So your business is growing, along with the demands on your time. You’re finding it harder to manage the day-to-day operations of the business itself, much less handle the promotional side that is crucial to reaching new customers. Your website hasn’t been updated in weeks, or worse, is barely functional. Meanwhile, your competitors seem to be everywhere, appearing on Instagram, Facebook and even being featured on the evening news. You’re getting emails almost daily from companies trying to sell you sales, lists, SEO updates to your website, prospect lists, and countless other services promising to double your sales. You’ve considered getting outside help, but aren’t sure it’s right for you, so you’ve searched online for information, only to read articles either insisting that PR is the cure-all for your business, or something you can easily do yourself at no additional cost – except you’ve already decided you need some sort of help. So which is it? Do you or don’t you?
Deciding the time is right to hire an outside PR firm is not easy. It’s a major step forward for you that takes time and commitment – and is a significant investment in the future of your business. Knowing when it’s time is just as important as knowing what to look for (and what not to) in a PR firm. Here are a few things that are crucial to know before making the decision:
- Know what you don’t know – then ask.
The biggest hurdle is knowing what to ask. When I was starting my firm, I invested significant time and money talking to industry consultants about what I needed to know before launching my business. I wanted to know what I didn’t know – the pitfalls that I didn’t know I was going to face, and how to prepare for them. The daily business of public relations is difficult enough. It’s always nice to have some idea of what to look for in order to avoid common pitfalls. The first place to start is to ask yourself if you know what PR actually is, and do you really need it at this point in your business.
- Do you really need a PR firm?
It’s not always the right time to hire a PR firm. You need to assess your readiness and know what you’re trying to achieve before you decide to hire a PR firm. Are you planning to launch a brand new company or product? Are you an entrepreneur, or an established business needing a boost to reach that next level? Are you repositioning or rebranding your company/product? PR is not a short term, one-off event (that would be publicity). At this point, is what you need large enough to actually need a firm, or can you hire PR services on a project basis?
- Know what you’re trying to achieve in advance.
Before you start contacting PR agencies, save yourself – and them – time and decide what you are trying to accomplish. Having a clear, specific, measurable goals will make the decision much simpler (more on that later). Just “getting the word out” is all well and good, but how will you know if the money you spent on that was worth the results? I can spend $10,000 of your money to “get the word out” about your product, but if it doesn’t bring you any new customers or increase your sales, was it worth it? Now’s the time to get specific about what you want from a PR firm before you invest time and money in sending out RFPs. How will you define PR success? Knowing that will make all the difference.
PR is not just throwing news releases up on a website. You need to be able to clearly define your target audience, your market and what differentiates you from the competition. What can your customers get from you that they can’t get from your competitors? That’s what PR can tell your audiences. Are you ready for the time commitment it will take? You have to have executives, including yourself, customers or others for media interviews, as bloggers, and other communication activities. Do you have the financial and informational budget to invest in a long-standing PR effort? If not, it may be best to wait until you’re better prepared to work with an agency. PR is not instant gratification: to see results you must be willing to invest in a comprehensive program that lasts beyond a few weeks.
- Success by the numbers.
One of the biggest challenges for PR firms is defining what success looks like. This is probably the most important question you can ask yourself and any prospective firm: How will you measure “success?” Do you have a formal measurement process with actual numbers? You’ll see the phrase “increase awareness” constantly in the PR industry, but what does it mean for your business? You and any PR firm you hire need to agree on what that is, and how that generates revenue. Impressions and Facebook likes are all well and good as interim measures, especially if you’re attempting to build a social media presence, but they have to be tied directly to what you are trying to achieve with your business to have any meaning. Compare sales results to the previous year at this time. Or previous months. What about prospects? Has the number of inquiries increased? Or website metrics such as unique visits, downloads, etc.? Figure out how to tie bottom line business results to PR activities.
