When seeking external help to promote your business or solutions, cost should be only one of several factors in your selection. Being a former journalist and having worked for decades on both the agency and corporate side of public relations, here are other things you should consider when meeting with and ultimately selecting your public relations consultancy:
Whether your business is an emerging startup or a global enterprise, you should understand the levels of experience and seniority that each member of your extended PR team provides to your account. Too often, businesses find that larger agencies bring out senior management to pitch your business. However, once the ink on the contract has dried and work begins, your day-to-day contacts turn out to be junior associates with little experience. I call this the bait-and-switch approach. While the VP pitching your account may have 20+ years of experience in your market and regularly has coffee with reporters at The New York Times, you should understand the impact it will have on your business if it is the junior associate is doing a bulk of the work .
Equally important is the quality of writing that the key members of your account bring to the table. Do they understand how to translate mundane and technical aspects of your business into business benefits that will grab media attention? And while they may be able to tell a good story, do they use proper grammar and punctuation? Believe it or not, this is important to many seasoned journalists and will impact how your business is conveyed. Ask for a few writing samples before they hit the pavement with your first launch.
Long before I started my career in broadcasting and public relations, I had ambitions of becoming an artist or photojournalist. It was in college when I realized that neither of these more creative careers would help me much in paying bills. While I transitioned from journalism into tech-based public relations in the early ‘90s, I regularly tap into my creative side for an assortment of activities each day. Whether it’s coming up with an interesting dinner made from a few things found in my refrigerator or offering a different perspective to a press release headline, remember that creativity is critically important. Make sure that your PR consultants regularly offer you creative ideas...and if they don’t, ask them for their input. You may not necessarily use these ideas, but no idea is a bad one in the early stages of developing a marketing strategy.
When working with clients, I always position myself as a true extension of the company’s marketing team. As a communications professional, this means that I expect my clients to be open with me about their marketing plans, issues occurring within the company, and any potential product bugs or delays that may need to be ironed out before an announcement. On the flip side, it means that I am completely open to clients about potential conflicts of interest with other clients, how much time I spend on actually working on the account, and any other things that may impact the overall budget.
I have known some PR agencies to include “markup fees” in their client contracts. If you find that an agency or consultant is including these fees in the proposal, find out in detail what these fees are for and whether they are necessary to the success of your account. Often times, these fees are used to simply fleece the agency’s pockets and are unnecessary, which is why I never include them.
Setting key performance indicators (KPIs) keeps everyone in check and sets guidelines for expectations for both the client and the consultant. While some executives may really want that article in the Wall Street Journal…many times, it simply isn’t going to happen. Businesses need to understand that this isn’t the fault of the PR consultant nor of the pitch but is instead based on the specific requirements of each reporter and publication.
Based on previous experiences, your consultant should work with you to set reasonable expectations about the outcomes of your PR campaign. Ask your consultant to provide regular updates to avoid sudden disappointments in your next launch. While your PR consultant should meet these KPIs, exceeding them on a regular basis may require these KPIs to be revised to meet new challenges and to ensure that every stone is being overturned.
In business, plans, strategies, messaging, and budgets evolve all the time. While it important to keep on track, you should seek out PR consultants who offer flexibility in how they work with you and your company. From my experience, you will find this more with smaller consultants, who can switch courses and offer more agility than larger agencies.
For example, one of my clients was under contract for a full program, which included industry analyst relations, content development, strategic media relations, and social media management. This client needed to make serious budget cuts across the board…meaning that PR was likely to take the brunt of this cut. Knowing that social media engagement was very important to this client, I offered to reduce the budget significantly and focus solely on this program. In doing so, I kept the client and continued to generate awareness for their solutions. When the time and budget is right, the client has the opportunity to increase the level of its activity back up to the levels outlined in our initial contract.
Often with emerging startups, the client contact isn’t aware of what they need, nor what activities can give them the “biggest bang for their buck.” In addition to understanding a company’s solutions and marketing goals, a good consultant will offer that business advice on how best to gain traction, especially if marketing budgets are limited.
Before signing a contract with a new consultant or agency, I suggest getting to know those whom you will be working with directly on the account. Take a break for lunch or schedule an on-camera video conference to chat with the key team members about topics that are not work-related. Do they coach soccer on the weekends? What kind of music do they like? What’s the last movie they saw? Do they have a sense of humor or are they stiffs?
Gaining some perspective on the interests and personalities of team members will help you decide whether you want to work with them and whether their personalities will ultimately mesh with others within your organization.
As stated earlier, a good PR consultant should position themselves as a true extension of the clients’ marketing team and as an “ambassador” of the company. This means that they should represent you and your company with the utmost professionalism when dealing with you and others within the company, with the media and industry analysts, and with the general public.
Does your consultant return calls and emails in a timely manner? Do they communicate your messages clearly? Remember, the PR representative is often the public face of your company, and if a reporter or analyst is unhappy with the PR representative, it can reflect poorly on the company, which backfires on the whole purpose of hiring a PR consultant in the first place.
Peter Gorman is founder and principal of Black Rocket Consulting, an independent, technology-focused communications consultancy based in North Reading, Mass. Prior to his extensive career in high-tech public relations, he received an Emmy Award for Breaking News as an Assignment Editor at News 12 Long Island, and was a Production Assistant for NBC Radio Network News and Mutual Broadcasting in New York. For further information, please visit www.blackrocketconsulting.com.