How To Choose A PR Agency

Finding a good PR agency can be like finding a needle in a haystack. But its a lot easier when you know how to look.
President, The Pollack PR Marketing Group
June 29, 2011

The people who manage your communications are just as critical as the communications themselves. Whether it's staff within your company or an outside agency, their work will inevitably influence your organization's bottom line, reputation and overall success. When you're searching for an agency with the right fit, it can be like finding a needle in a haystack. But there are steps you can take to make the process easier.

Identifying the candidates

1. A reputable referral source is still the best

Ask colleagues, friends or even a media outlet that follows your industry. Check out the Public Relations Society of America. Most have local chapters with listings ranging from local boutiques to multi-national agencies.

2. Get staff buy-in to prevent potential resistance for working with an outside firm

You'll want an agency partner that has a good chemistry with your staff and is comfortable with your company culture.

3. Create a wish list of your needs from an agency

This can range from the level of industry knowledge to budget parameters to ROI in communications. Figure out how their office locations coincide with your needs. A boutique agency that's part of a PR group partnership can extend their reach locally, regionally or globally

4. Determine what functions you want an agency for

Do you need one for strategic counseling, tactical execution, digital media prowess, partnerships or building relationships with third party endorsers?

5. Create a short list of three to six agencies that fit your criteria

Also create a back up list of three in case client conflicts arise or what seemed to be a stellar choice did not turn out that way.

Getting bids

1. Prepare an informal briefing

Prepare an overview of your needs so agency candidates can evaluate whether your request falls within their capabilities or if there would be a conflict of interest among their current clients. You'll also want to see which capabilities the agency thinks are necessary to solve your problem, so don't miss out on innovative capabilities that you may not have thought to ask for.

2. Request examples of when the agencies solved similar problems and addressed similar audiences for other clients

3. Ask them to describe their account management process

Also ask about their procedures for ensuring quality and performance among the different individuals and offices that may work on your account. You'll also want to understand how they bill for their staff time and for other costs.

A word of caution: It's presumptuous to think that an agency can provide on-the-spot strategic solutions and creative ideas based on the limited background you can supply to a group of bidding firms. If you want substantive strategic plans and full creative solutions from all candidates, you should be prepared to pay the agencies for their time in creating the plans and solutions.

Reviewing agency presentations

The ideal presentations are informal discussions that illustrate the thinking and capabilities of the presenting agency. Most important is an open discussion with the presenting group that illustrates their innate intelligence and personality, their understanding of your industry, and their experience and success in dealing with similar challenges. The proposed agency account team should all be present and participate in the discussion. It is about ascertaining the chemistry between the team and your staff.

Be sure to ask:

  • How they work: Is it based on a strategic overall plan or a monthly action plan?
  • How long will it take to get up to speed on your account?
  • What reporting methods are used?
  • What accountability measurements will be in place?
  • What are the expectations of your time?
  • How will you be billed?

Billing options include:

  • Hourly basis, according to the billing rate of your account team.
  • Agency blended hourly fee, to include both junior and senior staff members.
  • Flat project fee for a scope of work within a specified time frame.
  • Monthly retainer fee against professional time to accomplish the designated scope of work.

Trust me, it pays to do the research up front to reap the rewards later.

OPEN Cardmember Stefan Pollack, president & CFO of the Los Angeles-based agency, The Pollack PR Marketing Group, is a 22-year veteran in the PR industry. He is a Past President of the Public Relations Society of America, Los Angeles Chapter (PRSA-LA), Immediate Past Chair for the Board of the Worldcom Public Relations Group’s Americas Region, and is on the adjunct faculty of Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.