8 ways to select the perfect PR agency

How can you tell whether a firm is the right fit for your organization? Consider these essentials for a great working relationship.

This article originally ran on PR Daily in June of 2017.

Your business is changing.

You might be on the verge of a brand launch or introducing a product line, or perhaps you’ve received major funding and it’s time to hit the accelerator. The time has come to hire a new PR agency; with so much at stake, you’ve got to get this right.

Hiring a new agency is both exciting and daunting: It’s a big opportunity with lots at stake, yet you have to squeeze it in while doing your primary job.

You want to hire an agency that will grow with you into the future, but that’s becoming increasingly difficult. According to the Bedford Group, the average client-agency relationship tenure in 1984 was 7.2 years. That number declined by 25 percent in 1997 to 5.3 years, and today the average tenure is 3.0 years or less. What’s going on?

Clients often hire agencies that can’t meet their ongoing needs. Here are the top criteria you should consider (some seemingly counterintuitive) to help you find the best long-term PR agency partner:

1. Do the agency staffers get you?

This is an important factor, but it doesn’t mean they must have specific experience in your industry. Your best PR partners will give you “signs” that they understand your business problems and have creative, effective solutions. Often, experience from other categories can generate media coverage and sales.

Are your potential collaborators inventive or even provocative? Can they show their effectiveness in implementation and results? If they inspire you, that’s a harbinger of success.

2. Agency size

Don’t fall into the “big budget, big agency; small budget, small agency” trap. Some big agencies bait and switch during the pitch process. Senior people pitch and sell, and then junior people are left to implement (to optimize revenue margins), with lots of turnover.

Of course, if you have a large, global network of offices with important PR needs in many countries—and if you have a large global budget to support them—it makes sense to hire a large, global PR agency with offices in all your countries. If not, by working with a smaller agency you can have senior leaders involved with you and your own senior team every week. Even if the smaller agency has to hire people to support your program, a growing agency has a vibe that can best a larger agency with its priority on cost management.

3. Capability alignment

You need PR, but you also need content, social media management and, in some cases, digital marketing to support your program. Some agencies have the PR experience but fake the social media or digital marketing capabilities.

Make sure the other capabilities needed for your program are supported by experienced (even inspiring) people with specific skillsets aligned with your needs. Every agency says it does everything, but a check of the entire team’s qualifications will reveal how strong the agency is in areas other than traditional PR.

4. Budget alignment

The size of your budget is less important than your objectives and the different capabilities you need to meet and exceed your goals.

Still, exercise discipline when developing your budget, especially when it comes to the array of capabilities needed for an outstading PR program in today’s digital age. To help, here’s a blog written by my colleague Mike Monahan about “How Much Should You Spend on PR.”

5. Candor about the point people

Most agencies have a “closer” who leads their business development. It could be the head of the agency or the leader of the top accounts. If one or two senior people are fronting the agency during the pitch, look behind the curtain. Your ideal partner will bring the people who will be leading the campaign and working on your business. They’re the people you need to relate with.

That’s not to say the head of the agency won’t be involved, but the qualifications and personalities of the people you’ll work with day to day are crucial.

If the agency will be developing content, make sure you the people who will write it are there participating in the pitch. If you need social media and digital advertising, make sure those people participate in the pitch. This closer is not why you should buy; the team is everything.

6. Digital capabilities

The walls that used to separate PR, social media, digital marketing and content creation have come crashing down. The best partner for you, or for any company, is one with the digital chops to amplify the impact of your earned media coverage with social media and other online expertise. This includes knowing the technologies and techniques to accelerate visibility to highly targeted audiences beyond earned media coverage.

Most PR agencies are capable at traditional PR, and they pretend to be experts at the digital stuff. Advertising agencies with an embedded PR capability might have the creative chops, but there’s a firewall between their PR people and the hidden digital people. True integration can come only from people with different skillsets working side by side on every account.

7. Results

Make sure the agency you hire commits to a specific number of interview opportunities or media placements each month. Make the reps guarantee a number in their contract. If they’re not willing to commit because “PR is an awareness tool and not a sales tool,” maybe you’re talking to the wrong people.

In this age of accountability, metrics are essential. Can the agency promote earned media coverage through ads that link to landing pages that link to your sales pipeline? All marketing tools, including PR, can influence sales, and you should hire an agency that aligns with your objectives. Wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what you’d be getting for your investment? This is a top selling point for your senior leaders, and your next agency partner should deliver it.

8. Personality

This is the soft side of the selection process, but it shouldn’t be ignored. I’ve heard clients say they chose an agency because of its name or its size, even though they didn’t really connect with the principals.

I’ve learned that work is hard and that if I’m going to be in the trenches with people, I’d better like and admire them. I admire the team I work with, as well as the clients who partner with us, because of their tenacity, intelligence, creativity and commitment to results. These attributes contribute mightily to long-term, successful relationships.

If you use these criteria, tailored to your situation, you’ll probably find the best agency partner.

Dan O’Brien is the president of Tech Image. A version of this article originally appeared on the agency’s blog.

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