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Questions to ask before you hire a public relations agency

Julie Rowe

Funny the conversations that always seem to take place on an airplane, but on a recent business trip I had one with a bright businessman from back East that got me thinking about what I would look for if I were in the market to hire a company like mine (public relations and social media). The entrepreneur questioned me on my profession and what made for a successful client-agency relationship. Not surprisingly, above all, I quickly advised him that good communication is key but there are many factors that go into selecting a PR firm. Hiring a PR firm the right PR firm is as important than hiring an employee within your company.

When you hire an agency, you are entrusting those people with your brand, your reputation and your ability to react under even some of the most harrowing conditions. What you say and how you say it can make or break your company in today’s world of “instant news.” Selecting an agency can be difficult and confusing, after all you are dealing with professionals who have mastered the art of image! However, navigating through the process can be quite simple if you are armed with the right questions and do a bit of homework. Trust me, in the end this is a relationship worth the time and when you find the right fit, you will be amazed at the results.

The following are some of the questions I’d ask in an initial meeting:

1. Who will be on the team assigned to my account? First and foremost you need to be clear on your expectations and to understand who will be servicing your account. Do I get the agency principal that pitched me on a day-to-day basis? Who will my primary contact be? How many team members will be working on my account? And, I cannot stress this enough (a good PR firm will ask you this question) but be clear on how you like to be communicated with. Do you respond best to text messages, emails, phone calls? Knowing who you will be talking to and being clear on your most effective methods of communicating will play an integral role in getting and staying on the same page.

2. What relevant experience do you have to my business and what sets you apart from your competition? Relationships with media and in any given industry can take years to develop. It’s important that your agency understands the nuances of your industry and the players. That’s not to say that a firm that has never represented an accounting firm cannot do an exceptional job on your account, but some experience with professional service firms would be preferable. Ask for case studies, and ask for client references. Ask for the agency’s longest standing client and dig deeper. Ask why the relationship has worked. Don’t be afraid to actually follow up with references. Again, a good agency should be an extension of your staff, so you want to be sure your making a good “hire.”

3. What is the primary reason you have lost accounts historically? It is important for you to understand why the team you would be working with may or may not be a good fit for your company. The answer(s) to this question will tell you a lot about the company, its philosophies and practices. (Side note: One of my newest clients asked me this question and I thought it was a brilliant one. I got the business, I believe, because I was honest and because I had no hesitation in answering the question.)

4. I don’t have time to manage marketing for my company, so how is this going to work? I truly believe one of the key factors in making this relationship work is to ensure there is someone on the “inside” that can assist the agency in acquiring information, scheduling meetings, and having direct access to decision makers. If you do not have time to be the agency liaison, select a responsible individual that will be accessible to the agency. If you feel that you are constantly following up and chasing after your agency for project status, it’s probably time to regroup, or in some cases seek another firm. A good agency will not hound you, but will not allow series of missed opportunities because they emailed you and never heard back. It is on them to follow up with you, but you, or your designated marketing chair, must respond in order to achieve your goals.

5. Be upfront about your goals and ask the agency if they believe these are realistic within your budget and timeframe. An agency cannot promise and deliver a multi-million dollar Nike-style campaign on a $50,000 a year budget. If they do promise those type of results, run. Once you lay out your budget and goals, ask for examples of results from campaigns with similar budgets.

6. Contract terms and reporting. Be clear on hourly rates, how many hours you will receive, and what type of reporting you can expect. Many agencies offer blended or reduced rates for clients on retainer. This is most often your best option, but be clear on what happens when the agency reaches your hourly limit and what types of activities you wish to see on your monthly invoices. If an agency is clear on your budget and expectations there should be no surprises. For example, unless your account is very large, or your agency is coming to present concepts for a new campaign, you do not need 10 people from your agency at every meeting each of them billing their time against your retainer. Make sure you have a 30-day out clause in the case that this relationship isn’t the right fit, but it’s in your best interest to sign at least a year-long contract.

Marketing needs vary from company to company and a good agency will assist you in developing and implementing a campaign that will set your company on a course for success. A great agency, the right agency, will not only help set that path but will exceed your expectations and may even push you out of your comfort zone taking your marketing initiatives and ultimately your business levels to a place where you’ll never consider doing business without them.

Julie Rowe is a principal with The Impetus Agency in Reno. Contact her at 775-322-4022 or through http://www.theimpetusagency.com.


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