How to choose the right PR firm for your company

I have learned a little over the past years about how to go about selecting a PR firm. I thought it would be useful to myself, and possibly others, to outline what I have learned.

1. Set Goals

Without PR goals for yourself, how on earth do you expect to choose a firm?

Before you do anything else, agree on your goals for PR. Do you want your PR to:

  • Build awareness among a specific audience — be sure to clearly define that audience (customers, partners, brands, developers, business leaders)
  • Drive traffic to your site (same question as above — for what audience?)
  • Get developers to build apps on your platform
  • Get partners to integrate with your site, technology, API
  • Get acquired by someone bigger and richer than you
  • and so on….

The PR strategy you build with a goal to get acquired is a wholly and utterly different strategy than the one designed to drive customer traffic to your site. So be clear up front. This is particularly important when selling up your PR budget to management. When you come to deliver results, they should be measured against the goal established and agreed upon.

Some firms are good at real business/old fashioned journalism. Others specialize in consumer social media outreach and blogs. There are many specialities. Consider firms that specialize in areas related to your goals. It’s highly probable that your goals year one are different than your goals year three, in which case a new firm is likely to be needed. But remember the speciality needs to match your goal.

2. Snoop the ecosystem

Who is always getting press? Who is doing it well? Find out who their firm is! If they are your competition, you may likely run into conflicts of interest. But still try. If they are a larger firm, they may be able to support you by separating your team from your competitor’s team. Though that doesn’t always work. If they are a smaller firm, they will not be able to support you honestly.

If you can find a company that’s getting great press from a related, and complementary product then it’s a win. When I selected Lewis PR for Photobucket’s early days, I liked how they were handling press for Second Life, at that time a huge Internet darling. I hadn’t heard of Lewis PR, but I certainly had heard of this particular client of theirs, and that was a good recommendation.

3. List your goals for PR

Related to (1) above, but in more detail. Define at least 5 top goals for your first year of engagement with your PR firm. Think: if you can achieve these goals within the first year of engagement, I’ll be a happy client.

Some goals may be very specific: get on the back page of the “USA Today Money section”, and “Get read about by Rupert Murdoch.”

Or they may be slightly less specific: get into the “how to column” of 6 major national Sunday papers, or get a detailed article on the top 10 mommy blogs.

Whatever you choose, your PR firm will love that you are being specific, not vague.

And by the way, I gave those two goals (USA Today and Rupert Murdoch, among others) to Lewis PR for Photobucket when I hired them. They delivered. I was happy.

4. Cold call, or write to the PR firms you have shortlisted in (2) above.

Unbelievably, some firms don’t call back. Strike one. Actually, strike OUT. If you know someone who can introduce you, great. But frankly, they should have their act together enough to call and email you back promptly even if you’re not introduced and don’t know anyone there.

5. Telephone interview (brief)

Just see if there’s a conflict of interest, and see if you like their general reaction to you. Also check that they could potentially take on your workload. Some of the smaller firms may be too busy to give you the love you deserve. Though in today’s climate, that’s highly unlikely.

6. Write to the PR firms that make it through (4) and (5) with your goals

As listed in (3) above. Then set up a longer phone interview to discuss those goals. This is a killer step: if they don’t speak to your goals, don’t bother seeing them face-to-face. I recall specifically stating in goals that I was not interested in guerrilla PR marketing ploys. I was then regaled with exactly that. Did you not read my email? Again, using the Lewis PR example, Morgan McClintock of Lewis PR not only talked to my goals, but offered insights I hadn’t thought of. I learned something about my company from talking to him. Joy.

Don’t be lead down the budget path yet. They don’t yet need to know your budget. You need to know how, and if, they can meet your goals.

7. Finally, face-to-face

Hopefully you’re down to three firms by this time. Only now do you need to spend face-to-face time. Here are some deal breakers:

  • Are they willing to come to your space? They should be.
  • Do they bring 100 people? You only need to meet the people who will work directly on your account
  • Do they speak to your goals? At this point, you should expect a preliminary idea of how they’d approach reaching the goals you have generously outlined for them; if they don’t, and they haven’t done their homework, they don’t care and should be thrown out.
  • They should also look to help you define a reasonable budget, with what would be included and excluded

8. Decision time

Finally, don’t choose a firm without specifically meeting your potential account representative. Don’t be taken in by the ‘bait and switch.’ The bait and switch is where you meet the fabulous PR guru at the top who can do all the name-dropping, fall in love, and then get a 22-year old school leaver on your account. Sorry. That doesn’t work.

The person dialing for you needs to know their stuff, and you should be able to ask for someone good. You should know in advance who is going to be calling journalists on your behalf.

Find out how often they would meet you face-to-face and on the phone. I think weekly status calls is great, and at least a one month face-to-face. At that point, I’m happy to go to their space. I want them to spend their hourly time working for me, not driving to see me.

9. Budget planning

Before you finally marry the firm, make some agreements:

  • 30-day opt out ideal; not every PR firm likes this
  • agree how they spend your retainer; I caution against weekly clippings. Do that yourself with Google Alerts. Spend your money on something real, not gathering of weekly emails
  • I also caution against expensive blog monitors too. Unless of course you have lots of money to spend. But who does?

I am sure I’ll add to this blog post as I consider further what it takes to make a great PR marriage. Be brave and be firm. You are in a PR buyer’s market right now. And firms are hungry for your business, so you can choose to be picky.