Hiring a PR firm can be daunting, especially given how much the lines have blurred between PR firms, advertising agencies, marketing and digital firms over the years. In the old days, ad agencies did advertising, PR firms did PR, marketing firms marketed, and so on. Today, it’s hard to tell who does what. There are big agencies that claim to do it all as well as a proliferation of hyper-specialized firms that focus on specific industry segments or a small slice of services within the overall communications pie.
While it helps to know the many contours of the PR landscape, all you really need to know when choosing a PR firm is why you want to hire one in the first place (i.e. what problem are you trying to solve) and what you’re trying to accomplish. That level of enlightenment along with some online research should enable you to assemble a slate of candidate firms from which to choose. Once you begin your interviews, consider these five qualities to help you select the right PR firm.
1. Proven track record in your area of need
This sounds obvious but make sure the firms you’re talking to actually have experience relevant to your situation. Depending on what you’re trying to do – influence public policy, manage through a crisis, communicate with your employees or investors, or promote a product, service or company – there is a PR specialty for that. Ask for case studies and outcomes and don’t forget references. Make sure your project isn’t their first rodeo.
2. Ability to articulate an approach that makes sense to you
For good reasons, PR firms are reluctant to lay out a detailed strategy before you’ve hired them. However, a firm that has expertise in your type of situation should be able to walk you through various approaches they might consider. If they have experience addressing similar situations, they might have examples from other engagements they could share (discretely and honoring any confidentiality agreements, of course) that have some relevance to your case. If you like the way they think, that’s a good sign.
3. Clearly defined ways of measuring their progress
The perennial challenge for all communication disciplines is how to measure success. Some situations are easier than others. If you’re running a political campaign, trying to influence the vote of a city council or legislature, or helping an industrial client obtain public support for a permit, there is usually a point in time (an election day or some other decision point) when you will discover very definitively whether or not you’ve been successful. Other situations aren’t so transparent. If the objective of your PR effort is to promote a product or service, or to manage the reputation of a client in crisis, for example, your PR firm might have to show their worth in other ways – website traffic, social media posts, traditional media coverage or changes in public perception that can be demonstrated through surveys.
4. A fee structure that is fair and makes sense
Nobody likes to talk about budgets but getting the financial terms right in the beginning is extremely important if you want a successful experience with your PR firm. While you may be really good at driving your vendors’ fees down, don’t negotiate your PR firm to the point where your project becomes the least important thing they do each day. By the same token, ask them to explain their fees and how they set them. There should be a rationale and it shouldn’t sound arbitrary. In many respects, the financial terms form the foundation of your relationship with your PR firm. Get that right and you’re off to a good start.
5. Good personal chemistry
If you are an engaged client (hint: you should be), make sure you like the PR experts you’ll be working with. Not all personality types mesh well. If all other things are equal and you like the people, culture, and even the office space of one PR firm over another, pick them. Compatibility breeds productivity. What’s more, you’ll likely spend a lot of time together so why not make the experience a positive one all the way around?