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Working With an Agency

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Working With an Agency
Even in an uncertain economy, start-ups and other emerging companies need public relations support to communicate their news. Finding the right agency for your needs is important, but the challenge in conducting a successful PR program does not end merely because you've hired a new agency.

Here is some advice for people in organizations that have never worked with a PR agency before.

1. Check references and chemistry.
A track record of success is important, but every agency has something it can point to. Make sure their successes are current. Client-agency chemistry is an important, but often overlooked, factor contributing to a program's success. When making a decision, remember these are they people you will be working with: do you like and trust them? If you feel like their main interest is in selling you more services than you need, you won't feel comfortable and are less likely to succeed.

2. Identify the main daily contact at your agency and within your own organization.
Generally it's not the most senior person you met during the pitch. Just as important, however, identify the main internal contact at your company. This person is critical for the program's success by providing insight into the company, tracking down customer leads, and getting approval far faster and more easily than someone on the outside.

3. Ask the senior agency executive how to work best together, most efficiently.
It's not that you need to change the way you work to suit the agency. But they might have some best practices about how to work smarter with them and get more value from the relationship. At a basic level, telephone conference calls or videoconferences may be less personal but more cost-effective than having your agency travel to your offices – since agencies typically charge by the hour.

4. Ask your agency to provide you with PR 101
if you are unsure or uncomfortable with your new assignment, ask your agency to present a PR 101 session. Another suggestion: invite senior management to the PR 101 session so that everyone has the same expectations. The PR 101 session can be conducted up front – before the planning – so you can understand what's appropriate, realistic and strategic.

5. Keep an open channel to the CEO and have him/her kick off the program.
Make sure you understand the CEO's business goals and current positioning driving the company to hire its first agency. In addition, you'll want the CEO to kick off the program so you get buy-in from others who have information that can help develop good story angles. This will help minimize the likelihood that others within your organization, who don't see PR as part of their job, stall on getting information to you.

6. Update or formalize your company's positioning before developing your PR plan.
Otherwise, you won't be able to establish communication priorities that map to management's business goals. You also don't want to communicate corporate messages that are no longer relevant or are half-baked. It can be tempting to try to swing at everything, but chances are you might have limiting funding and resources, so it's critical to prioritize to be effective.

7. Assess all your communications and marketing materials.
Assess all your communications and marketing materials. This includes Website, press kit, sales collateral, advertising, trade show and other signage, stationery, and direct marketing. Evaluate whether they consistently communicate the same message. If you don't have one, develop a style guide to be distributed to all marketing personnel. Websites are often the first place reporters turn to when checking out a company, but many corporate websites are inconsistent, not updated on a timely basis, hard to navigate and don't provide easy mechanisms for contacting the company.

8. Set communications goals and objectives.
Make sure to set aside budget to measure the program. Many clients choose not to, but by establishing benchmarks, and ideally by exceeding them, you can demonstrate the program's ROI to senior management.

9. Coordinate with other departments and functions.
Public Relations should coordinate messages and information with other advertising, investor relations, human resources as well as other divisions. That consistency will make your company's messages more effective because they will be repeated. And it ensures that other parts of the organization are aware of what you're doing and vice versa; they may even forward information that you can use to develop compelling news.

10. Be a communications counselor for your company.
Don't just focus on tactics, think big picture, across divisions. How does the development in one area of the company impact another area? Is there a bigger story here?

11. Make sure your agency acts as your communications partner.
A good agency can help by bringing in perspectives outside your company because they don't drink the Kool-aide. Their objectivity is useful in determining whether something is newsworthy or just something good for the company. (For example, one former client told us their new software kernal was significant news; when we talked with the product manager, he confirmed the development was significant – because it enabled to company to catch up with its competitors.) Your agency should be able to monitor trends that directly affect your company as well as larger trends being played out in the business media. As a communications partner, the agency can counsel you on strategies – not just tactics – that will help you meet your goals.

12. Understand your agency's invoices and billing policies.
Most agencies hate surprising their clients as much as clients hate getting surprised by an unexpectedly large and complicated invoice. Make sure your agency explains its policies so that you can plan accordingly as well as who can resolve billing problems – it's often not your daily contact. At the same time, you should explain your company's accounting policies: do you need a P.O.? What do they need to do to ensure your accounts payable will quickly approve payment?

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