm? We’d love to hear about it – please drop them in the comments below!

LIz Smyth is the Area Vice President of Marketing at Marketo, heading up Marketo's EMEA Marketing team in Dublin, Ireland. Previously, Liz has worked at salesforce.com, Oracle, and Peoplesoft.

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Hiring a #PR firm to help your #marketing team? Read this first! 6 things to look for:

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