12 Things You Should Know Before Hiring a PR Agency

Whoa, there, movers, shakers, and game-changers! Before you go out and hire the first public relations agency with five-star reviews, there are at least 10 things you need to know about what PR folks do.

First, you may find you don’t even need a PR firm (yet!). Or, your savvy quest may lead to the realization that not all PR agencies are created equal, and some are more suited to your brand vision and goals than others.

10 Things You Should Know Before Hiring Public Relations Pros (+ 2 bonus tips)

To that end, we’ve put together a list of the at least a dozen things every business owner should know before signing any dotted lines.

1. Are you clear about what PR agencies are and what they do?

We’ll be blunt; you’d be amazed at how many business owners don’t really know what a PR firm is anyway but heard they need to get themselves one. More commonly, owners confuse public relations and marketing. It’s easy to do, so don’t get shy if you fall into this category. Admitting what you aren’t clear about allows space to learn more so you can make better, strategic decisions for your company.

PR agencies are focused on creating compelling stories about your brand and keeping them fresh. We also handle pre- and post-crisis management planning. And, although we certainly leverage the power of social media, we’re more focused on getting your story out using mainstream media coverage and positive exposure via influencers. Then, just keep you on your toes, there are PR firms (like us) who are happy to serve as both PR and marketing strategists if you don’t have your own marketing team and those that don’t.

For a more detailed explanation, read What Does a Public Relations Agency Do? If you’re still not clear, consults with prospective PR agencies will provide further clarity. Understanding what a PR company does is the first step in establishing whether your company or brand is ready to invest in professional public relations.

2. Do you need a PR firm…yet?

There are times when we recommend entrepreneurs align with a PR agency right off the bat because the brand is prepared to grow bigger and broader. There are other times when, as much as we’d love to promote a brand, we feel like the company needs to identify their story, stretch, and grow a bit more before making the investment.

You may determine that you’re not quite ready for professional PR, in which case we recommend, How to Do Your Own PR.

You’re probably ready to hire a PR agency if/when:

  • Your niche is relatively saturated, and you aren’t able to rank above major competitors
  • The local market is aware of you, but you’re ready to build brand recognition at the next level(s)
  • You’ve realized that staying relevant requires long-term vision, goals, and continued communication with media/influencers sucks up too much inhouse time/energy
  • It’s been a while since you’ve been front-and-center in any top-tier media outlets (journalists, podcasters, industry or mainstream magazines, newspapers, the guest on a local show, etc.)
  • You’re not a great writer or speaker (or marketer, or videographer, or photographer), which is necessary to achieve the latter-mentioned journalist showboating required for good PR OR you are good at those things but are trying to run a business and don’t have the time.

Do one or more of those resonate with you? Start looking for PR agencies who speak your brand’s language.

3. Are they in your price range?

As you can imagine, PR firms are wildly successful self-publicists. So, the agency that caught your eye may be way out of your price range. Every business likes to be a bit sneaky, luring in prospects and then forming such a warm and fuzzy bond that the consumer will just hit “Buy Now!” in ecstatic glee.

You, however, are a business owner with a closely guarded bottom line, so budget is king. Honor that and be upfront with what your budget boundaries. There’s no point in hiring public relations gurus if the investment puts you out of business before they can work their magic.

Also, don’t forget to ask how they bill. By project? By the hour? By the service tier?

Time for Internal Reflection and Data Collection

If you’re more grounded in those first four considerations, we’ll continue with the meaty stuff.
These are the things you’d want to establish with your company’s key players when meeting before meeting with potential PR teams for your brand.

4. Can you provide definitive and salient story points?

Remember that we said PR is all about telling the right stories? PR stories are like sagas – with a beginning and a middle…and, the goal being to not have an end for quite some time. A compelling saga requires:

  • Heroes (your brand, products, and services, employees and customer service peeps)
  • Villains (your customer pain points and, possibly, your competition but that’s delicate)
  • A plot that makes hearts swell with engaged emotion
  • Great visuals and other experiential features

For your PR team to take all that and write great stories, you’ll need to be clear on your brand’s salient “story points” such as:

  • Do you have the makings of a cool, heartwarming, exciting, or “I get that!” kind of story about the brand’s origin? Or its growth? Or key customers/employees? Company miracles?
  • Can you define your niche?
  • Do you have a clear idea of who your target audience members are, in detailed demographics?
  • Are you able to name clear ways you’re different from your competitor(s)?

The more you can concisely synthesize the story, feeling, energy, and nuances of your brand, the better prospective PR agencies can present their ideas and strategies for you.

