Thursday, March 22, 2012

Three Essential Questions for Your PR Firm

How to Get Useful Answers before Signing on the Dotted Line

During the course of my career, I’ve been involved in many public relations (PR) agency searches.  I’ve counseled clients on hiring PR agencies and have run searches.  I’ve also organized and led agency presentations when I was an executive with three large PR firms. 

Here are three questions that are essential to an effective search, but that don’t get asked often enough, in my experience.  Plus, some tips on how to get useful answers.

Are these the people who will be on my account team? If not, why not?  A good agency relationship is like a marriage: trust and chemistry are important.

Therefore, before finalizing your decision, you want to make sure to meet the main team members – the people you will be working with daily, who will be on the phone with media and analysts, and who will be writing and thinking for your business or brand.  These are the people with whom you’ll be in the trenches.  You have to feel confident in them. 

You also want to understand the roles that each person will play, and what percentage of the total account time each will spend on your business.  One criticism of PR firms is that they tend to push too much work down to junior, less-experienced people. Although a lot of PR has become automated – through email, social media and PR list-building/mass-mailing services,* good PR still ultimately comes down to people, their judgment, and their empathy for others.

How to get useful answers:

Ask to meet the main two or three people who will be on your account team. Conduct a mini-interview with each team member to gauge his communications skills, how he thinks on his feet, and how he approaches people and problems. Will he be a good representative of your brand?

Ask the firm’s principals how they ensure quality control over the work in general and the work of junior people specifically – including how the firm recovers from errors or mistakes. 

For example: On 9/11/2001, an enterprising junior account executive (AE) in a Boston-area PR firm quickly retooled her product pitch to the media to capitalize on the World Trade Center disaster as it was still unfolding. Members of the media were appalled and quickly wrote about the incident. The junior AE and her firm themselves became the story – something most reputable PR firms never want to have happen. A stunning lack of judgment? Poor supervision? Both?  How can you and your firm make sure that something like this doesn’t happen to you and your brand?

Pay attention to how well the firm's principals listen to you. Poor listening skills can lead to missed communication, errors and higher costs. Will run-away talkers be congenitally incapable of keeping your confidence? If they aren’t listening to you, will they listen to the media?

Finally, consider specifying the team in your contract with the firm.  You may be able to give yourself an out should there be significant changes in the team that affect the quality or continuity of your program.

Do your people write well?  During my years in the PR business, the number-one client complaint about PR firms has been poor writing skills. Back when I started my career, journalism-quality writing skills were a requirement for not only getting a job in a PR firm but also advancing within it.  (This is why some of the best writers in PR firms today are often the founders or most senior-level executives – even in large Madison Avenue firms.) 

Good writing is a mainstay of effective PR, even in an era increasingly dominated by blogs, Tweets, Facebook posts, multimedia and other short-form content. In fact, the shorter the format, the more important the quality of the writing.

Because prose is prologue. Ideas don’t really exist and can’t be communicated until they are written down in some form – whether it’s a compelling news release that’s going out to the world over BusinessWire, or your script for a telephone pitch to a journalist.

Kurt Vonnegut summed it up pretty well in Armageddon in Retrospect: “If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do.

How to get useful answers:

Ask for and read samples written by your proposed account team or account executive, ideally in advance of the presentation meeting. Pick one sample and ask the writer to take you through the process of writing it. Then, ask him to give his copy a letter grade.  See if you agree.

Ask about the firm’s editorial system.  What processes do they have in place to ensure quality control over all copy?

You might even give your proposed AE a short writing test – live, under newsroom-type conditions.

Some PR agencies have dealt with the writing problem by creating writing services groups.  Such groups can be a useful service – particularly for heads-down writing such as bylined articles.  But you’re in big trouble – and can expect big invoices – if the person who is representing your company daily to trade press or industry analysts can’t write a coherent, powerful pitch or news release lede on his own.

How much experience do you have with a situation like mine?  If you’re like most clients, you ideally want your PR firm to have experience working in your industry, with knowledge of its competitors, customers and influencers.

But I’d argue that the more important question is whether the firm has ever worked with a company in your situation. Your situation includes your business problem or opportunity, your specific challenges (aggressive competitor, inexperienced management team, problem product), your timetable, and your budget. The PR firms will of course want to show their very best and flashiest work, even if it is irrelevant to you.

How to get useful answers:

Give the finalists in your search enough information about your situation so they can present relevant experience.  (Note: the most relevant experience may not be in your industry.)

Probe them to understand how they defined the client's problem and went about solving it. Here’s your chance to see how they think.

Consider putting the finalists under non-disclosure and giving them a briefing so they can give you a thoughtful proposal on how they would approach your situation.

Hiring a PR firm can be stressful, fun and educational all at the same time.  Most companies learn a lot during the process – including information that can make you a more-shrewd client.  Treat the PR agency search as a strategic decision and take your time to do it well – whether you’re a start-up or an established entity. Your brand is in the balance.

Note:  A special thanks to my long-time colleague, the late Joe Roy, another veteran corporate and PR agency executive, for sharing his experience and advice with me for this article.

* Considered spam by many journalists.

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