What to Look For in a PR Firm

PR-Client-Matrix

This isn’t just about what PR firms do, how they work or what they look for in employees.

This is also about what type of PR firm to look for when you’re hiring a public relations agency to handle earned media outreach for your organization.

So I’m not going to talk about RFPs, marketing budget, chemistry or KPIs. Not that that’s not important.

It is.

But what I’m going to talk about here precedes all that.

It comes into play before you even start building your short list of public relations agencies to interview.

Hard Truth About Hiring PR Firms

Unfortunately, PR client relationships don’t always go so well. You might even say they don’t usually go well.

And it’s not just the PR agencies that fail. Clients fail too.

That’s what this post if about.

So if you’re trying to figure out how a PR firm can help your company, what I’m going to tell you could save you tens of thousands of dollars and lots of wasted time.

Here’s the deal.

Shock and horror does not have to be your story if you get what I’m going to tell you in this post.

You’ve heard the horror stories about public relations agencies that never delivered the goods.

Former Big PR Agency Manager

I was director at a large public relations agency for years before going out on my own and running a boutique PR firm that represented some of the biggest brands in the world.

But I parleyed profits from the agency into a SaaS software company that literally pioneered digital PR best practices.

And a lot of clients came to me after being allegedly “burned” by another PR firm. Or at least that’s how they felt.

“They promised me this and that and nothing ever happened,” they’d tell me.

So if you don’t want to have a horrific experience, read on.

If you get this it’s going to save you time and money.

How Do PR Firms Work?

Before you start interviewing public relations agencies, you need to know what type of PR firm you should be talking to.

They are not one size fits all.

So if you’ve already interviewed some PR practitioners or PR agencies and you’re reading this because you’re unsure of which one to hire, keep in mind that size really does matter.

Your size and theirs.

In fact, it may be the single most important factor; more so than experience with similar clients or media contacts with reporters cover your industry.

Your likelihood of getting the media coverage you seek depends more on the category of provider you hire.

Unlike advertising where you make an ad and pay to place it, scoring editorial news coverage is not straight forward.

You don’t necessarily get the news coverage you want, even though you may be paying a PR person to get it, which can be frustrating.

What Does a PR Firm Do?

PR agencies use owned, shared and earned media tactics to build visibility and credibility for their clients.

Where most PR agencies draw the line is at paid media. Typically paid media is the domain of marketing and advertising agencies.

The difference between advertising and PR is that in advertising, you say good things about yourself, but when it comes to PR — which is about achieving visibility and credibility through neutral third-party sources — you try and get other people to say good things about you.

Since journalists and social media influencers are the most accessible voices, clients typically hire PR for media relations and social media marketing.

So be aware that if your objective is a specific type of news coverage, PR is fraught with uncertainty, which makes it higher risk than advertising.

No matter how good your PR person is, journalists decide what they’re going to cover independently, so there are no guarantees.

The best news media coverage can’t be bought, which is also way it’s so desirable. And that uncertainty is your risk.

Matching Clients with PR Firms

Before you consider a go-to-market PR strategy or someone’s “contacts” in a given industry, step one is picking the right size provider. These are your options:

  1. Do it Yourself
  2. Sole PR Practitioners
  3. Boutique PR Firms
  4. Small PR Firms
  5. Mid-Size PR Firms
  6. Large PR Firms

The Holmes Report publishes annual rankings for 3 through 6.

Growth Marketing

Corporate communications have become as much about growth marketing and lead generation as it is about getting press coverage for clients, PR agencies these days also engage in content marketing, SEO, email marketing and even producing live virtual events.

The important thing to know is the size of provider you choose has a huge impact on your likelihood of success.

“I don’t think you ever want to be someone’s smallest client because you’re not going to get their best people. That’s the way the agency business works,” Jay Baer, marketing, CX and word of mouth expert told me on the last PR Tech Wednesday.

The single biggest mistake clients make when they hire a PR firm is hiring the wrong type of PR firm or provider.

Clients have different needs public relations needs based on the share of the total market they serve and where they are in their corporate development.

My PR Client Matrix maps clients to PR provider based on two factors:

  • Total market share and…
  • PR Agency or Provider Type

PR Client Matrix

Toyota and Ducati both sell motor vehicles, but since Toyota sells a high volume of cars worldwide, they need a large agency that can coordinate a global product launch. Ducati, an italian motorcycle brand with a loyal following serves a much smaller audience and doesn’t need the same level of PR support.

Kroger is a national grocer with $27B in revenue last month and huge market share but not much growth opportunity, so their PR is handled mostly in house. They’re essentially do-it-yourselfers.

Until this summer, they had no agency of record.

Perhaps the Amazon Whole Foods acquisition has them circling the wagons, but up to now, they’ve essentially gone it alone.

On the other hand Blue Apron, an ecommerce meal kit provider has a comparatively miniscule slice of the market, but they’re venture backed which means they’re looking for exponential returns, so they’re more likely to put growth before efficiency despite uncertainty and hire a big firm, even though they don’t have market share.

Salesforce.com is the B2B CRM marketplace leader and Zoho is a direct competitor serving a much smaller market by comparison. Salesforce.com wants to grow market share, whereas Zoho was bootstrapped and is under no pressure to achieve specific growth targets.

Disruptors tend to bring on a PR agency they can grow with, so they hire a bigger firm then they need, anticipating that growth and sending a message to the market that they intend to dominate.

Unless they’re battling intense, negative public opinion or a crisis, monopolies tend to buy less PR then they need, because there’s not much upside to marketing if they already have the majority of customers and PR is typically considered to be part of marketing.

Toyota and Ducati, Kroger and Blue Apron, Salesforce.com and Zoho are all in similar businesses, but they have different PR needs and choose different PR provider types as a result.

When it comes to small and medium sized businesses and early stage startups — which actually constitutes most accounts — clients should do it themselves, use a sole PR practitioner, hire a boutique PR firm or a combination of these options.

There are advantages and drawbacks, of course.

Without guidance from a public relations specialists who knows the ropes and your industry — which can be hard to find, because the retainer billing model is incompatible with making clients self-sufficient — doing it yourself could be a waste of time.

If you hire an independent practitioner, you know who’s representing you, whereas at a boutique you may meet the owner but get passed off to junior specialist who actually does the work while learning on the job, so make sure you ask to meet whoever will be handling your account.

And if you go with a boutique firm, keep in mind that just because they have the capabilities and the contacts to get you press, doesn’t mean they’ll leverage them on your behalf.

All sorts of things besides fees can get in the way when you’re working with a non exclusive public relations provider who’s trying to keep a portfolio of clients happy.

Next week I’ll post about the best PR staffing options for start-ups, niche B2Bs, authors and thought leaders.

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