5. What are your main objectives for the PR agency (i.e., why the heck are you hiring them?)

If you don’t have concrete objectives to bring to the table, a client-hungry firm will eat you right up. They’ll create fluffy, beautiful, rosy goals and objectives for your brand, using so many industry terms and acronyms that you’ll be dizzy with desire. Then, you’ll walk away feeling confused about what just happened.

Being clear about your objectives, and what you plan to achieve through public relations support, protects you from investing too early or selecting the wrong company to represent you.

6. Do you have market research to present?

Don’t get us wrong. Your PR team will do their homework and research once you’ve contracted with them. If they really want you, they may even do some proactive research to wow you with their intuitive greatness.

Regardless, bring any solid market research you have via in-house efforts or consultant/analysts you’ve used in the past (this includes HubSpot or website host’s analytics about website and social media performance). Gather up videos and print footage, or any other public exposure you’ve had. This gives the PR firm more information to brainstorm further goals, suggestions, and strategies based on where you’ve been, where you are now, what’s worked and what hasn’t and where you plan to be in X years down the road.

7. Are your key players and team onboard? And, who’s the point person?

We highly recommend meeting with management, key players, and staff/employees before you hire PR help. In #4, we mentioned that your staff and customer service peeps are heroes in your stories. At the very least, they’re Main Characters.

Let them know that hiring a PR firm means change may be on the horizon. Your brand reps need to tell a unified story, and that requires specific language, lingo, customer interaction, etc. It also requires a unified company language and culture. Those are all things the PR pros may come in and work with via in-person or webinar training, rewording of existing content/documents/customer service scripts, etc., and specific instructions regarding internal and external communication.

You’ll also want to identify a point person, lead contact, or PR manager who is there from the beginning and is the chief liaison between your company and the PR agency.

Ask PR Agencies the Right Questions

If you’ve considered all of the above and you’re moving forward with hiring a professional PR agency, it’s time to learn what prospective agencies can do for you.

8. What are your niches? And are we one of them?

Some PR firms operate across the industry spectrum, but most have a few “favorites” or niche industries/brand markets based on their team’s experience and passions. You want to select a PR firm that specializes in and has experience with your brand’s niche.

Some PR firms offer the roundabout of services and have specific industry niches. Others are oriented around specific aspects of public relations services, specializing in particulars such as communication, media relations, community-based brand development, internal employee/staff communication and policies, non-profit promotion, or public affairs PR.

9. Do they offer the services your brand needs most?

The PR world can be hard to define. It uses marketing, we’re experienced at marketing, but we’re not the same as a marketing firm. Some of us offer only the services that reflect our niche expertise. Examples of prospective services or attributes include:

  • Brand and product launches
  • Media training for you and your key players
  • Event conception and planning
  • Tradeshow planning
  • Promotional events and publicity stunts
  • Community event planning and publicity stunts
  • Established relationships with your industry’s influencers and game-changers
  • Content amplification
  • Social media monitoring
  • Pre- and Post-crisis communication planning and training
  • Creative direction and advertising campaigns

The list goes on, and many companies offer a bit of all-of-the-above. Your job is to find the one with service focuses in sync with your brand’s short- and long-term objectives. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can speak to current and former clients to see if they got what they paid for, and to learn more about prospective PR agencies’ strengths and weaknesses

10. How do they work with existing marketing teams?

If you don’t have a marketing team, your PR firm will take over that role, or they’ll refer you to marketers they trust. If you have an existing marketing team, and you love them, prospective PR firms should provide clear information about how they integrate with client teams.

The goal is for the public relations/marketing team integration to happen slowly, smoothly, and consistently, with the two sides’ cultures similar or complementary enough to enjoy a symbiotic relationship.

Finally, Some PR Hiring Bonus Tips

Here are the two bonus tips to round out your ideal, HR hiring preparation process.

11. Who will you be working with? And, do you like them?

Bells and whistles, stats and numbers – those are all terrific. However, there are enough PR firms out there that the best on paper, and the one with the most compelling promises, might not be the right one for your brand.

You owe it to yourselves and your employees (not to mention your customers) to like the people working for your PR agency.

Ask who, specifically, you’d be working with. If they aren’t there, ask for a meeting with him/her/them as well. Make sure you feel comfortable telling them what you like, what you don’t, and also being comfortable receiving feedback and constructive feedback or training about how you can do better. Optimally, you’ll be working with these individuals – and the agency – for many years to come.

