How should I choose a PR firm? Each time someone asks me this, dozens of answers flutter to the forefront of my mind, but I always choose two fairly tangible criteria: fit and experience.
On the surface, it can be easy for all agencies to sound very similar, which makes fit and experience crucial. You need an agency that understands your audience, your market, and the reporters you need to reach. Fit is equally important. You’ll be working closely with the PR agency every single day (and many evenings), so you’ll need to be able to work well with the assigned account team.
However, fit and experience alone will not make your agency successful on your behalf. This post is the first in a two-part series about how to work with a PR firm. We’re starting with what the PR firm should do for you. Stay tuned for how you can maximize your investment in PR. Following are some important qualities you should expect form an agency that is committed to your success. You need an agency that:
- Owns the process. You want an agency that will never say, “Well, we sent you the guidelines for the Forbes contributed article three months ago and never heard back.” Your agency should be a professional nagger – they should never let you be the reason for a missed deadline.
- Pushes back. You are hiring a PR firm for its expertise, so find one that provides firm recommendations. If your account team is constantly nodding their heads and yessing you, there is a problem. The success of your PR program requires a team lead who can adamantly say no in the face of tough scrutiny when something just won’t work.
- Knows when to give in. There are times when other company goals, such as sales campaigns, take priority over PR (for example, when a sales team is under the gun to meet quarterly goals and needs to push out a direct email campaign in advance of the press release). Your PR firm should tell you the optimal plan for getting great media coverage, but should also accept it when PR is not at the top of the list.
- Makes it happen. Only clients should have the luxury of asking big questions without offering solutions, such as, “How can we maximize our attendance at an upcoming trade show?” Good PR firms know that the right response is a list of viable options, not more questions.
- Surprises you with unexpected and creative ideas. Your PR firm should march to the beat of the PR plan, but they should also bring you unexpected and creative ideas. This demonstrates that they are paying active attention. Only intellectually hungry people will tie the right pieces together to make you relevant in a way that matters to the press.
- Owns mistakes. If your agency needs to be right all of the time, it’s a problem. You need an agency that abides by the rules of crisis PR (even when the crisis is a very small one): tell it all, truthfully, and tell it now. This takes confidence and humility, but it is the sign of a great communicator.
- Hustles. Look for an agency that is pushing you, not the other way around.
- Writes well. Content marketing has changed PR forever. Adequate press release writing skills are no longer enough. You need an agency that can sift through mountains of information, zero in on the interesting angle, and ghost-author an article for your spokesperson. Ask for samples, and look at the agency’s blog.
- Listens intently. PR people are renowned great talkers. We need to be. However, we need to know how to listen too. You need a PR agency full of the kind of analytical and open minds that can scan the conversation for points of interest, drive the discussion toward them and relate them to your broader industry.
- Empathizes. You need a PR agency team who can imagine what it’s like to be you. What pressures do you face internally, from your board, from competitors, others? Is PR central to your role or tangential? Coincidentally, this skill also makes PR people great at media relations – we must also imagine what it’s like to be each reporter if we have a prayer of selling a story.
- Navigates options and contingencies like an attorney. There are many decisions we must make along the winding route between the pitch and the placement. You need an agency that understands the media landscape – which outlets (and journalists) compete, which reporters require exclusives, which ones care about embargoes, and which angles will compel coverage. Sifting through these and responding appropriately when an embargo is broken or an exclusive falls through tests the skills of the best PR professionals, so make you sure have a team who can bend gracefully when a critical relationship is at stake, and hold firm when your company goals require it.
- Thick skin. PR people sit in the middle of two constituents whose goals are not always aligned: the media and our clients. Finding the common ground that creates successful outcomes for both requires an ability to handle discord well.
But success is a two-way street. Stay tuned for my next post on what clients should bring to the relationship for success.