Star Makers

Finding public relations and advertising agencies to make your business shine.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the April 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Advertising and publicity are as important to the success of a business as attractive landscaping is to the sale of a home. Yet we all know people who feel they can put in their own sprinkler system, plant their own trees and lay out the perfect garden without help from anyone.

Similarly, many small-business owners try to handle their own advertising and public relations. This may work if you are one of those few lucky people who can do anything themselves (short of taking out their own appendixes). Most of us, however, are of the "plant the shrubs and watch them die" variety. We think we can do what the pros do-only to see our investment bear no fruit or shrivel up and turn brown.

If you're looking to help your business grow, the use of professional, experienced advertising and public relations firms can make a big difference. But once you've committed to the idea that you need professional help, how do you choose the right agency?

Start by understanding the difference between advertising and PR. The traditional definition of advertising goes something like this: "Creating or changing attitudes, beliefs and perceptions by influencing people with purchased broadcast time (radio, television, audio/videocassette), print space (newspapers, magazines, journals, programs, billboards), or other forms of written/visual media (fliers, brochures, bus-stop billboards, skywriting)."

Public relations, too, influences people's attitudes, beliefs and perceptions; however, it does so through press coverage in television, radio, newspapers or magazines which, unlike advertising, is often free. Because advertising and public relations are not the same, it is critical that you avoid the one-size-fits-all approach when choosing an agency.

Issues to Consider

Because most small businesses don't have huge advertising budgets, it is important the dollars you do have are spent wisely. That means working with an agency that can really meet your needs and with which you feel comfortable. Not all advertising agencies can deliver everything they claim. There are lots of companies vying for your precious money, so carefully consider the following issues before committing to any contractual agreement.

1. Define your objective in hiring an ad agency. What do you want to achieve? What should be different after the agency goes to work for you? What kind of working relationship do you prefer?

2. Check out sources. Consider work you've seen or heard that has impressed you. Call friends and colleagues you trust and get their recommendations. Attend professional or trade association meetings, and talk to members who have used agencies before. Seek out their opinions, and note whose names come up often (both pro and con). Watch for articles about ad agencies in area papers, trade magazines and related publications (such as chamber of commerce newsletters).

3. Once you have a list of candidates, screen them by phone. Ask about their backgrounds, projects they've worked on, the results they've had, their fees and anything else important to you. Then set up interviews with the three or four firms that impressed you the most.

4. Interview the finalists. Find out the following:

  • Do they have experience working with your industry? What is their track record when working with companies like yours? Do they understand your business and the nuances of what you do? If not, are they willing to research the information they need?
  • Is there chemistry? You can tell if there is a good "fit" with an ad agency. A good agency will express interest in getting to know you as an individual and learning more about your company. They will be good listeners and quick learners. They will make good suggestions and react quickly to your questions and opinions. They should demonstrate the ability to anticipate what is best for your business and be prepared to disagree with you if they feel you're on the wrong track.
  • Do they show originality and creativity? Based on the agency's previous work, do you feel these people understand how best to "sell" your product or service? If you operate a home health-care agency, for example, you probably don't want an ad campaign that features technology over tenderness. Sensing your clientele, the agency should know enough about you to put together the appropriate message.
  • Are they reliable and budget conscious? No amount of chemistry and creativity can make up for a missed deadline or an estimate that's way off. Be sure the agency has not only the creative skills needed but also the time and commitment to devote to your needs. Whether you're the biggest or smallest client in their stable, you should be able to count on consistent attention to detail. They should be available to answer your questions and be accountable for delays and expenses.

Finding a PR Agency

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.

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