Finding a PR Agency
When looking for a public relations firm, you will probably hear plenty of so-called experts say PR is better than advertising. This isn't necessarily true: PR is simply different from advertising.
In many instances, PR carries more weight because it seems to imply a third-party endorsement. We all know ads are paid for by the business advertised and thus are inherently biased. A positive mention in the media, however, sends a different message. Rightly or wrongly, it is considered more objective and believable than an ad.
While the advantage to PR is that it is seen as less self-serving and often more honest than ads, the disadvantage is that you have no control over the timing, the placement or the spin given to your mention by the media. But when advertising and PR efforts are partnered together, the results can be spectacular.
Much of the same advice that applies to finding an ad agency applies to a PR firm as well. Start by defining why you need a PR firm and what you expect to get from it. Look for candidates by asking colleagues and others you respect for recommendations. Consult professional and trade associations and publications.
The local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) can provide a list of members available for hire. Because PRSA members agree to abide by a code of ethics, you are likely to find firms and individuals you can trust.
Sharon Haley Linhart, owner of Linhart McClain Finlon, a public relations firm in Denver, emphasizes the need to look for references and testimonials when choosing a firm. She also says to consider recommendations from local media and the amount of attention you can expect to get.
"Choosing a PR firm is like selecting a nanny for your child," says Linhart, who has over 20 years of experience in the industry. "You want [an agency that] will represent you and protect your `child' as if it were their own. But don't approach a firm with unrealistic expectations. No one can get your company on the front page of The Wall Street Journal if you've done nothing newsworthy."
The PR arena is becoming more and more specialized. Many PR firms now focus on clients within a single industry, such as in environmental issues, health care or transportation. If it's important to you that your PR agency have a deep knowledge of your business niche, then start noticing which companies in your industry get the kind of press you would like, and find out what PR firms they are using.
You may have to balance the need for an industry-specific PR firm with the constraints of your budget. If you have limited resources, a smaller, more general PR firm with a wide variety of clientele and experience could be a better choice than a more expensive, more specialized firm.
What to Watch Out For
In an effort to get your business, PR firms may exaggerate their knowledge of your industry. If you're seeking a firm with specialized experience, don't hesitate to quiz the principals about their knowledge of your field. Ask for examples of what they've done for others in your industry.
Almost always, PR and advertising firms send their best and brightest employees to make the sales pitch to you. Be aware, however, that those may not be the people you end up dealing with.
One time when I was hiring a PR/marketing firm, we were pitched by a company with a terrific team of young upstarts. The owner of the company led the group that came to our office to present their ideas. We were impressed and signed the company that day, thinking we knew who the players would be for the next year. To our surprise, we not only found we had limited access to the "stars," but we also had to get acquainted with a completely new cast of characters.
If you can afford it, aim to deal with the decision makers at the advertising agency or PR firm. But don't lose sight of the fact that sometimes a staff person can do what you need just as well . . . and more economically. The key is to know from the beginning of the relationship whom you'll be dealing with on a daily basis.
For many small businesses, hiring an advertising or PR agency is a huge step down an unfamiliar path. But if you take the time to carefully assess your resources before you select an agency to help guide you to your goals, the journey to a more profitable business can be an exciting one.
Leann Anderson is the owner of Anderson Business Resources, a Greeley, Colorado, company specializing in customer service, marketing and high-tech etiquette.