"Humans have a knack for choosing precisely the things that are worst for them." -- J. K. Rowling
For early stage companies, the importance of every outgoing investment needs to be scrutinized, and more often than not it comes down to ‘one or the other’. Should we pay for PR or do it ourselves and hire a new developer? Should we move our team to a fancy new open-plan office in the Bay Area, or sign up with a traditional PR firm and pay a six month retainer?
Paying for PR is a risky decision in terms of guaranteed return on investment -- as no PR firm which is worth its salt will guarantee results -- but there are countless benefits to engaging with the media, even if you don’t end up on the front page of the New York Times or Techcrunch on your first campaign cycle.
There are lots of resources online which can help companies decide whether they have reached the stage when they require the services of a professional PR agency, and the option always remains to attempt to "go it alone" with a DIY PR campaign.
Related: 5 Things to Look for in a PR Agency
That said, if you don’t have the man-power or the time necessary to fully dedicate yourself to developing relationships with the media, pitching press releases and writing guest-posts, it is probably time to hire a professional PR firm. Whether you decide to approach an affordable independent PR agency, or are in the position to contract the services of a traditional firm, there are a number of questions you should always ask yourself before you sign on the dotted line:
1. Can they demonstrate real results?
Over the last few years we have witnessed a serious shake-up in the PR industry, which has seen a number of DIY PR platforms and small scale independent PR agencies break into a sphere which was traditionally monopolized by a handful of established global PR giants. Finally, small businesses and startups have the chance to engage with the media, without having to break the bank, or sell their houses to do so.
Choosing a PR firm is like choosing a wedding planner. You want your campaign to be a memorable success, you want the agency to represent you in a way that fits your character and style and most importantly, you want to be the undeniable star of the show.
If you are a tech startup you want to hire a firm which has experience working with startups, understands the ecosystem, the way that startups work and who also has extensive media contacts who cover these types of stories. If you are an accounting firm, you want to hire a firm who has extensive knowledge of accounting as a profession and which employs writers who are able to express themselves clearly using the jargon and technical language used within your industry. It’s not as simple as choosing the most affordable option.
Before you choose a firm, be sure to look at their current and previous clients -- which is often displayed on their homepage -- and to check that they have worked with companies in the same industry as yours.
The next step is to schedule a strategy call with the firm to get an idea of how qualified they are, what ideas they have for your upcoming campaign and what publications they suggest would be most suitable for your announcement. If it doesn’t offer a structured onboarding process before any payment is made, keep on walking.
Ask as many questions as possible on the onboarding call. If the company is vague, or suggests targeting Techcrunch when you hope to reach the over 60s pet toy market, it’s time to strike them off the list and move onto the next option.
No firm can guarantee results and any who do make these claims should be viewed with suspicion. That said, any respectable firm should be able to produce examples of successful campaigns for clients from a range of industries, and then offer a strategy based on previous results that will work for your specific case. Many agencies have testimonials on their websites, be sure to check these out, and also Google the firm to see if they have been praised/badmouthed on Reddit or other community pages.
2. Do you have to pay a retainer?
Old school PR firms which have monopolized the industry for many years, generally require clients to pay a six month retainer. Clients can expect to pay up to six months up front for their services, on top of onboarding fees and expensive monthly rates. Most early stage companies, who don’t have a lot of capital to play with, cannot afford this.
Six month retainers are old fashioned and only really suited to large scale corporates with bulging bank balances. The only way to truly test the value and expertise of a PR firm is by trying them out, and you don’t want to be stuck paying for another four to five months if your first cycle goes awry.
This is not to say that you should change firms immediately if you don’t get picked up by the media on your first cycle. At the end of the day it is up to journalists to decide whether your story is newsworthy and will add value to their readership. That said, if the firm’s process doesn’t click, fails to communicate efficiently or poorly portrays your values and vision, it’s always good to have an escape chute to call it a day early on in the process.
Some companies will offer a no-obligation free trial, which will at least allow you to assess the efficiency of the company in the onboarding, strategy and editorial stages. However you should note that a full cycle PR campaign can take anything from six to eight weeks in total, so don’t throw in the towel if your phone isn’t ringing off the hook in the first week.
3. What recommendations does the firm have?
In the PR and entrepreneurial worlds your reputation is everything. As a result, you should lean on personal and business contacts for recommendations for PR firms. If you don’t have these contacts yourself, you could turn to a local accelerator, venture capital firm or contact local tech companies to ask for advice.
Any respectable PR firm should have established themselves with social proof online, so be sure to see whether the firm in question has been covered in a leading publication. If they haven’t you should ask yourself why. It is easy to set up a fancy-looking website and put a couple of false testimonials from imaginary companies, so be wary of falling victim to PR cowboys.
As mentioned before, check out Reddit and online community platforms to see if people are singing the firms praises or recounting horror stories, and also check out their social media accounts to snoop on comments, and the amount of respectable ‘friends’ that they have gathered.
4. How transparent is the firm?
In recent years, there has been a push towards more ethical PR, principally led by journalists who have moved into the industry. Bad practices have led to PR being tarred as a profession full of "fluff and flair" where information is misportrayed and every company is the "best" and "the most innovative" in their field.
The new school of PR professionals want to bring the industry back in line with journalistic values which hold truth and accuracy, and developing positive relations with the media at their core. It is stated that the three "Ts" of a great PR experience are Truth, Trust and Transparency.
For this reason, you should write off any company which guarantees results on leading publications, and offers to promote any announcement you have regardless of whether it is newsworthy or not.
In the same way as transparency is important when contacting journalists, it is also important for the PR process itself. A company should be willing to share its media contacts with you, and should maintain a level of transparency from start to finish.
A good PR company is not a "Yes man" and will help you to mold together a narrative which will interest journalists, and guide you away from announcements which are unlikely to get picked up. They should also keep you up to date with the process of your campaign, and allow you to edit/review all pieces of work, and the list of media contacts which they aim to pitch your story or guest article to. You are publicizing your company, your product or service and most importantly your aims and values, so you should be made an integral part of the process itself.
“When a PR pro fundamentally and thoroughly understands what the client is trying to achieve, both parties are positioned for success. When clear expectations are set from the beginning, and both client and PR tell the truth about their capabilities, limitations, and passions, the results of the engagement are desirable.” -- Young Entrepreneur Council
5. What extra perks are offered?
Developing media relations goes much further than simply sending press releases and writing the occasional guest article. When choosing a firm, you must check exactly how many pieces of work you are offered as part of your service, and what other ways that the company will try to put you in front of the media aside from the most traditional paths.
A typical PR cycle has lots of "dead-zones" of inaction on the client side. While sometimes it's all hands on deck, there are also quiet periods for the client when the PR company is working behind the scenes, contacting the media, offering exclusives, or playing email tennis with editors to iron out the creases in a guest article.
Consider how else the firm will promote your company. Does it offer social media support? Or perhaps provide video or infographic services, send out interviews or special pitches, or interact with medium level blog and review sites? These extra perks might not be as desirable as a front page story on a major publication, but they are definitely valuable, and add to your overall social proof and boost your company's SEO standing.
While signing up to a PR company doesn’t need to be a lifelong commitment, it is important to take the extra time researching potential firms, and speaking to contacts for recommendations, to be sure you find a good fit. Ideally you should pick a firm which you can work with for the long term, as they will be able to learn about your company and develop interesting new content and strategies which really represent who you are, and what you want to achieve.