How to Vet, Choose, and Hire the Perfect PR Firm

Today’s truth: I’ve never hired a public relations firm.

So who am I to be giving advice to someone who is looking to hire one? I’ve always been the guy on the other side of the table trying to convince the prospect to hire my agency or even me. So what expertise can I bring to the table on this subject?

Well, a lot actually.

In those conversations (and there have been hundreds of them over the years), I’ve seen the struggle, hesitancy, and confusion on the “buyer’s” side. More often than not, there are occasions when they don’t even know exactly what they are looking for, just feeling some instinctive sense that they need help in generating greater awareness –  to “get the word out” by getting in the paper or online.  Then there are those who have a crisis or reputation issue brewing or are simply at wit’s end wondering what to do next to make their phone ring. Whatever the case, they are often stymied by not knowing  what questions to ask, what expertise they need in a­ PR firm, what a reasonable budget would be – or any of that.

So here is my unsolicited advice in the form of a list of questions to ask yourself when choosing a pr agency

Do I need public relations?

There are some potential clients (many of them, in fact) who still don’t know the difference between marketing, media relations, advertising and social media. They don’t know which agencies do what and how they do it. So to start, do some homework. Come to the table with some knowledge of what your goal is, or at least arm yourself with some basic questions. At the very least, it will help get you in the right meeting.

What services should your PR firm offer?

In today’s world of public relations, a PR firm should be able to do “traditional” public relations work, which includes the core competency of “earned” media or media relations. That’s crafting a story to pitch and secure coverage in the media. The firm also should have a demonstrated capacity to write and create content for the web and across various “owned” media platforms. And finally, the agency should understand those social platforms (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat) in order to create social content strategies they can then amplify with social ads. If your firm is missing any of those capabilities, I’d keep looking.

How should I approach the search?

Some businesses create a request for proposal (RFP)—some more formal than others—whole other clients simply turn to Google or ask around for recommendations. Either way, it’s a good idea to go through the exercise of creating a document of needs, wants, desires, etc., which would then serve as the basis for either your proposal request or as an agenda to bring to an introductory meeting. It will keep you on task and set the proper expectations between you and the agencies you are talking to. It’s also a good idea to decide whether you are looking for “local, regional or national” reach, which is a topic you should broach with your prospective agencies.

Can the firm provide references?

Ask for at least three client references, especially clients who received the same kind of work you are considering (i.e. if you’re interested in national media relations, talk to a reference who retained the agency for just that). Similarly, if the nature of the assignment requires a high level of familiarity with a particular industry, ask for references of agency clients in that arena.

Who will your team really be?

You want to make sure that you’re not being sold by the “A team” on day one and getting the “B team” once you have awarded the agency the account.  I can’t tell you how many times an unsatisfied prospect has come to us over the years saying another firm “bait and switched” them on their day-to-day team. Expect a senior person to be part of the team that sells you on the front end but make sure you meet with and have good chemistry with the people who will actually be working on your account.

How do they set goals and how will these goals be measured?

PR has always been “squishy” when it comes to return on investment (ROI) and measureable goals. But in the new world of earned, owned, and paid media and content marketing, it’s much easier to create goals on the front end and measure success against them. If a firm can’t have an intelligent conversation about measuring goals, move on.

Are they able to fit into your marketing budget?

You likely know how much money you have to spend; we don’t. So you can delay talking about money until the end and hope the two numbers are in line, or you can discuss money fairly early in the game to make sure there’s alignment. I try to have the money conversation after we see the what the initial scope of work could look like. That’s usually the first conversation. If we’re in the same ballpark, we then proceed to the next step. If we’re not, we’ll tell you right away so we can address it then, and we don’t waste each other’s time.

Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or vice versa?

Some clients love to know their firms work on big brands; some would rather work with smaller, but sometimes more nimble agencies. Ask yourself that question before you search. You don’t have to answer it definitively, but having that in the back of your mind will help you during the process and guide your ultimate decision.

I think those eight points are enough for now. If I were on your side of the table, those would be the things I’d be thinking about. You can even use them as a checklist during your search.

You will be easily able to check off some right away while some might not be satisfied until the end of your search. Remember, much of this is cut and dried but some of this is like any other important business decision, it includes “gut and feel.”

Good luck with your search and feel free to comment and ask questions below.

Jon Newman

In 2002 Jon cofounded The Hodges Partnership and has helped to grow it into one of the country’s largest public relations firms (based on O’Dwyer’s annual rankings). Jon has taught communications as an adjunct professor at VCU, speaks regularly at conferences and meetings and blogs and tweets about public relations and marketing issues.

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