Why Lemon Meringue Pies and PR Don’t Mix (Or How to Pick a PR Firm)

You already know that working with a public relations agency can bring your company profitable industry and business exposure and help you create an integrated marketing communications campaign that boosts sales. But how do you select the right PR partner for your needs?PR is an extremely cost-effective method for reaching a large number of diverse target audiences — if you hire the right talent. By working with a professional, you gain strategic communications counsel and an extensive database of media contacts.

Don't let the wrong PR pitch sour reporters.

Before launching my first agency in 2002, I “hired and fired” PR firms while slogging in corporate. And before that, I weeded out the good and bad ones while cutting my teeth as a reporter and listening to their pitches. (Note: Don’t send a pie along with a press kit to get attention. Reporters will gobble up the pie, spill meringue over your glossy brochure and then dump the mess in the trash. Yeah, that really happened. Apologies to the well-meaning PR firm.)

So what does work? Here are my suggestions on some of the best ways to select your next PR partner:

  • Assess your needs — PR is such a catch-all term. Before beginning your selection process, determine what you really want to accomplish by working with a PR professional. Do you want a stellar copywriter who can whip up website content as well as news releases? Do you need a media relations pro who will put you on the evening news? Are you looking for someone to cultivate content for your blog? Do you need need to garner attention among bloggers and want to start a blogger relations program? Are you entering a new market space or launching a product? Will financial PR be used as part of your investor relations program? What is your brand position within your industry? Depending on your goals, you might need to work with a few consultants or agencies.
  • Seek referrals — Ask industry colleagues for recommendations. Trade associations can be valuable referral sources. Professional service providers, such as attorneys, CPAs, investment bankers and VCs, can provide good tips as well.
  • Develop a long list — Your initial agency assessment should span six to 12 agencies and include a range of independent professionals as well as boutique house and midsize-to-large firms. Understand how each agency presents itself. Some agencies favor working with start-up entities while others take on established companies only. Some prefer a project-by-project basis and others will insist on a retained relationship.
  • Set evaluation metrics — Determine measurement criteria before conducting agency reviews. Consider factors such as industry experience, ability to grasp your industry, creativity and responsiveness.
  • Select finalists — Request that your “long list” of agency candidates complete a telephone interview or respond to a written request for proposal. Select three or four agencies to meet with in-person.
  • Interview the finalists — Invite the finalists to present to you their capabilities as well as their PR program recommendations.This should be a highly interactive meeting during which you can assess each candidate’s ability to mesh with your team.
  • Feel a spark — The old adage rings true here: People do business with other people, not companies. Perform a gut check: “Do I want to work with these people? Do I even like her?”
  • Interview other clients — Past and current clients can give you insight into what you can expect from the relationship. See what others have to say about me on my LinkedIn profile.
  • Meet your team — Some agencies will send their top executives and business development managers to meet with you and get your business. Often, these individuals will have no to little activity on your account. Always ask to meet with the professionals who will service your account before signing a contract. This is one of the chief advantages of working with a senior PR consultant or boutique firm.
  • Let the process work — We all want to see immediate results, yet PR is a cumulative activity that blends near-term wins with long-term strategy. Allow your new agency at least three months to perform.

Now, it’s your turn. What advice have you followed to find your PR dream team? Share in the comments so we can create a learning community.

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