Hiring a Public Relations Firm: A Guide for Clients

Extracted from “Guidelines for Setting Measurable Public Relations Objectives,” published by the Institute for Public Relations, 1999.

Hiring a Public Relations Firm: A Guide for Clients

Finding the right match in a public relations firm will pay off in time, money and business performance. You want a firm that will get up to speed quickly and requires a minimum amount of education about your business. Given that agencies represent about half the total public relations budgets of most companies, you need a firm that shares your financial prudence and will allow you to demonstrate a strong ROI for your communications operations. And you want a partner that will have good chemistry with staff and is comfortable with your company’s culture, while retaining a healthy independence of thought.
There’s a lot riding on your decision in choosing the firm that meets these complex needs uniquely for your company. This guide helps you to make that weighty decision.

I. Preparing for an Agency Search
Determine the communications objectives the agency will be helping to achieve. The more actionable and measurable the objectives, the better they will be to guide and evaluate the agency. Once you have your objectives defined and an understanding of where you need outside help in achieving those objectives, you can determine what you want the agency to do. It could be strategic counseling, tactical execution, development of partnerships or building relationships with third party endorsers. Whatever it is, you want to find an agency that will be a true partner rather than just a vendor.

II. Creating the Short List
In creating a short list of agencies as candidates, a client should evaluate campaigns run by various firms and also investigate each firm’s record in retaining long-term clients.

III. The Presentation
While written presentations provide a base foundation of information about the Public Relations firm, personal interaction is key to learning whether a firm will fit with your company.

In calling a PR firm to present its credentials, allow at least two hours time. It should be your choice whether to host the presentations or to visit the agencies, recognizing that agency visits offer an opportunity to add to your overall impressions of the firms. You could ask for a tour of the agency.

Although you would like to meet the people who will be working on your account, it is unrealistic to demand that an agency introduce its entire proposed account team. Such demands encourage “bait and switch” tactics by agencies that are put in an impossible position.

The ideal “presentations” are informal discussions that illustrate the thinking and capabilities of an agency to meet your needs. The agency leaders who will be responsible for setting up and supervising your account team should be prepared to tell you what they would do to staff the account if it is awarded to their agency and how they will ensure that you get the best service from the different specialists within the agency. They will introduce individuals who will play a role on your account and some of the specialists who will be assisting your account team. Most important, you want to have a discussion with the group that illustrates their innate intelligence and personality, their knowledge of your industry and their experience and success in dealing with similar challenges that you face.

You’ll be looking for how well the agency group interacts, particularly in describing similar projects they have worked on together. You’ll also be looking for how the proposed account manager proposes to take responsibility for every aspect of your service, from assembling your account team to delivering tangible, bottom line results. Finally, you will be trying to get a feel for the more subjective elements of the agency – creativity and chemistry – which are best conveyed in person.

IV. Launching the Partnership
The assigned administrative person on the selection team should immediately work with a designated person at the agency to prepare a contract, establish confidentiality procedures, arrange for the transfer of background documents and company data, and create smooth online communications and induction schedules.

While those administrative responsibilities are being accomplished, the senior agency executive is beginning to set up the account team. Within a month, the permanent agency team should be established, up-to-speed about the company’s knowledge base and building relationships with the media and other opinion-influencers following the company. It is wise to schedule a meeting with the new account team and the company’s communications staff to collaborate in developing a plan for working together to accomplish the communications program. For you and your agency, the hope is that kick-off meeting will become the first of many successful team efforts on behalf of your company.
Creating Measurable Public Relations Objectives
An objective should:

Specify a desired outcome (increase awareness, improve relationships, build preference, adopt an attitude, generate sales, etc.)

Directly specify one or several target audiences

Be measurable, both conceptually and practically

Refer to “ends,” not “means.” If the statement outlines a means to do something, it is a strategy rather than an objective

Indicate a time frame in which it is to be achieved

In general, process goals, such as “get publicity,” “launch a product” or “create a brochure,” make poor objectives. They do not relate to broader organizational goals and are not measurable in any specific, concrete or truly meaningful manner. A useful way to replace “process” objectives is to ask yourself, “What is the purpose of (insert objective)?” The answer to this question is likely to move you closer to a clear, actionable objective.