As a PR professional, I’ve never liked the way movies portray public relations people.
Usually, they’re characterized by Hollywood as slick-talking flim-flam artists who promise the universe and deliver next to nothing.
And there’s a reason why Hollywood zeroes in on that rendering of PR pros – because our profession does have its share of people who are just like that. I wish it weren’t true, because the vast majority of PR professionals have integrity and work hard to earn their clients’ trust. But the bad apples do exist, and every time I hear real life stories about those kinds of PR people, it infuriates me.
I received a call the other day from a potential client who described to me her campaign that was executed by a retainer-based PR firm (and they charged a bundle) that was so shoddy and mismanaged, it cast a dark shadow over the entire profession in her mind. And, just in the past month, I had similar conversations with two other companies who also had bad experiences with PR agencies.
The sad thing is these bad experiences could have been prevented or foreseen if only the client knew what questions to ask during the hiring process. As I care very much about my profession and the people we serve, let me share some insight about what questions you should ask your PR agency BEFORE you sign on the dotted line. If you get satisfactory answers to these questions, you’ll be well along the road to a successful campaign.
- Do you have experience in my industry? – All PR agencies are not alike, and agencies that tell you they can handle anything aren’t necessarily telling the whole truth. An agency doesn’t need to be a specialist in your particular industry, but it’s important to know something of your industry in order to understand your business. It’s essential for being able to understand the underlying news angles prevalent in your industry and in the news, and for being able to write strong pitches that represent you well to the media. You don’t want to pay for your agency’s learning curve, so make sure they have experience in your industry.
- What mediums do you specialize in? Print? Radio? TV? All of the above?– More than 95 percent of all PR firms tend to specialize in print media. But, if your company’s message also plays well on radio or television, make sure the agency can deliver that as well. And the issues go deeper than just the type of media, but also the size of the outlets. If you want to be interviewed on talk radio shows, does the agency have contacts with high powered stations in top 100 markets, or will all your bookings be at LP (low power) stations in sparsely populated areas with few listeners.Ask what media they specialize in, and also ask for samples of past campaigns. If they can’t show them to you, chances are you won’t get the coverage you are paying for.
- Are you a pay for performance or retainer-based agency? – This is an important question, because retainer-based agencies work on a “best-efforts” basis, meaning you are paying for their time and skill. Your risk is that you pay their monthly fee with no guarantee you’ll get the coverage and results you were hoping for. With pay for performance agencies, you’re guaranteed the media you pay for and in some cases you’re billed as you receive coverage, mitigating your risk as the client. A pay for performance agency doesn’t make money unless you get coverage so it’s a win-win situation.
- Can you provide samples of current client campaigns? – This “look-see” will provide you the documentation to support the agency’s promise that they are actually capable of delivering against their promises. Compare your needs to their current clients, so you can assure yourselves there is a fit. Remember that good client case studies aren’t a guarantee you’ll get the same results. However, chances are that if the agency achieved success for other clients, the odds are decent that they’ll achieve comparable success for you.
- Are you a local, regional or national agency? – Local agencies may feature lower costs, but their media contacts are limited to their own city. This is fine if all you need is local coverage. But if your company does business nationwide, you want to hire an agency who is speaking to national media every day. An agency with national media contacts is far more preferable than an agency with a media database service that they use to “dial for dollars.” With that in mind, don’t choose an agency just because they’re located in your city and you get “face-to-face” time. What matters more is whether they meet your criteria for getting the job done.
- Who will be managing my campaign? – With many agencies, the role of senior management is to bring in new clients, not actually execute the work. So, before you choose an agency ask about the level of experience of the person or people who will be working on your campaign. In some agencies, Account Managers are rookies fresh from college or interns playing a key role in the execution of campaigns. As an insider, I highly recommend that you ask questions about the qualifications of the team who will be handling your account.
In addition to asking these questions, make sure to choose a firm that understands your topic, has enthusiasm for your message and can communicate about it intelligently. In the end, you want a firm that you feel comfortable and confident with so you can establish a long-term working relationship.