You’re looking to hire a PR agency, but it’s difficult to tell the big-hitters from the bullsh*tters. Here are the nine questions you need to ask to make sure you’re getting bang for your buck.
1. What experience do you have in my industry sector?
Sometimes it doesn’t matter if an agency has no experience in your sector, but often it can help to work with agencies who know your industry inside out. “Their knowledge can help you in your sales, marketing and communications efforts – and it means you won’t have to invest as much to get them up to speed,” says James Thelluson, head of corporate at Lexis PR. It also means they’re likely to have good press contacts already.
2. Can I see recent press coverage?
You want to know what you’re buying into. Of course, the outcome of any PR activity will depend on what material you give to the agencies to work with, but you want to be sure the agency can deliver good results. Ask to see press cuttings for clients similar to you, and check that the agency is able to secure national coverage as well as business and trade coverage.
3. Can I speak to some of your current clients?
It isn’t a bad idea to ask for references anyway, but if the agency is nervous about the idea of you speaking to current clients, it could be a warning sign. If the agency lets you speak to a client, ask them the following questions: Are they proactive in finding news hooks? How often do they liaise with you? Are you happy with the value you get out of working with them?
4. Are you working for any competitors?
Especially with larger PR agencies, you need to know whether there is likely to be any conflict of interest. But remember, loyalty and commitment is a two-way street. If you’re asking an agency to give up its commercial rights to compete for business in a certain sector, then offer to compensate by giving them the maximum chance to grow their revenues through you.
5. What kind of outcomes can you realistically deliver?
“It’s also worth asking yourself what you expect from the agency,” says Simon Matthews of Speed Communications. “Usually when a client is disappointed, it’s because their expectations haven’t been managed properly by the PR agency. Over-promising can be as much an issue as under-delivering.” Sit down with the agency to work out what realistic targets they can meet, and by when.
6. How quickly can you respond to breaking news?
If news breaks first thing in the morning, but you take all day to react, you’re unlikely to receive any coverage. Journalists want everything immediately, so you need to make sure that not only the agency has its finger on the pulse, but your company is ready to comment on breaking news swiftly. Does the agency monitor for breaking news? Does the agency know what the big issues affecting your industry are?
7. What additional services can you add?
If your agency has an integrated digital offering or team, you’ll be able to tap into their specialist knowledge to enhance your reputation online. In the digital era, PR is much more about addressing a number of stakeholders – not just journalists. Tweets, Facebook, blogs: ask about them. The more services you can get from under one roof, the harder your retainer will work for you.
8. Who will I deal with?
In many PR agencies, directors are responsible for bringing in new business. But once they’ve signed you up, will you continue to work with them, or will your account be handled by a junior? Find out who will carry out the day-to-day work, and ask to meet them. “You should be able to look the future team in the eye. People are important – and this means the right skills and personalities,” says Lexis’s Thelluson.
9. Do I really want to work with an agency?
With an increasingly attractive talent pool of contractors, some firms are turning their back on the traditional full-service agency offering, and adopting a “mix and match” approach to building a bespoke PR team, says freelance PR specialist Cathy May. “Cherry-picking the media relations specialists, strategic consultants and copywriters that best suit your business gives you added flexibility.”
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