PR firms are like Dunkin’ Donuts here on the East Coast – there is one on every corner. So how do you differentiate among them and choose the best fit for you? There are some early vetting strategies that are easy to employ, mostly based around tactical questions, but once you get into the final rounds of interviews, you need to dig deeper. Here are five questions to ask that can help you identify your best new partner:
- Who will work on our account each day and what will their responsibilities be? If you want to meet the entire team (which we highly recommend), make that clear ahead of time. Agencies need advanced notice to plan time out of the office and in some cases, travel arrangements and costs. Note, if the agency doesn’t have every account member in the room during the time of their final interview, you should ask to speak to them one on one. One of the biggest and longest-lasting complaints from brands is that “senior people sold us, and junior people did the actual work.” So you want to identify a) who is doing what – ask them what their daily responsibilities will be on the account and b) the capabilities at all levels. If an agency is hiding a junior executive from you – i.e., doesn’t want you to have a direct conversation with them – that’s a red flag. If they can’t talk to you eloquently, how will they represent you eloquently?
- Pitch Me, Please. Obviously, agencies are there pitching you, but what we mean by this is to have each person in the room pitch you as though you were a journalist. How much have they studied up on who you are, what you do, what your competition looks like? How will they sell your story? Do they get the basics of it? Don’t expect them to know everything at this meeting, but use this as a way to gauge their style, their ability to quickly learn, and their preparedness for this meeting. If they want to win your business, they will have studied up. This is a great way to break out of cookie cutter proposals and ensure they truly understand your needs.
- How will you measure success? You knew we’d include this one, right? Of course we’d love them to say “We use SeeDepth,” but we’re actually talking about philosophy here. What do they believe PR should help a company do? How do they measure if their team is making an impact? If they mention impressions or AVEs, run fast. If they talk about understanding your business goals first, and aligning PR initiatives with them second, you’re on the right path. If they further dive into specifics on real outcomes – impact on site traffic, higher quality leads, influencer awareness, media coverage or other programs (awards, speaking, analysts, etc.) that actually drive prospect interest (vs general awareness), then they get it. Too many PR executives still measure by quantity only – that is, to measure success by the number of media stories, awards, speaking gigs, or events attended - instead of looking at the quality of such: did these promotions/results drive action from people who will buy from us or influence others to buy from us. Make sure they know how to align PR with actionable outcomes.
- How do you budget? Traditional PR firms will ask you to work on a retainer basis, which is a fixed monthly cost. Dig deep into how they build that retainer. Do they have different billing rates for different types of activity, or for levels of executives working on their accounts? (If so, align this with question #1 above!) Do they track hours and if so, how do they ensure they don’t go over those allotted hours? If they do have to go over hours, do they charge you and if so, in what manner? Do they alert you first so you have a choice to have them continue, or hold off until the next month? Do they mark up out of pocket expenses and if so, by how much? Are there any other administrative costs not included in the retainer? It’s important to understand exactly what you’re getting in a retainer, and like any services business, to understand how overage costs are calculated. In addition, if they go over each month, does that mean they didn’t accurately calculate the budget in the first place? If not, why not? Do they have examples of other scenarios where this happened? Was it the client’s fault and if so, why? For example, some budgets may include a certain number of edit rounds for things like video scripts, press releases or infographics. Perhaps a client was very picky and requested five rounds of edits, when the agency only planned for two.
- How have you… PR firms hate RFPs and for good reason. They’re cumbersome, tedious and time consuming. But they also help you measure apples to apples when you’re asking multiple firms the same questions. Otherwise, you’ll get a variety of different proposals and it may be a harder job on you to identify differentiators. RFPs allow you to ask everyone to answer the same questions. You don’t have to make it 30 pages long (please don’t), but rather a concise and structured set of questions that get to the heart of the matter (beyond the basics of who they are, how long they’ve been in business, etc.). Agencies often don’t like providing too many specific ideas for your business, either. This is understandable, given that intellectual property is how they make money. Yet, it’s still important for you to get an understanding of how they think and approach problem solving. Instead of asking them to create a campaign or specific work for you, ask them to provide examples of work on problems/challenges similar to what you’re facing (and why you’re hiring a partner in the first place). For example, “Give an example of innovative thinking by your agency that led to a key win or accomplishment for a client.” Or, “How have you helped an unknown software company reach a business goal, such as an increase in users?” Ensure that they not only tell you how they approached the problem, but what the outcomes were, and how they drove action that let to bottom line ROI. (For example, “we raised awareness” is not enough – you need to know what that awareness was, where it was, and what the result of such awareness was for their client.)
Finally, in order to find the best PR agency for your needs, you need to be sure that you’re communicating clearly from the start. Why are you looking at a new PR partner now? How will you measure success? What are the expectations of a PR agency and its impact on your business goals? What PR challenges, if any, have you had in the past? Is the executive team bought into PR as a profit center (vs a cost center)? Align these expectations internally first, to ensure you’re really ready to take on a partner and work together to achieve great success.
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons; galleryquantum