Bill Gates once said that if he was down to his last dollar, he’d spend it on PR. But there are many different kinds of PR agencies out there – big, boutique, local, national, specialised, traditional, digital, integrated. So how do you choose one that will work for you? Here our editorial director Ellen Widdup offers you some advice on making an investment which will impact the future of your business.
Let’s start with your most obvious question – why does my business need PR?
I’m going to keep this short. I’m guessing you are savvy enough to have answered this question yourself to have found your way to my blog.
You will know that businesses build success on their reputation and that clever marketing can help you with that. What you might not understand however, is how they do this.
In short, it’s about strategy, thought-leadership, understanding your audience and having a clear plan. But PR should also sit within your wider business aims – and always be linked to firm objectives.
The first step towards picking a PR agency is fine-tuning these objectives.
What are you wanting to achieve through PR? More sales? Increased brand recognition? To recruit and expand? To be seen as an expert in your field?
Next, be honest about what you are good at and what you need help with.
The role of a PR agency should be to show off your strengths to key audiences, while improving the perception of your weaknesses. A good agency will work out where these strengths and weaknesses lie but it helps if you have an idea of this yourself.
You now need to have a budget in mind.
So often budget is a subject skirted around in initial conversations. But actually, it should be a prime consideration for you and whichever agency you are talking to.
It helps set a realistic expectation and will ensure that you get an honest and tailored pitch.
Start by doing a bit of online research and consider asking for recommendations from business associates already using PR.
You could also send some LinkedIn messages to journalists in your area asking them for their preferred agencies. Trust me, PR people with friends in the media are the ones who are going to be the most useful.
Once you have an agency in mind, check out testimonials on their website and then, when you are satisfied that they tick the boxes, pull together a brief.
This is a much quicker and more effective option than a beauty parade tender and pitch process.
A brief can be delivered in a face-to-face meeting, via a phone call or on an email. Either way, you can tell your prospective agency what your goals are, give an indication of your budget and a clear idea of a time frame and level of expectation. Then ask them for a proposal detailing how they might work with you to deliver this.
A proposal document needs to answer certain questions.
Firstly, you want to see what the agency is capable of – what services do they provide and do they meet your requirements?
You might need a multitude of services – social media, media buying, copywriting, graphic design, media relations – and there is certainly something to be said for a one-stop shop that understands your core values and messaging and can integrate them through multiple platforms.
Be wary of the agency that can’t provide a clear answer about who will be on your team. Big agencies typically pitch using their smartest, most senior people. Then as soon as the account is won, more junior personnel are left to handle the work.
Smaller agencies can boast just as many skills as their big competitors but will assign a structured delivery team usually consisting of an account or business director, manager and executive at the bare minimum.
A good proposal will outline exactly who will work on your account and what skills they can bring to the table.
Make sure the document also explains how the agency’s costs work. Some bill on an hourly basis and others on a day rate. Many offer retainer costs alongside project costs and others insist on different rates for different levels of expertise.
You should look for documents that clearly lay out what your financial obligations will be and avoid anything with hidden costs and unquantified extras.
Go for an agency with accreditation. If staff are members of bodies like the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) it shows a commitment to professional practice and quality standards.
A bonus goes to any agency that can demonstrate prior success through relevant case studies and has a raft of award-wins to their name.
Finally, you need to know the agency has done its homework.
A team that can demonstrate that they know about your history and story and are passionate about your brand and mission are going to be the most effective.
You want to see evidence of creativity and thought in the proposal that is bespoke to your business.
Your chosen PR agency should lighten your load and make an impact.
That said, it is naïve to think that you will hire an agency and then leave it all to them with no further input. The most successful agency relationships result from strategic teamwork between the communications team and the business directors and staff.
Good agencies will insist on regular phone calls and face-to-face meetings, will provide you with an itemised activity report every month and weekly updates on work to date. Some will even ask to work at your offices for a few hours in the set-up stages to get to know everyone better.
In order to make the partnership as effective as possible, you will need to engage with them and be available to sign off work so they can get you the best exposure as they can as fast as possible.
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