Hiring a PR firm? Important questions to ask

By Posted in - Public Relations & Social Media & Special Events on June 30th, 2010 0 Comments

This is probably true in any industry, but the public relations category has its fair share of incredibly talented professionals, and then those who pose as professionals while not-so-quietly undermining everything that defines the business.

For brand managers who’ve worked with experienced PR firms before and know what success looks like, they know how to ask the right questions when interviewing a new agency to serve as their strategic advisor and partner.  They can vet out the PR pros from the snake oil salesmen and “spin doctors,” and find the right team to help drive their business forward.

Having had the good fortune to be part of these conversations with potential new clients (where some of the time the business has come our way and other times, we weren’t the right fit), I thought it would be a good idea to share some of the questions you should ask when hiring a PR firm.  If the group you’re interviewing doesn’t have adequate answers for you (or if you just have an uneasy feeling – run, don’t walk, in the other direction).  Your PR firm should be an extension of your team, working to help your story shine and connect you with your audience and fans — not a hindrance or drain on your resources.

What experience do you have in my industry? We’ve worked with businesses ranging from financial services to consumer goods to real estate and more.  While it’s not imperative a firm have prior experience in your industry, it certainly does help.  A good firm would be able to quickly get up to speed in a new industry.  But if you can find a firm that already has relationships in your business, it certainly helps get things started much more quickly.

Can I speak with your references? As with any new hire, you should check the references of a potential PR partner before you engage with them.  And don’t limit yourself to one or two client references.  A good PR firm should be able to provide you with journalists, bloggers, event coordinators and vendors to speak on their behalf about what it’s like to work with them.  Ask hard questions about how quickly the PR firm returned calls, stayed on budget, what were they like to work with?  The best skill sets in the world aren’t nearly as effective if you’re dealing with a difficult personality.

How do you measure results? PR measurement is still a hotly debated issue.  Be wary of any firm still using the “ad equivalent” model.  Rather, look for firms committed to establishing measurement goals at the outset of an engagement, and then ask them to show you examples of their work.  There’s no one singular way to measure PR efforts, but there ARE effective ways to show ROI in this area.  Just ask Katie Paine, the residing expert in this field.

How will you manage my account? Some firms will use a new business development team to sell you on their capabilities, and then once you’ve signed on with them, pass you along to the account team to manage your day-to-day activities.  It’s okay to ask to meet the folks who you’ll be working with on your account up front – in fact, you should make that a priority question to your short list of firm candidates.  This is your business – you want to make sure the people working on it to boost awareness are capable professionals.

What are your firm’s strengths? Public relations encompasses a wide range of capabilities: media relations, event planning, social media strategy and crisis communications to name a few.  Not all firms excel in all areas.  If you know you’re going to need more event planning than crisis work – best to look for a firm with experts in that area (again, see reference checking points above).  If you work in a highly litigious industry, then crisis communications folks would be the ones you want on speed dial.

These are just some questions that will help you make sure you’re getting the most bang for your PR buck.  Remember, effective public relations efforts are ones in which the brand and the PR firm work in close partnership to measure against stated business objectives – and that doesn’t happen overnight.  But done correctly, can make for some stellar ROI.

What other questions would you add in interviewing potential PR firms for your business?

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