8 ways corporate communications can hire the best PR firm

Sometimes corporate communicators have to look outside their organizations for help. If you do, keep these tips in mind.

Hiring a PR firm for corporate communications is a sizable undertaking, but it boils down to picking the right people.

As the employers I’ve represented have grown larger, the firms I’ve hired have grown smaller. That’s no accident.

Though I’ve managed a half-dozen or so firms in my tenure (including international firms), I favor small shops that are nimble and highly responsive and provide access to the firm’s leadership. Working at a small business, they have skin in the game.

I have strong views on hiring the best PR firm for an organization. Here’s what has worked for me:

1. Know when to hire a PR firm.

Look to outside resources when your workload exceeds your capability. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses.

PR agency work is a mile wide and an inch deep; the converse is true for in-house teams (an inch wide and a mile deep). That broad perspective can offer creative ideas. When you need additional resources or skills, keep an open mind about what’s possible.

Download this free white paper, “Auditing your Internal Communications,” for a step-by-step guide to assess which communications channels work best for your organization.

2. Consider the firm’s capabilities.

Several years ago, marketing began to look more like PR. The Web has fundamentally changed the approach driving many marketing programs (forced marketing integration), and content marketing incorporates core PR principles that have long been the basis of effective media relations. To that end, a key requirement of a PR firm is its capacity to develop Web content that meets the needs of prospects, customers and influencers, including journalists.

3. Ask about the firm’s process.

Processes must have balance. On one hand, good processes provide a path for standardization, efficiency and scale. On the other hand, too much process can inhibit creativity. Look for the PR firm’s process on core programs-the foundation programs of media relations, content development or content distribution. Account management is another key area for process-a cadence for producing, reporting and measurement.

4. Consider the firm’s size.

I’ve grown indifferent to PR firms’ size. Large agencies tend to have high turnover with rank-and-file employees (those most likely to work on your account), so the education process is cyclical and inefficient. There’s less loyalty between the firm and its team, which has a profound influence on culture.

Most large agencies function like a collection of independent businesses. For example, the New York and San Francisco offices might be managed independently, and they could even be competitive. Some firms mitigate this by staffing accounts with representatives from multiple offices or building cross-functional teams, but the account members still usually report to the business leader in their geographical location.

In this case, you’ll spend too much time managing representatives. You can’t expect a firm to work in a silo (that’s a recipe for disaster), but you also don’t want to spend gobs of time repeatedly going over things.

As I said above, I find better value in small firms. If there’s one situation in which large firms have an edge, it’s when a business is seeking to build awareness in an international community.

5. Ask about pricing.

Most firms bill by the hour, though I’ve managed agencies where the team works for a flat fee. Usually this is when the team has a set number of deliverables each month. If the team is efficient, the firm earns more money.

Unfortunately, if the team is inefficient or the work isn’t up to par, the firm grows disillusioned with the margins and then the dynamics face setbacks. You end up spending much more of your time educating, reviewing and managing projects. I don’t want to spend time this way. I want proactive people who identify goals and act.

For large firms, your business will spend at least $15,000 a month to get the desired results. If you squeeze spending, your work won’t get the attention it deserves amid competing client priorities. In my experience, this ends up in a downward spiral that plays out over time. By contrast, $10,000 is a big chunk of business to a small firm.

6. Evaluate the firm’s marketing efforts.

A firm that hasn’t made PR, content marketing or social media part of its culture won’t be able to do that sort of work for you. Is the firm responsive on social media? Is it truly engaged? Does it have a demonstrated capacity to move content? Look for evidence of experimentation and expertise; identify firms that can talk about the metrics and analytics you’ll need to report to your boss or executives.

7. Have a proposal process.

Requests for proposals (RFPs) are a contentious topic among firms. The criticism is that agencies spend hours preparing creative proposals without pay, only to see a business adopt some of those ideas and hire another firm. It’s a valid complaint, and corporate communicators should be sensitive to it if they want to start the business relationship strong.

Even so, there should be a proposal-like process. I follow a simple plan for evaluating agencies:

  • Keep a short list of firms that cross your radar.
  • Send an abbreviated RFP (one page, five questions) intended to reveal the firm’s approach, how it thinks, its responsiveness and, most important, who will work on your account.
  • Invite a small list of firms (one to three) to make a short pitch.
  • Make a decision.

8. Look closely at the PR account team.

The most important step is to look at the people who will work on your account. The vice president or point person who represents the firm will probably never touch your account. If they do, they’ll quickly eat up your retainer.

The worst thing for a budget is a senior firm executive who parachutes into an account call once a month-but hasn’t followed your project since the last call—and dominates the conversation to demonstrate his or her value.

The junior people do the work, so review their Web presences and look for:

  • Enthusiasm: Enthusiasm is the most valuable attribute. You can train people on products, features and benefits, but you cannot teach enthusiasm.
  • Passion: I like to see account executives and managers with a rich history on social media, blogs and contributed articles. I want to know those individuals don’t merely close their laptop at day’s end. I want to know they are so passionate about their work that they’re learning, experimenting with new platforms and writing about their profession.
  • Tenure: Nobody wants to hire an employee who skips from job to job. The same is true of an agency. It’s a Catch-22, because I’ve also found that people who skip around are good and in demand and can leave if they choose. One or two movers on an account isn’t a big concern, but if every team member has been with the agency for a year or less, it’s a red flag.

If there’s an underlying theme to the points above, it’s that people matter most. Invest time in examining the team.

What would you add?

A version of this article originally appeared on Sword and the Script.

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