Seeking public relations counsel: a brief shopper’s guide

We’re quickly approaching the end of the year, when businesses close out projects and assess their progress for 2013. As attention is turning to plans for 2014, many managers will evaluate their public relations, marketing and communications activities, and consider whether to seek the assistance of an outside firm, or, if the results have not been satisfactory, decide to look for a new agency.

Before becoming an independent consultant, I worked for more than 20 years on the “client side,” in corporations and, early in my career, in government. In a variety of situations, my colleagues and I would interview, evaluate and select public relations firms and counselors. Based on that experience, the following are some important factors to consider in your own deliberations:

(Although these tips are written in the context of evaluating public relations and communications firms – e.g., referring to “they” – the suggestions can also apply to evaluating sole practitioners.)

Are they strategic?

There’s probably no more overused word in business today than “strategic,” yet its true meaning is often overlooked; specifically, the ability to plan acourse of action to achieve a goal or objective. The responsibility of a public relations counsel is to chart a public relations strategy that will, in turn, support an organization’s business strategy.

The communications objectives, for example, might change opinions, increase awareness or establish an organization’s reputation. The key is to have a direction and an ultimate objective – and for that objective to enhance an organization’s overall success.

Too often, however, public relations firms and counselors tout their capabilities, and whether they can utilize the latest in communications tools or innovations. One firm or counselor may showcase their experience in social media; another, in video; or yet another in events that have attracted wide publicity.

A prospective PR firm must have the right capabilities, but it’s important for the client not to become enamored of the “latest shiny thing” in media and communications. Instead the client should ask the firm to demonstrate how it has developed strategies in the past, and applied its capabilities to achieve measurable objectives. If a firm is truly strategic, they’ll be able to answer those questions.

Do they understand your business?

This seems like such a basic requirement for outside counsel, but over the years I’ve been struck by how agencies – whether from public relations, marketing, advertising or other disciplines – don’t always take the time to get to know the business of a prospective client.

Certainly, this requires some perspective: you’re hiring someone for their talents and skills in public relations, not to understand every single aspect of your company or to manage your business overall. Still, I’ve been surprised when people from agencies working with my employer, when offering advice or ideas, demonstrated that they didn’t understand basic aspects of my business.

On the other hand, I can recall pleasant, enlightening – even exciting – experiences during interviews of prospective agencies, when their answers to our questions showed that they had taken the time not only to learn about our company, but to understood key challenges and issues we were facing. It’s in those moments that a prospective agency or counselor shows that it can offer new, helpful insights on how you can succeed in the future.

Do they offer a fresh perspective?

As noted above, along with the understanding of your business, an agency needs to offer fresh perspective on your public relations, marketing or communications programs. In fact, the best counselors can take their knowledge of your company, business and industry and apply it to help your company stand out from its competitors.

Please note: No consultant can bring a fresh perspective to a client’s program if the client is not willing to consider new ideas. In fact, no company or manager should even consider hiring an outside expert if the manager is not open to new perspectives. If you hire a public relations counsel and begin to feel like all you’re doing is giving orders, it might be time to question whether the counsel is really adding value. Likewise, a smart client should expect outside counsel to question old assumptions – diplomatically, to be sure, but to question them nonetheless.

Do they take the initiative?

There’s no “one size fits all” approach to compensating public relations counsel. It may involve payment according to an hourly fee, payment for a specific project or payment of a pre-agreed, monthly retainer.

One case involving compensation structures, however, actually taught me the value of a public relations counsel who takes the initiative. When I was given responsibility for the communications and public relations of a division of my company, I was assigned an agency that had a long-term relationship with the corporation. At first, the agency provided me with great support and counsel. But it experienced management changes, and I was assigned new people.

The compensation was based entirely on hourly fees. I seldom heard from the staff assigned to my account; then, when I called the agency with a simple question, I’d get my answer, but soon afterward get a bill for 15 minutes of counsel. This happened repeatedly – it’s what some might call “nickel and diming.”

I evaluated the relationship, and decided to seek a new agency. The firm we hired convinced me of the value of putting them on a retainer, and once that was signed the agency always took the initiative to contact me with ideas, advice and recommendations. They demonstrated that a valuable public relations counsel will be eager to learn about the client’s business, then “take the first step” to provide assistance and support

What is their reputation – professionally, and ethically?

Getting the answer to this question will involve talking with past clients of the firm, and with other corporate communications executives. When interviewing a firm, the client also can ask if the agency belongs to a professional organization, such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and if employees are required to adhere to the codes of ethical conduct prescribed by those and similar organizations.

A public relations firm’s responsibility is to help manage the reputation of the client. Before hiring a public relations agency, make sure the agency itself has established its own strong reputation, for integrity as well as expertise – among its clients, competitors and others in the marketplace.

What other factors do you consider important in evaluating a public relations firm?

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One Comment on “Seeking public relations counsel: a brief shopper’s guide”

  1. Ted Murphy says:

    Pat: Strong content, nicely done, excellent counsel–I forward it to several folks. Enjoy reading your posts and watching you build a higher profile. Best, Ted Murphy


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