January 21, 2013

How to choose a PR company – Part One

Under: Business | Public relations

I was in PR for a good many years, but because I was always in agency PR rather than in-house, I’ve never been on the receiving end of a pitch.

If I’ve never sat on the other side of the table, how can I give advice to the people who have? I’d say it’s because I know what PR companies are like, rather than how they present themselves to the outside world. When you’re outside looking in on a PR company, you might think some things are important either when they’re not, or when they’re hard to judge. When you’ve been on the inside, I think you know a bit more about what you’d be looking for.

In this first post I’ll cover a few of the less useful things most companies do when they go looking for PR agencies.

Here’s a big one. They almost always ask pitching agencies to demonstrate ‘excellent relations with the media.’ The main problem with this is no one is ever going to claim anything other than great media contacts. If everyone says it – and they ought to, they’re in PR, for goodness’ sake – how do you know which ones to believe? They can all prove it, too, one way or another. To my mind, there’s not a lot of value in asking PR agencies this question.

Companies also ask PR agencies to respond to a brief. The pitching agencies present their ideas, and the company decides which ones it likes. I don’t think this always works, either. I was in PR for over 20 years, and I think I could count on one hand the number of times when, after winning the business, we were asked actually to implement what we proposed in the pitch.

I suppose client companies could argue that, whether proposals were executed or not, they at least demonstrated creativity, and nearly all companies say yes, that’s what they want, creativity. Except, in my experience, they don’t. Most companies want success, but they don’t want to take risks. If it all goes wrong, the marketing director who signed off on that left-field stunt is going to have to justify himself or herself to the people upstairs. So yes, we’ll have creativity, but we won’t have too much of it, thanks.

That’s not to say, of course, that the pitch process has no value. When a PR agency gives you its response to your brief, you learn not just about its creativity, but about how thoughtful they are, how organised, and how they gel as a team. You can also gauge their logic and lateral thinking. Many client companies confuse means and ends: they think it’s all about great coverage in important media. It isn’t. It’s about getting a message across to the right audience, and if that means ignoring the FT and organising a customer event or something, so be it. You don’t want a PR company that shares this confusion. They should know better than this.

In the next post I’ll cover some questions companies ask that I think are good ones. And in the third and last post on this subject, I’ll cover things I don’t think they often consider.

Or maybe they do, and over all those years I never found out. (After all, I never did sit on that side of the table, as I say.)




What do you think?

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