9 pointers on selecting a PR agency and other qualities to look for

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I have worked on both sides and appreciate the advantages of a professional outfit, which an organization cannot be expected to set up internally.  You may even choose not to have a public relations agency, but deciding not to have an internal contact point in the company it is a very bad idea. And, if you do decide to hire an agency, be sure to select the right partner or else you will soon learn that though you have been paying large bills every month, your company hasn't shown any growth.

“An organization gets the public relations mileage that it deserves”

The way of PR

It seems easy to set up a PR business-as a very seasoned professional once commented-you just need a table and a phone and you are in business,  employ a few good looking graduates to run around! Many of the agencies you see today are extensions of the earlier agencies; they carry the same big-bucks and five-diamond mindset to PR.

Typically, when there is a pitch for business, many agencies turn up- each one claiming to know it all. Big claims are made-how things will change for the business when the agency comes in-and expectations are raised. Of course, this does not happen in all cases, there are a few thorough professionals in the field who truly understand the way of PR.

One dangerous trend is that the client expects the agency to know about the business even before it gets the account and once the fees start ticking, the client wants justification on day one; the agency is left with little time to truly understand the business.

A good agency will tell you the 'Truth', they will spend time on research to see where you stand and then work on a defined plan.

But nothing is questioned. Most PR agencies know that this is what will keep the account going, and so they agree to whatever the company says, but unable to question and provide truly professional advice. Some question for the sake of it, some to show that they know. Juniors are put in charge of the account. There are a very few creative ideas generated.

This does not get either the agency or the client far.

Public Relations needs an element of risk; a newness to break through the clutter in the Traditional – Printed and Online- Media. You need quality people to generate quality ideas.

Some of the items you need to have clear and need to ask the PR agency that's pitching for your account:

  1. What do you want to achieve from PR? - Many companies employ a PR agency because they think it is the right thing to do but are not clear internally as to what they want to achieve from it.
  2. Does the PR agency understand your company background and history? If successful, they will be representing you with the media and beyond so you need to ensure that you have chosen a partner who understands the dynamics of your company.
  3. Have a look at what your competitors are doing. What are your competitors doing that you think you should be doing? Note these down and when speaking with PR agencies monitor to see if they mention them. This will give you an insight into whether or not the PR agency has done its homework on your market space or how innovative they will be in the face of your competitors.
  4. Who are you meeting from the PR agency? When asking an agency to pitch, ask them to send you the actual team that you will be working with and maybe even set the rule that the presentation should be split into percentages in accordance with your contact with that person. This will give you a better understanding and feel of the team you are buying into.
  5. What type of experience do you need? What are the company's split of clients that work in B2B against B2C? A good B2B agency also has a couple of B2C clients – this means that your PR agency understands how different media work and can also bring different ideas to the table.
  6. Establish Criteria. What PR skills and capabilities are most important to you? Media relations? Crisis management? Social media? Industry knowledge? Measurement? Make a list of the experience and talents you need from an agency.
  7. How much budget do you have and what size of agency do you want to work with? Make sure the PR agency has the capacity to handle an account your size and also find out where you feature on the list of priorities.
  8. Who else have they worked and are working with? A simple request will give you an idea as to the type of PR agency you are potentially teaming up with. Ask them for a list of their past and recent clients and how long they have worked with them. This will give you an indication of the type of experience of your market they have which could be potentially complementary. You will also be able to ensure that they are not working with one of your competitors. A good PR firm will not take on a client that may be a direct conflict of interest with another.
  9. How does the agency propose to measure PR effectiveness? Is there a measurement model the agency can show? - One of the major concerns when implementing a PR strategy is to know if it is supporting the achievement of the Business Goals. PR is not about guaranteed positioning but definitely there are measurable objectives. Beware of the result measurement jumbo. Many agencies have a way of confusing the clients with details, clients who do not understand the impressive looking graphs. Just ask for comparisons and benchmarking against your nearest competitors.

Other Qualities to look for

  • Writes well. Looking at the agency’s past press releases will indicate how competent they are in writing emails, content marketing articles and social media posts.
  • Understands the media Best Practices. This includes knowing which reporters require exclusivity, which outlets compete with each other, which angles will compel the publication’s audience.
  • Understands your industry’s landscape. Trying to educate an agency about your industry wastes time and money. Choose a company that knows your market or industry.
  • Doesn’t promise media coverage. Media coverage is earned, not guaranteed. A successful PR firm knows this through experience.

and most importantly…

  • Do you respect the team's abilities and talents?
  • How congenial are you with the members of the agency team? You’ll be spending a lot of time together. You should enjoy their company.

Some things to keep in mind

Once you have selected an agency, you need to give it time to understand your business. Do not expect immediate results. Give the agency freedom to question and expect criticism with an outlook to improve, not to defend and then throw out the agency because they made you uncomfortable. A good agency will tell you the 'Truth', they will spend time on research to see where you stand and then work on a defined plan.

If you are already working with a PR agency and if you feel that things are not going well call the PR professional and ask him "Are you satisfied with the results?"

Whatever the answer, you will know what the next step should be.

About the author: Hector worked for IBM Mexico for more than 30 years, managing different functions and areas: Marketing and Commercial – Channel Sales, Manufacturing, External Relations, Human Resources, Legal, Education, IT, Foreign Trade and Security. During his career at IBM, he had two international assignments in charge of Marketing and Sales for Latin America. After his retirement as IBM's Executive Vice-President, he took the position as President and Corporate Director for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for Motorola Mexico; he was also Vice-President for Motorola Corporation.

Hector has a college degree in Business Administration from Texas A&I University, and a Master's degree in Economics from Trinity University. He has also received intensive training in advanced business management, corporate strategies and international trade at IPADE; Pittsburgh University, IBM La Hulpe in Belgium, IBM Executive Institute in N.Y. and Motorola University.

Hector is also an Independent Consultant for Management, Strategic Planning, Human Resources and Marketing Communications and is a  columnist for Forbes Mexico, Alto Nivel  and Dialogo Ejecutivo. He may be contacted vía: Twitter: @HectorMezaC; Facebook: Héctor M. Meza; LinkedIn: Héctor M. Meza Curiel.