I’ve worked both in-house and in a PR agency so I have a pretty good idea of how to build a successful partnership and what can make a relationship combust under pressure. Here are my tips.
So, firstly you need to take the big step of deciding if you need an agency or not. To keep costs down, many small businesses rely on word of mouth do their own communications in the beginning, and it can be really difficult to know exactly when to stump up the cash for someone else to do it.
Only you can make that decision, but here are some things to consider: Do you need to expand your customer base? Do you struggle to make time to create marketing materials, update your website, etc.? Do you want to educate potential customers about your products and services?
If you answered yes to these questions, then the only thing holding you back is cost. Larger PR agencies in London will have a minimum monthly retainer, often of around £3,000. Only take this route if you can really see it adding value, and can spare that amount of cash. A better option might be to work with a smaller regional agency, a startup or even an individual. They’ll have fewer overheads to pass on to you and your business and they’ll be used to working with small businesses and entrepreneurs.
A trial period can help you see how much value they can add to your company, especially if you put clear deliverables in place at the beginning. For example: increased web traffic, increased footfall, sales or referrals direct from online or print promotions, Twitter followers.
Reputation is harder to measure and it may be that anecdotal feedback from your customers or stakeholders will tell you if you’re doing the right thing.
Before even hiring an agency of any discipline you ideally need to get some things in place.
- What do you want them to do?
- How do you want them to work – retained, ad hoc projects, one-off?
- How much money can you spend with them?
- Who from your company will liaise with them?
If you don’t have any expertise in this area you may have to rely on the agency suggesting options, but the more thinking you’ve done up front, the better.
Once you have a clear idea of what you want, speak to two or three companies or people who have relevant experience of your sector, or who are like-minded. You’ll be speaking to them regularly, so you need to be on the same wavelength. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be best buddies, but you do need a good level of trust and respect. Make sure you ask who will be working on the business once it is won. You don’t want to buy into an individual who is only there to bring in the money.
Tell each of your shortlist what you’re looking for, and if you have a clear brief, ask for a proposal – this should include creative ideas, timescales, demonstration of their experience and passion for your business / brief and, of course, budgets.
When reviewing proposals listen to both your heart and your head. Can you afford them? Do they understand your business? Can you work with them? Does their proposals excite you? If you don’t have a clear brief, a more informal conversation will set the ball rolling and give you an idea whether you want to work with them.
Once you’ve found someone, think about what contract or agreement you want with them going forward. You might like to agree a trial period to ensure that you don’t sign up and then discover you can’t stand their way of working.
Once you have your agency on board there are some basic things to remember:
- It’s a two way relationship, so prioritise giving them the time they need from you to do their job well. The more information you give them, the better their work will be.
- Find the right balance between taking on board their expertise, and also remaining true to your organisation’s values. Don’t go down a road you feel uncomfortable with.
- Make time for weekly and monthly catch-ups (by telephone or face to face). If you let them slide the relationship will suffer.
- Don’t keep quiet. If you love or hate something, say so. The more feedback they get, the better they’ll perform.
Small businesses really benefit from an integrated approach to communications. It’s unlikely that you can afford to pay different agencies for your different needs (e.g. PR, marketing, advertising, social media), so try and work with people who can deliver expertise across different fields. If you find the right support, they’ll feel like an extension of your business, a trusted supplier who will improve your reputation and ultimately impact on the bottom line.
Hannah Bourne is a freelance communications consultant.
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