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How to Shop for a PR Agency

I've been in and around PR agencies for years and I'm struck by two conflicting pieces of information: I know some very talented agency PR people, and I know a lot of lousy, over-priced agencies.

Make no mistake: the PR agency business is tough. The client demands are high, the competition is brutal, and the quality of the talent pool is uneven at best. Worst of all, it's not nearly as lucrative as you might think. [Quick aside: there was a moment years ago on "The West Wing" when CJ Cregg is being wooed to join the Bartlett campaign and is asked what's she's currently making at a Hollywood PR agency. Her response: $500,000 a year. When I saw that I shrieked -- there's NO WAY she would have been making that much as a VP of a PR agency. Not even half that amount.]

That doesn't excuse agencies from delivering top quality services -- hey, that's the job, and if you can't do it, that's your problem. And far too often, agencies find themselves trying to have it both ways: charge the client premium prices as though they will be delivering high quality, but then assigning the work to inexperienced and undertrained staffers who simply can't deliver.

If you're the client, you have a right to expect the quality level you think you are paying for. That's certainly the central argument being made by Jeff Pulver, a popular blogger who posted a rant about what he's looking for in a PR firm: "The next PR firm I hire will have to deliver on promises made from the start. "

Here are some other tips for what to look for in an agency:

  • Experience: do they know your business and industry? Will people with this knowledge be assigned to your account?
  • Team: one of the most common tactics in the PR agency business is the old bait-and-switch. The experienced and talented agency owner/EVP pitches their services to you, but then disappears when you sign the contract, replaced by inexperienced junior staffers who are assigned to do the work. Insist on knowing who will staff your account and what will happen if that staffing pattern changes. Frankly, I wouldn't hire an agency that won't commit in writing to having senior executives working regularly on your account.
  • Objectives: what are you hoping to get out of hiring an agency? Do you want trade press, mainstream media coverage, social media penetration? How will you demonstrate the ROI of hiring an agency to your bosses?
  • Deliverables: what actual work product can you expect and when? Development of materials and messages is a key component of a PR program, and you should have to pay for that. Obviously, media interviews and stories are the utlimate deliverables, and you should be able to measure and evaluate them. But you shouldn't have to pay for every strategy meeting and client check-in call.
  • Media contacts: who do they know and how well? What evidence do they have that they actually know these journalists (such as clips about other clients)?
  • Case studies: every agency presents case studies that are intended to demonstrate their ability to deliver. Needless to say, take these stories with a grain of salt, and feel free to ask some pointed questions, like: do the people who worked on this project still work at the agency? will any of them be assigned to my account?
One last bit of advice, echoing a point Jeff Pulver made in his post: keep the agency on a short economic leash. They may want a long-term contract, but I wouldn't agree to anything that doesn't allow you to measure deliverables and make adjustments to your arrangement within three months of starting to work with them.
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