12. Are you ready to work with someone else to promote your brand?

This is a partnership. Your brand’s success will happen faster, stronger, and more organically if you’ve found a PR agency you’re excited to work with on a regular basis. If you like the idea of hiring a PR agency, but you are struggling with giving up control or are a micro-manager by nature, do some internal work first so your PR partnership can be successful from the start.

Segal Communications is a Bay Area public relations firm that thrives on helping clients’ brands shine bigger and brighter, land regular, top-tier media coverage, and who is as happy to consult with you in the short-term as we are to form a lifelong partnership. Contact us to get started.

How to Do Your Own PR

The Ultimate Guide on Doing Your Own PR

Before reading the below how-to I would like to preface this with a recent post from a well-respected journalist outlining the reason why he prefers to work with journalists and ignores “pitches that come from individuals themselves.”

  1. Publicists want to maintain a good relationship with the journalist, so they are polite, courteous and professional. Individuals don’t care as much. I have received the most egregiously rude emails from individuals who tried to do it themselves.
  2. Having a publicist is like one step in a vetting process. It usually means the interviewee has a certain degree of success and savvy.
  3. The publicist invests energy to make sure the images sent in are good quality, the content is well-edited, etc. Without a publicist, it’s usually not the case. In almost all cases, interviews that come back with the assistance of publicist come out much, much better.
  4. Publicists usually understand the system: e.g.: you can’t make changes after its live, it won’t come down after its live, you can’t suggest headlines, you can’t review it before it’s published, you can’t pay money to a journalist, etc. etc. Individuals don’t understand this.

Yes, this may not be the case with all journalists. So, I give you the below guidance if you choose to go it alone.

According to Forbes, as much as one-third of the U.S. workforce will be self-employed by the end of 2020. That explains why so many business owners are becoming DIY public relations agents. As a small business owner, you may be able to save a small fortune by learning how to do your own PR and once your brand reaches the level of visibility and success you’re striving for, you can reward yourself by hiring an experienced, reputable public relations (PR) firm who will take over from there.

Until then, applying practical PR tips advances your brand’s visibility and social engagement, and cultivates the positive reputation required to be successful in a fiercely competitive business market. Achieving that level of brand legitimacy requires demystifying what PR is and how public relations professionals go about it.

This guide distills public relations how-tos down to five general areas.

  1. What is PR and what’s the point?
  2. How PR differs from marketing
  3. Identifying your company’s story (and how to own your, expertise, niche, and prowess)
  4. Earned Media (what it is, why you want it, how you get it)
  5. Measuring your PR results

Ready? Set? Let’s Go…

What is PR and What’s the Point?

o define PR, we go directly to the source – the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA):

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. At its core, public relations is about influencing, engaging and building a relationship with key stakeholders across numerous platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization.

While PR is a 20th-century concept, the strategies, themes, and modalities continue to evolve in response to societal and cultural shifts combined with technological advancement.

The trickiest thing about PR is that companies have to straddle the border between humility and boastfulness, especially when getting their brand up and off the ground. Successful publicity and relationship building do not happen because you’re incessantly bragging about being the best fill-in-the-blank in the world; they transpire as followers, investors, employees, media gurus, major influencers, fellow industry experts, and loyal customers boast to the world about how great you are.

When that happens, repeatedly – over extended periods – garnering awards, newsworthy mentions, or record revenues – only then you may boast a little (but only so much and no more). Like we said, it’s a tricky balance.

We also recommend taking advantage of the wealth of free webinars, videos, and affordable, multi-week, PR courses available to you via the internet. If you’re going to tackle the PR beast on your own, or with a small, in-house team, recurring deep-dives into PR basics are essential to your success.

PRSA identifies the multiple disciplines and functions of successful PR strategies as:

  • Corporate Communications
  • Crisis Communications (even bad press is good press when you handle is quickly and professionally; savvy crisis response can benefit your brand)
  • Executive Communications
  • Internal Communications
  • Investor Relations Communications
  • Marketing Communications
  • Integrated Marketing/Integrated Marketing Communications
  • Media Relations (cultivate genuine relationships/connections with key media personas)
  • Content Creation
  • Events (get yourself out there in front of the right audience members)
  • Social Media (prioritizing social media channels your target audience uses most)
  • Multimedia
  • Reputation Management
  • Speechwriting (pay for a speechwriting consultant if public speaking isn’t your forte)
  • Brand Journalism

While this guide won’t dive into them all, it’s worth visibly posting a list of key PR disciplines and functions in your office. They’ll keep you focused on a more well-rounded approach as you tailor your business’s PR strategies and practices, and the comprehensive list will prevent you from one of the biggest DIY PR mistakes – confusing PR with marketing.

