How to choose and work with a PR agency
A good public relations agency can make a company’s communications dollars work harder and actually save them money in the long term. But even the best agency can do that only when it acts as a business partner, selling the client and the products/services profitably. That requires confidence in the agency’s professionalism.
Building confidence begins early, from the moment the client begins to look for an agency. You can buy news releases, press kits and articles from almost anyone, but finding an agency you can rely on as a partner takes some time. Choosing just the right agency requires an objective appraisal and some give-and-take. Hire the agency that has the best capabilities to sell your products and services.
Define Your Needs
Your first step is to define your needs. Be realistic in what you want public relations to accomplish for you, and establish a budget that will accomplish those tasks. This will help you decide quickly whether you want a large-, small-, or medium-sized agency. If your budget is large and the agency is small, your objectives can suffer. If your budget is small and the agency is large, you can get lost.
Next, decide whether agency experience in the field is important or not. Most people find they are more comfortable with people who understand their language, competition, customers and marketplace. Others would rather have an agency that deals only in creative solutions, rather than market segments.
Occasionally, you will have to consider whether or not you are concerned about having an agency with a competitive account. If the agency is large enough, you won’t be sharing the same account team, and an ethical agency keeps the information separate and confidential. A plus to such a situation is that there is a distinct possibility you will be able to draw upon the agency’s overall pool of knowledge, special talents and experiences, rather than be forced to make the same mistakes others have made.
Where to Look
Browsing the Yellow Pages or surfing the Internet won’t be a lot of help in finding the right agency. One way is to decide what companies’ PR activities impress you, and then contact their management. They will probably be flattered and happy to furnish you with the name of their agency. Another way is to talk to editors or reporters you know. They are a ready source of information regarding good agencies.
When you have a few top choices, arrange a preliminary meeting with the agency people and brief them on your products, systems, services, objectives and budgets. Give them enough information so they can make some basic determinations of your needs and how they can be accomplished. Give them a realistic deadline to come back to you with their initial thoughts and recommendations.
Next, involve your senior management. Then ask yourself some serious questions.
- Does the agency know your market?
- Does it understand and work with media that hits your buyers?
- Are its efforts organized and well-planned?
- Does it create PR materials that are well-written, attention-getting, creative,
effective and used?
- Can its people work with your people and you?
- Will it make a profit on your account, so it will stay interested in your account?
Don’t expect a full-blown presentation complete with ideas, position statements, editorial calendars, etc. Some agencies may do that, but keep in mind that if any agency gives you free ideas, you can be sure someone had to pay for them, i.e. other clients. That means that some time in the future you may, directly or indirectly, pay for someone else’s presentation.
Concentrate on the presentations because they will be important to your agency selection. Again, ask some tough questions.
- Will the people making the presentation be the people serving you?
- Do they understand your organization, competition and products, as well as markets, objectives, channels of distribu-tion and customers?
- Are the proposals reasonable and thorough?
- Can they handle other commun-ications assignments?
Determine if they understand your goals and needs. If they don’t agree with you, do they have sound rationale for the positions they have developed? After all, you don’t have all the answers, and their appraisal may have some substance.
Once you have chosen your new agency, trust them. Give their people sufficient information. Consider them part of the team. Remember, you’ll have to spend considerable time at the outset getting them up to speed. But in the long run it will be profitable for both of you. Confidence is the most important part of a client-agency relationship, and your relationship will be reflected in the work produced.
To get the best productivity and creativity from your agency, you have to be receptive. Creativity is essentially the process of growth from the known to the unknown. It must be supported and fed. And just as important, it must be held accountable. That is why you need short- and long-term goals to keep the PR process from being sidetracked. Make certain your program has both a long-range plan of action and intermediate deadlines so achievements are measurable.
You should expect the agency to be integrated into all phases of your business. The best relationships are those where the agency is brought into management’s confidence early in the fact-finding and decision-making stages. That allows you to evaluate what can and should be done. And by bringing the agency in early, you can accomplish the tasks at hand on time and, generally, at a lower overall cost.,/p>
About the Purse Strings
Finally, an area of most concern to the agency, and often of least importance to the client, is agency compensation. The agency should make a reasonable profit on every project it does, for every client. Who is going to pay the expenses if the client doesn’t? Often, the compensation package has to be tailored to the situation. Client management should be more concerned that the client is getting what it wants, rather than worrying about the method of payment.
Once the compensation program is established, make certain there are incentives for the agency built into the plan. If the fee is based on a cost-accounting procedure, make certain it is adequate and thoroughly understood by all parties. Very few clients really understand what goes into the creation of a PR program. This is why there is often such a misunderstanding about the money involved. Management doesn’t have to understand all of the steps and costs involved in the operation of the agency; but they need to understand that a lot of highly qualified and expensive people are involved in every step of the process.
Remember, good public relations is not a part-time activity. Total communication affects everything, from the highest policy decisions to the way people are greeted at your door.
With the right approach to choosing an agency, and the development of an honest two-way communications effort, you won’t have to continually go through the agency selection process. Instead, the partners can work as a team and can focus 100% of their efforts on building and expanding the company’s image, visibility, sales and profits. wqp