It’s Not Just Free Publicity

Understanding the How’s and Why’s about Hiring a PR Agency for Your Business

By Robert Udowitz, special to Overdrive and a principal of RFP Associates

Too often companies grumble about their experiences with public relations firms. Sometimes it’s over money, other times over strategy, and many times the hiring entity simply isn’t patient enough to see the fruits of an agency’s labors. At the end of the day, a rocky marriage between businesses and their PR firms can be traced to a lack of basic understanding of the public relations function – versus that of marketing or advertising. The result? Finger pointing, blame assigning and a lot of wasted time.

The simple fact is that you have to treat the hiring of your PR agency similarly (or hopefully) to the way you’ve hired other professional services firms — think accountants, lawyers and technical consultants – or hired full-time staff.  Choosing a firm requires time, research, planning, budgeting, benchmarking, and a clear communication of expectations.

A business that commits to PR but does not provide the resources or time needed for its agency to get the work done is committing an unforgivable faux pas. An agency is only as good as the detail its client provides, and its willingness to be engaged with the process. This starts early with getting materials and information to the agency quickly, and continues with being clear about reasonable deadlines, so that timelines are kept, and results are achieved.

Defining your scope of work and understanding your desired outcome is critical when selecting and contracting with a PR firm. Not only will it make your goals and objectives clear, but it will also help you determine if you require public relations services or if you’d be better off with a marketing firm.

Recently, those lines have become more blurred (never take at face value firms that offer both), but as a general rule it’s important to understand which specialty will get you the results you need: earned media/media relations (PR), writing (PR), sales materials (marketing), ad copy (marketing), website (PR and marketing), social media (PR), conferences/events (marketing), or email outreach (marketing) to name just a few.

The average small company anticipates paying US$1,000-2,000 a month for PR services, but is astonished when firms start quoting north of US$7,000. The delta can be explained very simply: planning communications strategies and executing tactics are time-consuming. Today’s average agency hourly billing rate for a junior person hovers around $115/hour, with more experienced staffers commanding around  US$150/hour.

I know it’s hard to forecast how long your work will take but even a conservative ten hours a week will put you on a fast track to US$10,000 per month. As long as your agency begins with a clear scope of work, and you and your agency put into place benchmarks and measures of accountability, it may be money well-spent.

Agency size is certainly a factor for the satisfaction of a startup seeking PR. For example, perhaps a qualified independent practitioner is a wiser choice than a traditional brick-and-mortar agency. There are many qualified independents, with access to networks of other specialists for additional support, and they generally charge less than agencies.

On the other hand, there are more and more specialized boutique agencies that may have expertise in your industry, and that offer the services you need. There are other times when larger firms can’t be overlooked because of the unique skills, long-term experience, geographic coverage, and access to resources, skills and contacts that helped them grow to where they are today.

There’s a wide market for public relations services, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Devoting the time to decide what you want, what you need, the budget you have, and the time and information you can provide, will dictate the level of your success, provided you are willing to commit to the long-term. It’s definitely a worthwhile investment, but only if it’s a two-way relationship.

Top Tips for Entrepreneurs Considering PR Agencies

  • Don’t automatically hire an agency recommended by a friend. What’s good for your friend will never be good for you. A competitive bidding process will bear that out.
  • Prepare a concrete scope of work to set expectations in the Request for Proposal and moving forward.
  • Give competing agencies time to review your RFP and make intelligent recommendations. A rushed agency search never produces the results you want.
  • Always check for references and relevant experience.
  • Make sure you have the budget to afford an agency on a monthly basis for anywhere between a year or two and share your approximate budget with prospective agencies.
  • Be sure of your company’s business plan and the direction it’s headed before committing to an agency and share it with your prospect agencies.
  • If you also have a marketing team (or firm) be clear that they must both work together.
  • Have your firm sign a non-disclosure and keep them informed of all company developments. No detail is too small for a good firm needing to plan short and long-term communications on your behalf
  • Put your selected firm at the table with you. Let them advise you during the early stages of all initiatives so they can help you put communications on a parallel track with the other steps

Robert Udowitz is a principal of RFP Associates, a PR agency search firm that provides a full-range of services for companies looking for public relations support.


Categories: FINANCES PR/MARKETING Public Relations


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