Avoiding Common Pitfalls When Hiring a PR Agency

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A man with a cup of coffee who is confident that he has avoided common pitfalls when hiring a PR agency

There are over 8,500 PR agencies in the United States, and less than 1% of businesses ever receive press coverage. That suggests two things: the first is that PR agencies fail frequently, and second, most companies have never hired one. Hiring a PR agency isn’t something an entrepreneur or even a CMO does daily, so it can be confusing. We work with many companies new to PR, so we make every effort to help make this decision clear. This is the advice I give my colleagues and friends who are hiring PR agencies to avoid some common pitfalls when hiring a PR agency.

Narrowing Down Your PR Agency List

It’s common to look for PR agencies that specialize in your industry, and that’s a legitimate way of narrowing your list. However, that’s not the only question. For example, we are somewhat industry agnostic. We specialize in emerging industries and ambitious brands. Yes, those tend to have some consistency in terms of industry, but we really specialize in the end goals of those types of companies.

  • Start looking for PR agencies at least six months before you need them. The process will probably take longer than you imagined, and giving your PR team the time they need to succeed will greatly impact your outcomes. For example, have a very specific process designed to help you better understand what a PR campaign will look like – but it takes weeks to complete.
  • Visit their website, review their client’s work, and understand their approach and perspective. What message is their website sending?
  • From their case studies, you’ll be able to see how they lead with PR. For example, are they really an event marketing firm whose events host journalists? Maybe their specialty is influencer relations, which sometimes turns into news. Or are they earned media-driven—do they specialize in helping you become newsworthy so the media wants to cover your business? These are all different approaches, and one may very well be what you had in mind.
  • Establish a budget. If you aren’t sure what a PR budget should look like, we have some PR budget insights. Your budget will dictate the experience level, and the outcomes of your PR program. Hiring a PR agency based solely on price is a mistake, but you don’t want to blindly hire the most expensive one, either.
  • Getting the Pricing Right. First question: what is it worth to you to meet your objectives? If you’re looking for a buyer or receive venture funding, it’s a multi-million dollar goal, and your PR budget should match that goal. And remember that there may be additional expenses besides the PR agency’s team expertise. How much should a PR agency cost? PR firms consider many variables when pricing, but like your business, some operating expenses need to be covered no matter what. For this reason, many agencies have minimums; the minimum is usually in the five figures every month. So, if your budget is below $120,000 annually, finding a solo practitioner is probably best.
  • Share your budget. Don’t dance around it, thinking you’ll need to negotiate. You have a budget—you know you have a budget—so share it. That will save everyone time and money. You will exclude some agencies based on their minimums, and you may find that you prefer to be top dog at an agency rather than at their minimum rate.

Meeting Your Top 3 PR Agencies

  • My advice is to be really clear on your outcomes – what do you want to change at the business level, and how do your top agencies respond to those goals? Do they have a successful track record of accomplishing that goal?
  • There’s no “wrong or right way” to approach PR; all PR should be based on outcomes, but there are many tools PR experts can use to achieve this. But setting expectations is key. Is media coverage your key metric of success? Then, look for an agency that leads with media relations and can help you define your business as newsworthy. Is rubbing elbows with celebrities your ideal outcome? Then hire an agency with deep ties to the entertainment industry.
  • Who is the Team? Understand that unless you’re working with a very big firm, you won’t likely be assigned a team until you’re at contract because the time won’t be allocated until then; the important question is: how do they decide who works on the team, and how often will you engage with the most experienced person on the team? Not understanding the size of your team or its seniority level is another common pitfall when hiring a PR agency.
  • Setting Expectations. Look for an agency that’s realistic about expectations based on your given circumstances. Glorious promises of guaranteed coverage should be a red flag, not because paid content is bad, but because it’s a paid placement, not a media story. You want a PR agency that is transparent with you. Ask them how they will measure success based on your ideal outcomes.
  • Yes, you’re interviewing the PR agency, but remember, the agency is likely also evaluating whether they would be able to do great work with you. No one likes to set themselves up for failure, including PR agencies.

Working with Your New PR Agency

  • Understand that the heaviest lift is in the beginning. That’s because media begets media. That’s why you’ll often find that PR agencies have a minimum term for media relations campaigns. Getting the media to cover a CEO or a company that no one has heard of before is a huge initial hurdle. Most new businesses think the news isn’t news in the eyes of a journalist or their editor. For example, no matter how innovative, your new product isn’t news because it’s been launched. Millions of products launch daily; it’s not news. But is there a newsworthy angle? That’s what you work on with your PR firm.
  • Be Transparent. This is a common pitfall when hiring a PR agency. Be open to discussing your business’ inner workings and provide them with insights and perspectives. The more you share, the more their imaginations should spark. Hiding things from your PR firm results in less than optimum results. I always tell people – don’t lie to your lawyer or your publicist.
  • Understand your own bandwidth. A common pitfall when hiring a PR agency is that you hire them, and they go about their work. That’s true—to a point. You must be prepared to set aside time for media training, interviews, and working with your PR agency. PR isn’t like advertising, which you turn on and off. There will be collaborations. Be prepared to brainstorm rather than direct your PR firm.
  • Frustratingly, you may not get media coverage right away. During this time, the key is to stay in touch with your PR team and discuss what needs to be done to smooth the path for more media coverage.
  • Trust the experts. You’ve done your due diligence and have a team working with you. Trust them. No matter how long they’ve been in PR, they know the media landscape better than you. Another common pitfall when hiring a PR agency is ignoring their recommendations. The media landscape is constantly changing, so be ready to discuss creative ideas along the way.
  • What ideas are they bringing to the table? If they’re running out of ideas, that’s a red flag. Your PR Team should be working three to six months in advance, and should be asking you questions about things that far in advance as well.
  • If you’re displeased with the agency experience, tell them promptly. Discuss your expectations and discuss solutions. Remember: your PR agency is on your side, and they’re just people. Approach any issue you have with the expectation that they want what’s right for you, too, but because they’re people, if they feel attacked or belittled, it could further hinder any other results. Imagine trying to go out there and tell a journalist why a company is fantastic when the CEO just chewed you out. Most people would agree that isn’t a recipe for success.

There is a PR agency well-suited to your needs. Avoiding these common pitfalls when hiring a PR agency will help you find and work with the right agency at the right time for your company. Contact us if you’d like to discuss our approach to working with companies who haven’t hired a PR agency before.