How to Work with a PR 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. (One site we recently checked highlighted a hugely successful program which turned out to be from 1988!) 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 (serving as a “travel guide” into the far reaches of the company), tracking down customer leads (from a usually reluctant sales force), and getting approval far faster and more easily than someone on the outside.

Make sure that the internal PR contact is accountable and that the job description changes to accommodate this new role. (Ideally some parts of the person’s former responsibilities can be delegated to someone else when PR gets added to the mix.) The internal contact should hold regular meetings with the agency’s daily contact, establish priorities, and provide information and direction that enables the agency to write and execute a successful program. This is important because a successful client-agency relationship depends on time committed on both sides. A good PR program generally keeps the internal contact busy. If it doesn’t, you’re probably not conducting interviews, making significant announcements, etc.

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 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. Don’t worry about looking “dumb” – they don’t know your business or company well, either. (In fact the PR 101 session could be scheduled the same day as a detailed agency briefing on your company.) 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. (Getting on “The Tonight Show” may be cool, for example, but may not help your company’s bottom-line.)

5. Keep an open channel to the CEO.
Make sure you understand the CEO’s business goals and current positioning driving the company to hire its first agency. You need to understand where the company is headed, and the best people to give you that information is your CEO, senior management team, or business divisions chiefs. Make sure your goals are in synch; we’ve had clients who generated strong results, but the messages picked up in the media were not the ones the CEO wanted – even though the company appeared in Fortune, The New York Times, Newsweek and other top-tier media. Is product PR more important than internal (a.k.a. employee) communications? Does your company have an established crisis communications plan? Based on management’s input, your agency can help assess your needs.

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 (allowing for appropriate differences across different in how information is communicated; a website clearly communicates differently from a business card.) 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 (press releases get posted late), hard to navigate and don’t provide easy mechanisms for contacting the company.

8. Make sure the CEO kicks off the new 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. Having the weight of the CEO behind you helps grease the wheels.) It’s also important to determine who the CEO wants to serve as the main corporate spokesperson. In some cases, it’s clear: the CEO. Most media prefer to speak to CEOs; however, not all CEOs are comfortable talking to the media or have enough time to devote to conducting interviews.

9. 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. With major clips – like a Wall Street Journal article – present it with an executive summary that explains the significance of the placement, highlights the messages communicated, etc. This is important because you will likely need to continue to educate senior management on public relations. When establishing benchmarks, look at direct competitors and emotional competitors. (Emotional competitors are those you are compared to yet, but want to be.) Again, measurement can help you demonstrate your effectiveness. Hold quarterly update sessions for management.
10. 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. IBM places such a high value on consistent communication across the company that a few years ago, it developed and distributed a booklet called “One Voice.” If an organization as complex as IBM sees the value of consistency across all its business units and subsidiaries, it probably makes sense for your company, too. 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.

11. 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?

12. 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.

13. Understand that managing an agency takes skill.
Ironically, some clients are afraid of being upstaged when the agency generates lots of results, and that their bosses will credit the agency, not the internal person. In some cases, internal PR contacts micromanage just to say “we had to work closely with the agency to get it right.” (A client once placed every “that” in a press release to “which,” only to change them back again in the next draft.) A good PR agency wants to make you look good, not upstage you. And it takes management ability to get results from an agency, just as it does from an internal team – and that’s true no matter how good the agency. For example, with one former daily contact, we uncovered terrific news from within the company, generating placements in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, ABC “Evening News,” NBC “Dateline,” Fortune, Forbes, and others. After she left, an outside PR veteran took over; yet the number and quality of our results plummeted dramatically because he never spent the time to uncover anything we could translate into coverage. The lesson: use the agency to succeed and don’t be afraid if they are the ones in daily contact with the media.

14. 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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