PR people are great at selling themselves. After all, it’s what we get paid to do for our clients, so if we can’t promote ourselves we’d be pretty much redundant. However, it does make the decision over which PR agency you partner with all the more difficult for you.
So once you get past the hyperbole and attempts by each agency to seduce you into jumping in bed with them (figuratively speaking of course), how do you figure out which agency will be the right partner for you?
Here’s a few pointers to help you make your choice.
1 Who will work on your account?
To sell themselves as the agency of choice for your business, PR firms will typically send their best people to the meeting – usually a senior account director or even the MD. These will be the people you ‘buy into’ but not necessarily the ones who will work on your account – that privilege is likely to be passed down the ranks.
This is a common complaint that we receive when we pitch for new clients and it is one of the main reasons why they are looking to move their PR account to us in the first place. Make sure you know precisely who will be working on your account, get their bio and then make the call if you think they are best placed to represent your interests and justify the fee you are paying them!
2 Size isn’t everything:
We attended a pitch for a very well known company in Wales some time ago. They were precisely the kind of client we would have loved to represent for two reasons: they are a ‘brand’ that has a never-ending supply of great stories, which makes our job so much easier, and for selfish reasons they would boost our credibility as a fast-growing PR agency (hey, we have ambition too!). Trouble is, they were swayed by the size of the agency that eventually won their PR account (we don’t win ALL the accounts we tender for!).
After some time of working with that agency they found that when it came down to the delivery of the work which needed to be done, said agency didn’t quite live up to their own billing; turns out that while they did indeed have an impressive headcount, only one person actually did any of the work and they had just 1-2 years’ post-graduation exprience. Yet the client was being charged a director’s rate.
We have found that most other PR agencies focus on selling themselves based on their size – We have X number of staff. But so what, what the hell does that mean for you – does that mean that all those people will work on your account? Of course it doesn’t.
If you are spending less than £5k per month on your PR there will never be more than two (three at a push and they will invariably be juniors) people managing your account and any agency which says otherwise is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. So don’t be swayed by the size of the agency staff, focus on the people who will actually work with you.
3 Watch for smoke and mirrors:
There are a couple of PR agencies close to us who claim to have upwards of 10 staff. They don’t. In fact they have no more than four employed staff, the rest are freelancers who they outsource work to yet they include them as ‘staff’. There is nothing wrong with using external support but it is misleading to clients. These agencies are being naive in believing they need to be perceived as being bigger than they really are.
We don’t have a team of 10 people. What we have is me plus a team of Associates – external PR consultants who make up a collective PR and journalism experience of 70 years. Some are award-winners (I count myself in that category) and the reason why we have been doing it as long as we have is because we’re bloody good at what we do (hey, if you have a trumpet to blow…):
We know what ‘good’ looks like but we know that that is not good enough; we offer clients ‘better’.
It’s a model that works incredibly well. Each and every client that we work with is looked after by one or two or – in the case of one particular client – three consultants – all of whom have considerable experience in the industry gained over many years.
So not a single client has a junior executive assigned to them…because we don’t have any junior members of staff. Instead, we deploy seasoned PR experts who have worked your sector before and know how to ‘sell’ you to the media that matters most to you.
4 They probably didn’t work for Coca-Cola or Amazon:
It seems that just about every PR agency you come across has worked for the world’s biggest brands at one time or another. It’s bulls**t. They haven’t. They may have pitched for their business or even gotten as far as to have worked for an affiliate or partner of these organisations, but they certainly didn’t represent them – ever. So don’t believe the hype.
If they did work for these brands, ask for a case study so you can see precisely what they did for them; the chances are that unless they are one of the big 10 PR firms in London, they are talking twaddle.
PR agencies need to be proud of who they represent, irrespective of whether they are ‘known’ or not. We see each client as a potential case study, which means we want to do a darn good job by you that can be held up as an example of best PR practice.
Take a look at some of the clients we have worked with and continue to represent and I’ll bet that you will only recognise two or three names at best. But they are all bloody good companies in their own right – that’s why we represent them. They’re not seeking to be the Google or Virgin of their respective sectors – that accolade is already taken. Rather, they want to be seen for what they are.
Work with a PR agency that wants to be seen for who and what they are – that way you will have a working relationship that, well, works!
5 Personality fit:
Ultimately you need to get on with the people you are entrusting to represent your business. Do they ‘get’ what you are all about, do they understand the nuances and challenges you face? Do they come to you with creative and exciting ideas that go against the predictable, same ‘ole same ‘ole approach to PR?
One of the greatest gripes that clients have is the lack of fresh thinking from their existing PR agency. In Wales, for instance, you can pretty much guarantee that no matter what the product or service, the PR agency representing that business will enrol the services of a Welsh rugby player at some point. For feck’s sake – don’t PR’s and client’s realise that these guys have endorsed so many different organisations and charities that their impact has become diluted and almost obsolete?
Make sure your key contact is a driver of ideas, that they will come to you before you go to them with suggestions. You are not paying a PR team to drink coffee with journalists and be all media darling, you are paying for their creativity and for a return on your investment.
Beware the blaggers. If you are appointing a PR agency to manage your PR (obviously), social media and content, for example, check they actually practice what they preach too.
We recently came up against another agency in a pitch who claimed to be a ‘leading digital PR and content marketing’ agency. Yet they had posted just 5 Tweets in a month and hadn’t updated their own blog for over six months.
Of course, that agency would say in their defence that they dedicate their time to managing these things for their clients, but that is bollocks. If an agency advocates a certain promotional strategy for their clients, should’t it follow they would do the same for themselves? If they don’t do these things one might assume they have no intention to grow their own business, in which case you need to ask if they are the right fit for your business?
That aside, take a look at some of the clients that PR agency currently manages – how often are their clients’ blog pages and social media activity updated, when did they last get a client in the media? Check out the agency you plan to work with and ensure you are confident they really are best-placed to do what you want and need doing: if the level of activity for their other clients is pants, why should it be any different for you?
I hope some of the things I have addressed above will help you the next time you have to look at deciding which PR agency you partner with. But remember, the agency-client relationship can only succeed if both parties share a common objective.
As BC Forbes famously said:
“Any business arrangement that is not profitable to the other person will in the end prove unprofitable for you. The bargain that yields mutual satisfaction is the only one that is apt to be repeated.”