5 Questions To Ask When Selecting A PR Firm

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I’ve often said that PR firms are like Dunkin’ Donuts here on the East Coast - there’s one on every corner. I should know, I’ve spent 20 years in the fray, pitching against many a formidable foe. Choosing a match often comes down to referrals, chemistry and price. Too often, expected results are overlooked. Or at least, not discussed in enough detail prior to kicking off a campaign. Perhaps that’s why so many clients end up jumping from one firm to the next more often than not.

Over the last few weeks I’ve received a few calls from VPs of Communications and CMOs asking me for advice (and referrals) on choosing a new PR firm. I usually start by asking what their experience has been, why they’re unhappy and what they’re looking for. It never fails to surprise me to hear the stories - “They never come up with creative ideas on their own and expect me to give them pitch angles,” “The senior execs sold me on ideas and then disappeared,” “I just don’t feel like they’re doing much for me.”

Feel like? Yes, more often than not, I hear this - from clients in all industries, both startups and large, public companies. Many clients can’t articulate it, but they are unsure of the ROI of their PR firm. This is a problem for both sides! In this day and age, there should be no question about what the value is from your PR firm. Especially if you’re paying $10, $15, $20k or more per month.

So how can  you identify value or expected results before signing on the dotted line? Of course you should ask for case studies, check references and do some of your own research. But more often than not, value can be identified by digging deeper during the pitch meeting. Smart agencies are going to keep you talking and answering questions - it’s a proven fact that if you get someone to talk about themselves they feel a stronger affinity for you. They likely will have pre-planned who will ask or answer most of the questions. Remember, you’re in the driver’s seat - and you should have a set of questions as well. In addition to outlining your campaign, I highly recommend the following:

  1. Ask every team member in the room how many accounts they’re on. A good range is 3-4. This is important for obvious reasons - too many, and your account may not receive the attention it deserves, or the team can be spread so thin that quality goes down.
  2. Ask who will be running what programs. What roles will everyone play in media pitching, social media management or content creation? For the media team, ask each person to give you an example of a recent proactive pitch and its results.
  3. Who will be the day-to-day contact? My ideal answer is “Any of us.” Too often, the hierarchy of a PR firm gets in the way of progress. I would expect that anyone on my team knows what’s going on and could answer my questions at any time, or at least help get them answered ASAP.
  4. How would you do “XX?” Create a scenario that could happen in your business and ask the team to think on the spot. It could be asking them to create a proactive pitch angle, handling an imagined crisis or some other situation. It doesn’t have to be complicated - but it should provide them the opportunity to showcase their creative thinking skills and team collaboration.
  5. How long have they each been with the agency? PR firms are notorious for high turnover, so an agency that can successfully retain their employee base is important. You don’t want your account team changing every six months.

At the end of the day, the case studies and work examples you see are the collective results of a team and numerous editing rounds. Are you getting that same team? If not, it’s important to understand who the individuals are who will work on your account and what you can expect from them. Knowing this helps to establish value, ownership and expectations from the get go.

- Christine

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