- Size matters – to a degree.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the size of the agency you are considering will affect everything from how much it will cost to the number and experience level of the people working on your account. PR firms come in all sizes and specialties, from the worldwide agencies and mid-size firms to smaller boutique firms like Quicksilver all the way down to solo professionals. You need to find a firm that is a good fit for you and what you need. Large agencies offer a wide range of services and tend to attract large clients, and unless you’re similarly sized, you could get lost in the crowd. The smaller the agency, the more likely you are to work with more experienced professionals. The most important thing is to find an agency that offers services that make the most sense for your business. If you’re a restaurant company, you wouldn’t need the services a B2B agency provides, or a firm specializing in pharmaceutical corporations.
- What’s it going to cost?
As with so much in life, the answer is, “It depends.” There is no one size fits all, so the cost is going to depend on what you need. PR firms charge on a per project basis or on retainer. If you choose to work with an agency on individual projects, keep in mind that you don’t have the flexibility to respond to opportunities that arise without going through the whole estimating process all over again. With a retainer, you have increased flexibility with the work, as well as predictable expenses. There’s no hard and fast rule for how much to spend, but expect to spend a minimum of $75 on up to $500 per hour, depending on the firm and the specialty – crisis communication specialists will be much more expensive than a regular publicist. For a retainer, you can start anywhere from $2,000 – $5,000 a month and go on up from there.
You want to find an agency that offers a wide range of services and can customize your program as your goals and the business climate change. Look for a firm that is flexible and open to adjusting the scope of their services over time. At Quicksilver, we roll over unused hours for up to six months. If we find that you’re consistently underutilizing your retained hours, we review your program to see if either the scope of work or your retainer level needs to be adjusted. Each agency has its own way of addressing this issue, and you can negotiate something similar into your agreement. You want to find an agency that will work with you as you – and your communication needs – grow.
- Location, location, location.
In today’s digital world, unless you require frequent in-person meetings, location shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to working with a PR firm. It mostly boils down to your personal preference. Do you need a firm located near your office, a firm located in a specific market, or one that specializes in your industry? What’s much more important is that you have one person at your company designated to manage the work with the firm. Your firm should be an extension of your in-house team, but as such, they need someone responsible for the integration of their work with your business. Make sure they have the information they need on a prompt basis, keep them current on what’s happening and what’s coming down the pipeline, and it won’t matter where in the country they’re located.
- Trust your firm, and make sure they can trust you.
For the client-agency relationship to work, there has to be trust, just as there would be in any other relationship. Be honest and transparent when communicating with your firm. You hired your agency for a reason. Trust them when they make a recommendation, and don’t undercut them and the work they’re doing on your behalf. When they contact you with a request for information, or to get you to do an interview with a reporter, respond promptly. Reporters can’t wait on you to get around to it and will move on to someone else – possibly one of your competitors. Make sure you understand what your firm is planning to do to communicate on your behalf, and what their needs and expectations are for you to respond to requests for information before an opportunity arises.
- Your firm is not your cheering section.
If you’re looking for a firm that says nothing but great things to you, you’re already in trouble. One mistake that executives often make is to assume PR is all about fluff and end up offended when their agency points out problems. A good PR account executive will explain why your competitors are landing in the news (they’re considered more “newsworthy”), why holding an open house isn’t going to get you coverage (it’s boring), and why just because you buy ads doesn’t mean you automatically get news coverage (there’s a firewall between advertising and editorial, and has been since forever). Conversely, a good PR account executive will find interesting things about your company and product that you haven’t thought of before, because they have that outsider perspective that you lack.
- And finally, remember that PR has to be integrated into your company.
In order to get the best return on your PR investment, it needs to be fully integrated into your overall marketing strategy. PR, marketing, advertising – all have to work together toward your business goals. Otherwise at best it’s going to be a waste of time and money. At worst, there will be confusion and contradictory messages going out to your target audiences that will damage your brand.
Need more information, or are looking for a PR firm? Let us know. If it’s not an area that we handle, we know firms that do.