Selecting a PR Firm

“Experience is the child of Thought, and Thought is the child of Action. We cannot learn men from books,” wrote Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th century. That’s an important consideration in the selection of public relations firm: Experience.

The larger, national or international firms are filled with experience; much of it derived from professionals who’ve spent their entire careers working for public relations agencies. One must wonder, then, how well is a client served in corporate relations when an account manager has never actually worked for a corporation. And how well is a client served in media relations with account executives without journalism experience?

This is not to say that the larger firms don’t offer this experience. They do, but it is not often manifest as most of a large firm’s professional population simply doesn’t possess that kind of background.

Who’s getting the publicity? We find it remarkably annoying to have an automobile dealership’s logo pasted on our car. We also find it at least interesting that many firms proudly announce their new clients. Our view is that such an announcement, albeit generally with the imprimatur of the client, does absolutely nothing to further the client’s agenda or assist it in reaching its objectives. In fact, in some cases the announcement of a new client by a public relations firm can have an adverse impact on the client and its goals:

  • For a company in crisis, with layoffs or salary reductions in the wind, what’s the impact on employees of such a proud announcement; on shareholders or investors if a company’s stock is on the decline.
  • Beyond this, clients compensate public relations firms for services; and ostensibly to effect their campaigns transparently. Our advice, if your new agency wants to issue a news release on its conquest, ask for a fee accommodation for the privilege.

Beware the phrase: “We have personal relationships with the media.” PR professionals are paid to be nice to journalists, and members of the media have no reason to discourage a friendly relationship. They hope to benefit by being given an early look at a press release, getting a little more information than is contained in the release, or obtaining quick cooperation when they call on deadline.

But professional journalists respond to a PR “pitch” based solely on how they think their readers and their editors will view the story. If they happen to know the PR person well but don’t like the story, the only difference will be a somewhat more cordial rejection. We believe that the only significant determinant of the success of media relations activity is a firm’s ability to identify a story that a journalist will recognize as newsworthy, and to present it in a way that editors find compelling.

Who’s handling the account? Ensure that whoever led the “pitch” team is hands on; and that the firm’s “senior staff” is experienced. Many firms sell well but lack in execution because of thin experience. There’s nothing wrong with having on your account a senior level marketer, if your campaign is marketing; but it’s not alright to have a professional who lacks journalism experience on your account if straight media relations is what you’re seeking. And beware the firm that presents its principal, who then is not hands on for the tactical side of your account. A few other considerations:

  • Long media lists in proposed campaigns are generally a given that the agency is going for “ink” in a shotgun fashion, rather than using the highly sophisticated tools available to virtually all public relations firm that allow them to create highly targeted client-specific lists.
  • 24/7 availability: How long does it take you to reach your account executive on the weekend, especially in a crisis mode? The dog ate my cell phone is not an excuse.
  • If your firm schedules speaking engagements for you, are they before “decision makers?” If not, why bother?
  • There are very few news releases that are so complex they take more than an hour to turnaround; and those working drafts should be minimal modifications away from final product.

Stern And Company
Strategic Communications
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