Taking on a PR agency can be daunting for startups and established businesses alike. The whole process can be made less stressful if you invest time prior to contacting an agency to understand why you think you need a PR agency, what your expectations are of what they can achieve on your behalf and, to consider how much budget you have to spend.
At this time you should also be considering if you need a retained agency, or an agency that can be contracted on a project basis to launch your company to the media.
All too often agencies are asked to pitch for business and the company can offer no formalised brief and no details of the size of budget. You wouldn't go and buy a new car without knowing whether you wanted a people carrier or a sporty little number and you'd certainly know how much you can spend. So why is buying PR any different?
Producing a concise, but thorough, brief ensures a company reaps the benefits of the effort they have sown. Agencies are then able to respond intelligently and creatively and most importantly, within the financial parameters they have been given.
There is nothing more frustrating for an agency than to produce a proposal with hundreds (or at least tens) of ground-breaking ideas only to be told by the potential client that instead of the £5,000 per month budget being suggested, they only have £2,000.
Think about what you're looking for in an agency. PR is inevitably the domain of the marketing team, but when developing your brief check out the requirements other colleagues may have of PR, particularly those responsible for sales.
PR isn't just about column inches and self-congratulation, it's about establishing a persona for the company that brings in the sales leads.This reality is unfortunately often overlooked.
It's also worth doing some investigation outside the company. PR is about the media, so why not talk to them? Speak to the leading titles in your sector-trade, vertical and online titles - and find out which PR companies they recommend. Journalists are usually only too happy to tell you which agencies understand your markets.
Companies should also be wary of agency charge out rates: unfortunately all too often agencies seem to charge what they feel fits. The standard charge out rates should be 3.5 times the cost of the consultant to the agency.
Also ensure there are no hidden charges. Prior to signing contracts make sure you know how your chosen agency charges for disbursements. A handling charge on third-party invoices is the norm, but all the hidden extras can add up. How do they charge for telephone, Internet connection, stationery, etc?
It may sound rather petty, but a full understanding of these issues at the outset can rule out the need for unpleasant conversations at a later stage in the relationship.
Also, if you have a set budget for disbursements, ask the consultancy to build into the contract a ceiling for such costs, e.g., a statement confirming that disbursements will not exceed £500 per month without prior approval from the client.
After you have drawn up your list of selected agencies (which maybe seven or eight), ask them to undertake a credentials presentation at their offices. This will give you the chance to see first hand their company in action. Is the place buzzing? Do the people exude creativity? Are the phones constantly ringing? Is there a good atmosphere - keep an eye out for the sweat shops!
Also ensure that the PR consultants doing the mainstay of the presentation are the people who will be working on your account. Make sure they can answer the probing questions without the new business director jumping in with all the answers.
Having established that the pitching team in front of you would be your designated account team - think about whether you actually like them. PR is a people's business and it's crucial you get on with your team.
Considering that our subconscious rules our conscious mind, it's tricky because it means we've already made a decision about someone as soon as they walk in the room, but your first impressions need to be taken on board.
Without doubt, PR is down to personal chemistry and if your account manager grates with you every time they call, you have to wonder if they have the same effect on a journalist, and if so, how does this affect the amount of coverage they are achieving on your behalf.
Once you have selected your agency be careful when contracts are being drawn up. Any agency worth its salt should include a six monthly review in the programme. If they don't, ask for one. Also make sure you have a "getting started" meeting at which time objectives can be set, which then become the benchmark on which to assess the campaign at the six monthly review.
Insist your PR company becomes a satellite to your in-house marketing team, the interface should be seamless as successful PR campaigns are those generated by two organisations who only communicate constantly, not just at the monthly status meeting!
And, finally, a PR company can only be as good as the information they are given to promote. Keep your agency in the loop when it comes to news and business developments, confidentiality is not a problem as agencies will happily sign an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement), invite representatives from the PR team to marketing strategy meetings, don't grumble when they're always on the phone (when they're not constantly calling is the time to complain) and remember they should be fun, focused, energetic and give you maximum return on investment.
Written by Louise Stewart-Muir, managing director of Stewart-Muir Communications