Working with a public relations firm can help your company generate buzz and differentiate against your competition, creating awareness of products and services as well as improving brand identity. A good PR firm will create messaging, develop a customized communications strategy, manage your corporate reputation, communicate with your audiences, pitch the media on your behalf, and even build loyalty with your audiences via social media. But how do you know that you are choosing the right PR firm? What questions should you ask when interviewing agencies? Here are 10 tips that will help you to navigate the process:
- Clearly identify your goals before you start interviewing. When you are clear on what you want to achieve, it will be easier for you to indicate goals and expectations to the prospective agencies. They will be better able to define strategies and assess if they are even the right agency to pitch your business. If you are concerned that you may need to tell them about upcoming products or services that are, as of yet, not released for broad review, ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Reputable PR firms will not hesitate to sign it, and they will be prudent in keeping your secrets.
- What experience do they have? Some agencies are focused on B2B or B2C clients; others have had a mix of both – which is right for you? Do you need local, regional, national or international exposure? Look for an agency that has handled clients with similar needs. An agency doesn’t have to have had clients in exactly your same industry but they do need to know how to get up to speed quickly. Ask what methods they use to get an in-depth understanding of your market and competitors.
- Can they write? Content is king – as Bill Gates said way back in 1996! In nearly 20 years since then, almost every company has become its own publisher. An agency that focuses only on media relations or social media won’t meet all your needs today. Ask to see samples of press releases, articles, websites, blogs and posts they have written. Do they follow AP-style guidelines? If they don’t know what that means, beware!
- How current are they on social media and digital marketing? The world of communications evolves daily. An agency should be able to explain to you the various methods they use to develop relationships with your audiences and how they integrate all of those techniques to gain the most exposure. Integration and re-use of marketing and PR materials will get you the best bang for your buck, as the saying goes.
- How do they pursue media coverage? Gaining media coverage, especially in print publications, is challenging. Your company must have the stories that will appeal to the editorial community and your agency must be persistent in pitching those stories. Ask them about their responsiveness and how they keep abreast of topics that the media might like to cover. Can they offer media training to your executives? What does it consist of? How does your PR team support your interviews? Can they handle a crisis? Look for a team that cares about your reputation just about as much as you do.
- Is the chemistry good? This is a tricky one. Make sure that the primary contacts who will be working on your account are the ones you meet in the pitch. Then focus on substance over style – you’re not looking for the flashiest agency but one that understands your business, has a proven track-record, and cares about your success. We also think it’s important to have a team with a range of ages on your account – the senior members have strategic experience and business acumen, the younger ones have current technical skills and creative passion – when you get a mix of the two, you’ll have a more complete range of perspectives on your account.
- Are collaboration and communication important to you? Assess what type of agency you want to work with – one that is very collaborative and becomes a close member of your marketing team or one that just takes your lead and executes it. Communicate that to the prospective team. Find out if their style matches yours. Ask how long their clients typically stay with them and look for an agency that has longer-term clients to know that they play well with others.
- Do they have systems in place to maximize efficiency? Even a boutique firm needs to have enough established procedures to ensure efficiency. Ask about what they do to track your competitors, what tools they use for identifying appropriate reporters and for handling social media posts. What planning do they engage to ensure your budget is well-utilized? The directness and honesty with which they handle these types of questions will help you to know if you can work with them.
- Is your budget realistic? Recognize that what an agency has to sell is its time and expertise. When you find an agency that has the contacts, the writing skills and the philosophy that provides what you need, ask what their typical client budgets are. You want to be running in the same ballpark with their other clients so you will get the time and attention your account deserves. While boutique agencies are often specialists at getting quite a bit done on modest budgets, they still need enough hours to think, plan and strategize so that the writing and pitching they do makes sense for your company – so give them a large enough budget to meet your goals.
- How do they measure success? How much reporting is done often depends on the size of your budget because that is time spent on your account, too. Sending you clips of media coverage is only one measure and it is pretty typical. Some agencies do extensive activity reports; others keep those status reports short and put more time into the actual implementation of your activities. So check to see what reports they do as a standard matter of procedure. Then if you want additional reporting, plan the budget to accommodate it.
By assessing both “hard” and “soft” skills you will have a better chance of working with an agency that meets both your substance needs and style of operation. Remember that most agencies, even though they may require an annual contract, have a 30-60 day cancellation clause. The reason for this is twofold: one, it allows you to get out of a contract if you’re really not happy, and two, it gives the agency time to fix issues before you drop the relationship. Public relations success takes time and persistence to achieve, so, while you should see a flurry of activity pretty rapidly, expect results to increase over time. PR is a long term strategy that builds momentum over the course of months, not weeks.
This blog was contributed by Beth Walsh, Vice President at Clearpoint Agency.