Friday, June 12, 2009

How To Hire A Public Relations Firm by Robert Wynne (picked up from Forbes)

The value of good PR is easy to see: Positive news stories help companies retain clients and attract new ones. Delivering that value, though, and at the right price, is hard--and getting harder.

The media industry downturn has left fewer scribes to go around, which means there are millions of press releases chasing fewer megaphones. To be heard above the chatter, many companies will hire public relations agencies. This article--the first in a new series, called "A Different Lens" on smart PR strategy--will guide you through the process.

While a professional PR firm can deliver huge bang for your marketing buck, this business isn't rocket science. Truth be told, you could do a lot of it yourself--if you had the time and the connections, which you probably don't. That's not self-serving (I'm a PR pro), it's just plain fact. So for companies that aren't scraping to rub their very last two pennies together, hiring PR help, in some fashion, makes a lot of sense.

Why is PR so powerful? It's "earned media" in the form of an article rather than "paid media" in the form of an ad. An old friend who worked in the advertising department of the Los Angeles Times explained it to me this way: If a half-page ad in the Business section is worth $20,000, a story on the front page of the same size is worth roughly five times that much. Advertising salesmen will disagree with me on this figure (it's their job), but ask yourself: Do you buy Forbes for the punch and perspective of the articles, or for those dizzyingly dense pharmaceutical ads?

Now that you know you need PR, what kind of firm should you look for, what specific services should they offer, and how much should you pay for them?

Let's be clear: There are loads of sub-par PR firms. The trick is to find a gem among the crowd.

First, look for a nimble, hungry shop. Remember: The goal is to land positive and meaningful media placements. If your new PR partner spends three months getting to know you, deciphering your "value proposition" or colorizing your aura before sending a single pitch or press release, you've wasted money. Within the first month, a good firm should prove its grasp of your business and formulate a strategy in writing that details explicitly whom they will target and what message they will communicate.

The services should correlate to the amount of work that goes into them. This includes rooting out the most scintillating, defensible story angles (this requires some elbow grease) and matching those up with the most receptive outlets, be in the form of an event, a press release, pitch letters, informational interviews or all of the above.

The price varies based on the size of your company, the PR firm and the audience you intend to reach. For example, I once worked on a three-month assignment for a major defense contractor that wanted to get the word out about its new technology. These guys wanted the full treatment, the kind that costs $15,000 to $30,000 a month. Smaller firms can't afford that, of course, but they can get some decent help starting around $5,000 a month. (Crisis PR, which we'll discuss in coming weeks, costs a bit more.) Typical contracts run six months, with a review after three months that allows you to walk away if you aren't satisfied.

Interview at least three firms before pulling the trigger. Here are five factors to consider:

Culture. Is your company bureaucratic or entrepreneurial? Fast-paced or deliberate? You will be more comfortable with a firm that mirrors your own culture. I recently pitched a California university that wanted the second part of a four-part "branding platform" to be completed in strict order, including a series of focus groups, before any materials could be presented for PR purposes. By contrast, I work quickly to line up reporters and get the word out. Not a good fit.

Experience. Is it best to hire a specialty firm or a general-services firm? This may be your toughest decision. Specialty firms will understand your business faster and have contacts at the trades; however, they may also represent firms exactly like you, so their pitches, press releases and events may all look tired and stale.

Take, for example, PR agencies that only represent law firms. They are used to pitching the local law journal, the law firm trades and the legal reporters and the local paper--just like every other law firm. The audience for those stories? Lawyers! So the agency is essentially marketing is clients to their competitors. Better to pitch lawyers to reporters covering a particular industry, so an entertainment attorney, say, should appear in Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. (A not-so-secret PR truth is that trade magazines are the easiest pitches because they desperately need information on a particular industry.)

Samples. Review the agency's work. Did it get a few quotes at the bottom of the story for the Springfield Shopper that no one saw? Or did it get clients on the Today Show for a five-minute interview that tripled sales on a new product?

References. A good firm should give you at least two clients who can vouch for it. Ask these references what specifically the firm did for them, how long it took them to gain traction with the media, and whether or not the press helped increase business. (Remember, that's the point of all this.)

Contact. In larger PR firms, the senior, experienced person you initially meet may not be the one working on your account. After you’ve signed the deal, a first-year associate--and even an intern--may be writing your pitch letters and calling the press. Make sure you know who's working for you on a day-to-day basis.

Even if you hire a competent firm, you can't just wind them up and let them go. Plan to hold weekly calls to get progress updates. If your agency sends you a long spreadsheet with incomplete action items along the lines of "Left e-mail to Reporter X; faxed press release; left voice message," you probably aren't getting your money's worth. Which leads me to the final quality you should look for in a PR shop: unrelenting persistence.

Robert Wynne is a public relations professional based in Manhattan Beach, Calif. and a former journalist Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times. He has consulted for large firms, start-ups and leading universities. His firm's Web site is www.wynnepr.com. He can be reached at rob@wynnepr.com.