Picking a PR agency is a big decision, particularly for those that may have had sub-optimal experiences in the past or who have never run an agency search. Even experienced agency shoppers can find the process challenging. Let’s face it, you are making a major investment, which will immediately and directly impact your overall marketing budget – not to mention the future of your business. Having participated in many RFIs, RFPs and pitches over the years, I’ve learned that there are some simple questions that brands should ask themselves before jumping feet first into the formal process. Since these questions seem to be overlooked quite often, I recommend starting with a little self-analysis, and using the following checklist:
1. What are our overarching business goals and how can a PR agency help us to achieve them?
Whether you are looking for more sales, increased brand recognition or executive thought leadership, this should be the question that you start with and always return to when vetting a new PR agency.
2. What kind of agency do we want to work with?
There are many different kinds of PR agencies out there – big, boutique, local, global, specialized, traditional, integrated – the list goes on and on. Know what you want before you start the process, and if the answer isn’t immediately clear, consider inviting agencies from different categories to participate in your search.
3. What are our strengths and weaknesses, and how can an agency help us to showcase the former, while improving on the latter?
The role of a PR agency really should be two-fold. It should help to demonstrate your strengths and value propositions to key audiences, while also improving the position and perception of your weaknesses. A prospective agency may have its own ideas of where your strengths and weaknesses lie, but you should go into the process with your own ideas.
4. What is our budget?
This seems very practical, but is often unclear or not discussed. Determining a budget early in the process will allow you to set a realistic expectation for your organization and the agencies you speak with. It will also ensure that you get an honest and tailored pitch that is based in reality. The last thing you want is to see a million dollar pitch that you could never afford, and an agency can never deliver within your budget.
Once you have done a little self-reflection and you feel confident that you know the answers to the above questions, you are ready to start talking with agencies. This should be the fun part! A good agency won’t make you feel like they are trying to sell you a used car, they will make you feel like you are being courted for a meaningful relationship. Enjoy the courting process, but ask the following questions to ensure you remain strategic and don’t end up with the wrong partner:
5. What are your agency’s capabilities?
This is a good place to start and will let you know right away whether you will end up needing one agency or multiple, to handle things like media relations, social media, video, graphic design, SEO / SEM, web design, and so on. As more falls under the umbrella of PR and marketing, there is certainly something to be said for a one-stop shop that understands your core values and messaging and can integrate them seamlessly throughout your program and materials. Hopefully you never feel the need, but having one throat to choke can also make your life much easier at the end of the day.
6. Where does your agency see the PR industry going?
This will give you an immediate sense of just how in-tune a prospective agency is with its own rapidly evolving industry. The media landscape is changing daily and is almost unrecognizable from a decade ago, and social media and creative digital content are no longer options that are just nice to have. Any agency that is not plugged into industry shifts will quickly become stagnant and ineffective, and your brand and reputation will likely suffer as a result. Experience is important, but flexibility and a willingness to continue learning and evolving is essential when it comes to your PR agency.
7. Who will be on our team and how often will I have access to senior leadership?
Be weary of the agency that trots out a team of executives for your pitch, and can’t provide a clear answer as to who exactly will be on your team. Ideally, you want to meet your actual team, so that you can get a sense for the mid-level and junior team members that will be handling most of the daily legwork. Not many agency executives are going to be picking up the phone to speak with reporters, so make sure you are comfortable with the people that will actually be speaking on behalf of your organization. Ask each team member to describe their role, strengths and why they want to represent your brand.
8. What is your financial model?
Believe it or not, there is no standard financial model that all PR agencies subscribe to. Be cognizant of firms that bill hourly. This may work for you, but it is worth noting that PR inherently ebbs and flows quite a bit from month to month. The last thing you want is a team that is forced to pull back during a busy month, because they have gone over their hours. These are the times that you are stretched the thinnest and the last thing you want is to lose support, or have to dip back into your budget to keep your PR team working. This model can also distract your PR team from their core competency. When your team picks up the phone to talk to the Wall Street Journal, you want them thinking about the goal, not how long it takes to achieve it.
9. Why did you choose to work at your agency?
There are no shortages of PR agencies out there, and you want to know that your team is happy with their agency. An agency’s people are its product, and happy PR people are productive PR people. You also want to be cognizant of turnover on your team, as it’s important for them to all become experts on your business, your messages, and even your working style – which becomes difficult with new team members constantly cycling in.
10. Do you know our brand and understand our products, services, technologies and/or value propositions?
You certainly want to know that an agency has done its homework. This will also give a sense of the agency and team’s experience in your space. Additionally, you want a team that is passionate about your brand and mission – not just looking for a paycheck. At the end of the day, passion for your industry and brand will go much farther than retainer dollars, and will perpetuate itself in the quantity and quality of your results.
11. Where would our organization fall within your client spectrum?
It is helpful to get a sense of the average size of accounts on your prospective agency’s roster. Some agencies have a threshold for the size of account they are willing to take on, and/or are able to support. Find out where you fall. Will you be an average sized account, or will you be one of the largest the agency supports? This distinction could potentially affect the prioritization of your account.
12. Can you give me an example of a campaign that you’ve executed in our industry?
There is real value to a chameleon PR pro, who has experiences and success across industries. Breadth of experience comes with a breadth of strategies that can be employed on behalf of your brand. That said, you want some expertise that comes from experience working with brands like yours. This will also give the agency team a chance to show you how they think and who they know in your media and influencer space.
13. What do you need from us?
Your agency should lighten your load and improve your results. That said, it is naïve to think that you will hire an agency and outsource all your work. The most successful agency partnerships result from strategic teamwork. Whether it is a customer roster, access to executive experts or simple face-time, your prospective agency should know and be honest with you when it comes to what they need from you to succeed.
It is a big decision picking a new PR agency, and you should approach it as strategically and informed as possible. When done right, it is a partnership that moves the needle for your organization in a truly impactful way. When done wrong, it can be quite painful for everyone involved. These questions are by no means exhaustive, but should be considered for your “must-ask list.” There is always a perfect agency partnership to be had, and it is up to you to give yourself the best chance of finding the right fit for you and your organization.
Are there any other questions that should be added to this list or that you have asked or been asked during an agency selection process? Let us know by filling out the form below.