How to select the right PR agency

I was recently asked to write a piece for regional business magazine Business East Midlands (BEM).

Here is what I had to say – I hope you find it of use.

Some fundamental things apply when selecting a PR agency and it is not all about who walks in through the door on pitch day – firstly take a look at yourself.

Why do you want external support and what do you want to achieve? Will the agency be an extension of your own efforts to date and a part of your wider marketing team, or a gun for hire, starting from scratch?

What budget do you have and what do you want the PR agency to help you with? Is it going to run the whole campaign or a mini-campaign for a key audience? What are your objectives?

If the PR campaign is going to deliver results, you need to be a team and you will need to get on. Chemistry and trust are important; you are going to be sharing a lot of information, much of which may be confidential. Before you see a pitch, invite agencies over for a coffee, or do it at their place to get a feel for the working culture.

So, coffee time, mmm, cosy but don’t get too comfortable, get a feel for the agency. Who will actually be doing the work – the charmer in front of you, or someone mysteriously left back at the office? What relevant experience does the agency have? A great consumer agency may get you tabloid coverage but could struggle with the acquisition deal looming on the horizon. Ask to see testimonials and campaigns for similar clients and budgets.

With regards the agency, are notes being taken? Are intelligent, probing questions being asked? Anyone can do a bit of Google research the day before a credentials meeting, not everyone can provide intelligent consultancy.

Cosy credentials meetings over, invite a few back to pitch to your brief. This is essential. Define your objectives – target media, key messages, or just a “wish list” and don’t be afraid to give a ball-park budget. This helps to ensure an appropriate and realistic response. If you aren’t sure, ask for different approaches tailored to different budgets.

Ask the agencies to explain exactly how they work. Are they going to be proactive or sitting back waiting for your call? Are there any other extras lurking in the undergrowth such as evaluation and coverage reports? Compare apples with apples.

How important will your “account” be? Too desperate – they might be losing accounts, too casual – you may not get the attention you deserve. Also, ask about staff turnover, the industry is in constant flux, will your team be too?

Finally, once you have recruited, be realistic. PR campaigns often simmer gently for a couple of months. If you can, try, to evaluate the campaign at three and six months. By then you will both know what works and what doesn’t and will be able to plot a new path together…or not.

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