A couple of months ago the Washington Business Journal contacted us asking advice for their upcoming “10 Things to ask before…Choosing a PR firm” column. This regular feature on various topics includes recommendations from a series of anonymous experts (can’t imagine why) in the industry.
With its publication this week the Washington Business Journal offers some good categories (e.g., qualifications, references, chemistry, measuring), but we’re astounded by the column’s utter simplicity and matter-of-factness. The column suggests that a business can hire a PR agency as easily as one might shop for window blinds!
The devil will always be in the details, and unfortunately a generic “how to” column like this lacks the quality and breadth of the approach any company or trade association needs to undertake with an agency search. A respected publication like the Business Journal needs to put a little more thought into doling out advice to subscribers that will not only cost them a boatload of money but will steer their communications in the years to follow. No attribution; no resources for its readers – how about PRSA, CPRF at the very least? We anticipated better when they asked us for our advice and even expected that they’d at least pair the column with their annual list of PR agencies.
Plain and simple, hiring an agency is one of the most important (and arguably critical) steps your company will undertake. Without proper attention to and coordination with your organization’s overall strategic business plan it is difficult to execute a successful PR plan – and almost impossible to find the right agency to support that plan. Think about this way: a PR agency budget is very often the equivalent to hiring several full time staffers. Wouldn’t you screen for new employees by scrutinizing their backgrounds, relevant experience, and references? Too many sour relationships can be attributed to the lack of proper planning, budgeting, and screening on the front end in the hiring of a firm for short or long-term work. The Business Journal’s tepid advice suggests no structure or process to an arduous task.
How Would We Have Handled It
Our first set of recommendations in starting the agency search process includes assessing your organization to ensure it is structured in a way and prepared to work with, and support, an external agency. From there it is equally important to determine what it is you need accomplished from the agency and what budget you have to get the work done.
Choosing a set of candidates has become a more complex part of the equation. It used to be easy: approach all of the large agencies or the ones you or your colleagues have either worked at or with. Today those agencies are endeavoring to integrate more with their ad agency cousins (through ownership) or have sliced and diced practiced groups into specialties that may or may not address your real needs. For example, the field of mid-size and boutique agencies, not to mention independents – and the competent and nimble experts they represent – should certainly be on your menu of choices.
You shouldn’t take a leap of faith with any of your agency candidates and rely on their learning about your organization once they’ve been hired. You should expect your selected agency to hit the ground running, and bring with it demonstrated experience in your industry and with the audiences you have identified.
In the next post we’ll get into surveying the pool of potential agencies and then how to make your choice.