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Should You Hire a PR Firm or a Boutique PR Firm? (And What's the Difference?) There's little argument that PR efforts are vital, if not downright necessary, to the success of present-day entrepreneurship. But many businesses still debate the merits of taking on an outside agency, and even once they're convinced, what type of firm should they hire: specialist or generalist?

By Emily Reynolds Bergh Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

More and more businesses are recognizing the value of public relations to put them — and keep them — on the map of today's highly competitive, highly saturated marketplace.

The marketing strategies that businesses used to rely on before the digital age — like prominent Yellow Page listings, newspaper ads and distributed flyers announcing store openings — are no longer effective and cutting-edge promotional tools. Such priorities as social media presence, brand buzz and cross-platform messaging have replaced these traditional approaches.

Experts in financial consulting, fashion merchandising or home health services aren't expected to be experts in these newer means and modes of company publicity. That's what PR and branding pros are for. And that's why businesses of all sizes are increasingly realizing that they can benefit immensely from forming B2B partnerships with specialists in these new spaces and places.

Related: 4 Reasons Your PR Campaign Isn't Driving Sales — and How to Fix Them

Why hire a PR firm?

Here are some of the top reasons businesses contract with a PR specialist as part of their overall business plan:

  • To increase brand awareness and break into new markets
  • To strategize ways to stand out from the competition and make an impressionable mark in your industry
  • To take advantage of market trends and customize campaigns to target influencers and audiences
  • To manage all media/community relations and deliver content marketing assets
  • To provide crisis management when needed
  • To leverage the power of outside expertise to accomplish internal goals

If you're at a place in your business's evolution where you recognize it's time to bring in PR expertise, should you go the boutique route … or not?

Related: Why You Need A PR Agency and How to Choose One Wisely

Boutique vs. not boutique

In the world of PR, there's not always a tremendous difference between the two types of firms, but there are significant differences.

Staff size: Boutique firms tend to have a smaller staff but one with a higher degree of experience in particular domains. All-round PR firms have more bodies in seats to handle a large client list, but some may lack specialization and in-depth knowledge.

Overhead considerations: A smaller boutique operation obviously equates to lower overhead expenses (which are inevitably passed on to clients to some degree in any business model). Larger umbrella firms, on the contrary, charge more, but those heftier invoices can also come with access to more resources and a wider reach in the industry.

Portfolio volume: Boutique firms purposely limit their client list to a curated selection of business types and sizes, usually SMBs (small to medium-sized businesses). They don't promise they can be everything to everybody because they likely don't have that capacity. Full-service firms will undoubtedly have larger capacity, and for proponents of the "bigger is better" theory, that's an important deciding factor. Just keep in mind that bulkier portfolios also carry larger retainers, sometimes with longer-term commitments.

Level of care: A smaller, more intimate PR firm usually takes pains to deliver a more intimate experience characterized by a white glove approach and 24/7 care and accessibility. They might not want to answer your call on a Sunday, but to retain your business and keep you happy, they will! Larger firms aren't as dependent on each individual client to stay in business, and because they have larger staffs, they have greater turnover. Both types can dispense utter professionalism and skill, but the boutique firm's agency background often equips them with a more personalized touch.

Advantages and disadvantages

When it comes right down to it, any PR outfit has the same objectives, purpose and mission: to broaden your presence in your market and spread the good word about your quality brand and business. So the distinction mainly comes down to a difference in scale.

Full-service agencies have the bandwidth to take on more clients simultaneously and manage larger projects and campaigns across numerous industries. They also have more employees to see to clients' needs and sometimes top-level talent on staff, like a copywriter who pens Super Bowl ads (and commands a top-level salary!).

However, because boutique firms have highly seasoned and versatile specialists on a more compact team, you can get more bang for your buck when it comes to industry-specific expertise. Boutique firms can be more flexible in contract terms, more agile in tailoring services and more affordable for clients with budgetary constraints. And yet, they may face limitations in terms of scalability, so that needs to be considered.

It all depends on your preferences

Both boutique and non-boutique firms can cover the full range of expected services — media outreach, content marketing, product launches and event coordination, to name a few. Whereas the full-service firm takes a more panoramic view over a vaster amount of space, the boutique firm adopts a niche focus and caters to highly individualized client results.

If you like the idea of taking on an established entity with a macro vision and far-reaching feelers to make a nationwide or even worldwide dent, a generalist firm might be for you. Likewise, if you'd prefer to work with multiple individuals across multiple departments. However, at a boutique firm, you're far more likely to work with the same small team from project start to finish.

Either way, it's a good idea to research the firm's track record and customer testimonials. In doing so, assess the firm's capabilities, competencies and specialties. Before signing on the dotted line, ask how the firm visualizes relations with clients, how they prioritize client tasks and how much attention you can expect to receive per month. How accessible will they be, and how do they divvy up responsibilities between them and you?

Ultimately, the decision of who to hire hinges on your particular business needs at this particular time. If a reputable boutique PR agency can meet those needs effectively and affordably, why not start smaller in size and narrower in focus? You can always go bigger and broader if you decide to cast a wider net in a larger pool!
Emily Reynolds Bergh

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Founder at R Public Relations Firm

Emily Reynolds Bergh — vintage-shoe hoarder, cycling junkie, & lover of pink drinks — is a marketing & PR pro with 15+ years of experience under her belt. Now the founder & owner of the award-winning R Public Relations based in New York, she’s been featured in numerous publications & podcasts.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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