How PR Differs From Marketing

It was easier to view PR from a holistic approach prior to the digital era. Things moved slower and it was easier to develop personal relationships with press and media influencers because communities were smaller and more engaged on a face-to-face level by nature. As times have evolved, and screen/digital media moved to the forefront, it’s been easy for younger business owners and entrepreneurs to equate PR with digital marketing.

While marketing is a major component of PR, it is only one component of the whole. Within the past decade, major public relations firms divide their mission into two categories: traditional PR and digital PR, and strategize accordingly.

It’s also important to distinguish that PR has far more to do with telling a story, managing that story, and editing and re-creating the story. If need be, that includes editing the story in the face of negative press or a brand crisis. The majority of PR work is actually free in terms of cash (but costly in terms of labor/energy expense). This is different from marketing, which almost always requires some type of paid advertising or investment.

Here are some quick PR vs. Marketing comparisons to highlight the difference:

    PR – Focused on big-picture, long-term reputation management via typical positive digital, media, and stakeholder coverage
    Marketing – Uses promotions, direct ads, and other outlets to focus on real-time campaigns that direct sales
    PR – Broadcasts and shares information to make a positive impression on anyone who has an interest in the business, from customers to employees and investors
    Marketing – Creates content and information almost solely for qualified prospects, leads, and customers
    PR – Focuses on selling the company and the brand image Marketing – Focuses on direct sales of products and services
    PR – Tries to move content and information onto/into more reputable platforms and media channels to gain/maintain legitimacy.
    Marketing – Is more concerned about promoting sales messages anywhere and everywhere, and the majority are created in-house.
    PR – ROI is challenging to measure because it is based more on public image, feelings, and beliefs about your company and brand. The arc is often longer.
    Marketing – ROI is easier to measure because there is a direct and immediate correlation between click-throughs, ads/sales, campaigns, and numbers-based revenue.
    PR – As mentioned above, a PR arc is long. PR pros are working in forward-thinking, big-picture, and long-view.
    Marketing – Marketing experts are forward-thinking and following trends but campaigns/ads/promotions are typically cyclical with clear, shorter start-to-finish timelines.

Identifying Your Company/Brand’s Story

Clearly identifying your brand/company story is essential for PR work to be successful. Your story and its emotional impacts are the stuff that solid PR strategies are spun from, and that marketing will utilize to leverage interest, engagement, trust, and sales. As a business owner, your company’s story is typically your story in one form or another. This is an essential component to understand.

If your personal or company story lacks definition, confidence, or a true and empowered owning of your own expertise, prowess, your PR story will fall flat. Amazon’s story is a prime (pun intended) example of how story and brand unite.

Owner Jeff Bezos (former vice president of a Wall Street firm) knew exactly what he wanted to create, an unrivaled internet store that brought goods directly to consumer’s doors in record time. After a couple of trials-and-errors, he settled on the brand name Amazon because, “The Amazon River, he noted, was the biggest river in the world, and he planned to make his store the biggest bookstore in the world.” Also, Bezos started out selling and shipping the five things he felt were easiest to sell online (books, CDs, videos, and computer software and hardware). Then, he launched the business out of a garage and used $250,000 invested by his parents. Once the stage was set, he quickly moved into a larger location and exponentially increased the goods he sold/shipped to serve the needs of online shoppers.

That single paragraph, sums up Bezos’s expertise, the ultimate business goal, how he curated a savvy brand name/image and it has telling story points. That is the beginning of great PR. Your story should allow people to get to know you, trust you, and like you.

Don’t forget the importance of an empowered mindset

Dina Behrman is a UK-based PR expert who helps women grow their businesses. In an article on Forbes.com Behrman emphasizes the importance of developing an empowered mindset around your personal expertise, wisdom, and specialized niches; acknowledge them and claim them.  Without a certain level of confidence in what your brand brings to the world, its story lacks backbone and will be less compelling to prospective audience members.

Underselling yourself, deferring to others’ expertise, and undercharging for products and services will stymie PR momentum.

Earned Media (what it is, why you want it, how you get it)

As mentioned above, your story – aka the foundation of your PR mission – is really about people getting to know you, trust you, and like you. This could also be viewed as cultivating brand legitimacy, trust, and a solid reputation. When you gain that level of public recognition, your brand has better opportunities to be featured via media publications or channels governed by editorial control.

Earned media features are a great sign that your PR is paying off. If you are implementing the right strategies, and your marketing team is sound, earned media is the natural payoff. The best form of earned media is top-tier coverage – meaning your brand’s presence in major media publications, productions, and spotlights. Daily, positive mentions, are the ultimate sign that you have arrived.

The less-good news is that earning media attention from major influencers and legitimate journalists is easier said than done. Earned media can mean being featured or recommended in an op-ed, interviewed on a podcast with a generous following, gaining mention or more elaborate promotion on a website, blog, or other social media trendsetter, etc.

In order to earn that, you’ll need to:

  • Establish a following and active website and social media platforms
  • Understand and focus on the media channels and outlets most likely to be viewed, read or consumed by your target audience(s)
  • Identify small-, medium-, and big-time influencers in your industry
  • Build steady, long-term relationships with said influencers
  • Engage with, follow, and build relationships with local/distant reputable journalists with an interest in your industry/brand
  • De-prioritize press releases and, instead, utilize relationships with influencers/journalists via meet and greets, email communication (to specific addresses, not the general one given at the end of many articles), social media channels and Tweets, so you can comfortably approach them with ideas and pitches that are interesting/relevant to them, their audience, and the larger newsfeed.

Then, use a wide variety of methods to write up and promote your ideas. These include good ol’ fashioned press releases and sending emails to key editors, journalists and influencers to writing guest blogs, and interviewing industry movers/shakers who will then feature that interview via their own networks and channels. Consider doing product reviews, landing guest appearances on local news shows, radio segments, and podcasts, or providing topical commentary when news features cover topics, products, or services relevant to your brand.

Your business may do well locally via highly-targeted marketing and less emphasis on PR and is likely to make decent splashes here and there. However, if you lack a full-fledged PR strategy those splashes will never accumulate into bona fide waves that consistently make it to shore. That’s the kind of power you need to continually grow your brand. Applying the right PR tips and strategies will take you to that next level, yielding recurring top-tier media attention.

Finally, don’t forget that earned media attention can also be your greatest ally in the face of a brand crisis. If influencers trust you, and like you, they’ll stand by you in the hard times to help your brand rise out of the ashes resulting from an internal scandal or general bad publicity. If you haven’t used consistent PR strategies to build a widespread, positive brand reputation, 9-1-1 marketing strategies won’t be able to pull you out of the crisis quagmire.

Understanding the importance of measuring PR results

Remember the table above that compared PR vs. marketing? We mentioned that it’s more difficult to measure the ROI from PR the same way we can with marketing/sales. This is because it is more challenging to quantify the public’s thoughts, opinions, or feelings about you. Measuring PR results requires a combo analysis of public mentions, spotlights, and visibility – and the sentiments associated with those mentions – along with marketing-based benchmarks, metrics, and analytics.

Measuring the success of your PR team planning

To measure the success of your PR team’s planning, and the resulting public reactions to your brand voice, you’ll depend on two different sets of data: key performance indicators and key output metrics.

Key Performance Indicators (KPI)

While PR is not marketing, your marketing team’s KPI are a good litmus test of how your brand is doing in the larger, public sphere. If your brand image is up, the numbers will be too. These include:

  • Website referral traffic
  • Organic traffic
  • Social engagements
  • Lead volume
  • Conversions

Key output metrics

Key output metrics analyze your earned media credits and indicate whether your planning, strategies, and actions are paying off via credible media mentions. Key output metrics quantify:

  • Media mentions (Google Alerts and SocialMention are great tools to support this)
  • Share of voice (how do your media mentions compare with competitors in terms of both numbers and sentiment/opinion)
  • Number of backlinks earned
  • General sentiment/opinion
  • End audience reach (are earned media mentions visible to your target audience or are they being sent out there into left field?)

Continued analysis – always looking back at the last benchmark and assessing if you’ve achieved the next set of goals in a timely manner – provides long-view measurements of your PR successes, flat lines, or failures. These results allow you to regroup and re-strategize. If your brand isn’t performing the way you had hoped, continue reviewing the original bullet point topics pertaining to the disciplines and functions of successful PR, and make sure you’re addressing them all in your own PR planning.

One more piece of advice when doing your own PR work – don’t hesitate to contact experienced PR firms and take advantage of fee-based consultations. In addition to deepening your PR prowess, you’ll get a feel for which firm is the best fit when your brand is financially able to support professional PR experts that let you get back to doing the work you were made to do.