How to Choose a PR Company

Are you paying for PR yet doing most of the work yourself?

In our local and global experience over many years it is surprising how often this happens. Particularly in technical, industry and business-to-business PR.

Often the cause can be traced back to the selection process, when a PR company that looked really good on paper, and presented brilliantly, just didn't have the skills required to do the hard yards in the industry involved.

They might have been brilliant at publicising computers, or wonderful at promoting soap and champagne, but good looks and a big name just don't cut it if you're talking technical topics to an educated and sceptical audience (typically involving engineers, architects, specifiers and key production personnel who have little time or tolerance for froth and bubble fact-free dross, often with spelling mistakes.)

Sometimes it takes many months to finally decide you've been sold a pup –and by that time you're often severely out of pocket (the biggest charlatans often charge the most) and understandably disillusioned by having to constantly correct and rewrite material you have paid someone else to do.

Here are some ways to protect yourself:

Look for the positives

A good PR company for your type of business should:
  • 1. Be highly experienced in your particular area of business. There is no use hiring a PR company that is highly specialised in fashion and consumer goods when you want to tell industrial media about your mining and resources services, oil and gas technology or water and waste water treatment prowess.
  • 2. Have the right contacts in the right media, and also have contacts in new areas that you may not have considered yet. You want to be able to reach target audiences as quickly as possible, and then extend your reach into new areas that will generate more business in the longer term. Ask your prospective PR experts who the key influencers are in media.
  • 3. Have a proven record of success with similar businesses in similar industries. If the PR company claims to be able to get results for you, check to see if they've got the results for other clients. Have a look at their media releases, electronic newsletters and social media work. Ring existing clients (which they should be proud to nominate).
  • 4. Deliver the same experienced team you will be working with – not sell you on the concept, then send in the junior. Some (usually larger and more expensive) PR agencies send in a specialised 'pitch team' to sell you their services, but then you find that the team you are working with comprises entirely different people. It's wonderful to have young and enthusiastic people working on your account, but they need a solid leavening of experienced guidance to ensure they are saving you time, not costing you money and effort while you educate them.
  • 5. Write the material for you and save your time. You don't want to be paying a PR consultant and then writing the majority of material yourself. The PR company should work with you to develop ideas and strategic goals, then go away and write material based on these ideas. (Otherwise it's a bit like hiring a dog and barking yourself).
  • 6. Deliver what they promise. Sometimes competitive pitches are won by the people who tell the biggest fibs. No company should entice you with unrealistic goals at the start of a campaign and then fail to deliver. All PR companies should give you regular updates on results (such as stories that have appeared in magazines or online sources) and be a constant source of ideas to lift your company's visibility
  • 7. Have long-lasting relationships with its clients. Hiring a PR firm is an investment that should only improve with time, as they get to know your company better and the PR activities start to build their audience. If the company has good client retention, they are usually doing the right thing. A reputable company would rather make a little less money over the longer term, rather than go for the big bang fee then move on to the next victim.
  • 8. Offer a broad range of services within the field of Public Relations. A lot of activities fall under the aegis of Public Relations. Make sure your PR company is well versed in the essentials, like press releases, but also the more dynamic aspects such as social media, websites, newsletters and search engine optimisation.
  • 9. Be creative and work together with you to create the best possible campaign. Regular communication will benefit both parties and ensure that material developed is of the highest quality and most relevance.
  • 10. Offer the right services at the right price, and be a good fit for your business. It is amazing how many companies charge double, treble and quadruple for a set of services that a leaner, meaner and smarter operation can deliver more quickly and efficiently to your target market. Don't make the mistake of assuming that price is always a guide to quality.

Some recent PR success stories:

Watch out for the negatives

A good PR company will avoid:
  • 1.Too narrow a focus. It's essential that print, broadcast, online and social media activities all work in harmony to create the same positive message. The best PR campaigns make the most of their material by sending it out to magazines and newspapers, posting it on your website, getting it posted on online news sites and matching keywords from your website to keywords in the story to get the best Google ranking.
  • 2.Old news. The media market wants the freshest, most interesting news, so it's always a must to present a story with an angle that that is current and interesting. A good consultant, especially one with media experience in your specific industry, should be able to sharpen the appeal of your material rather than simply recycling brochures and boring corporate philosophy pieces, which work well in their place but are not news and will not be published by themselves.
  • 3.Stories with no substance. If there's nothing newsworthy in the content, journalists will ignore it. Furthermore, journalists will remember this next time they receive material from the same source, which might decrease the chances of your material ever being published. Every story written must have content that is new and interesting to the reader.
  • 4.Using inexperienced interns or newly hired assistants to answer important questions about the client they can't be expected to understand. Responding to media inquiries should be the job of someone who has a thorough understanding of the company and is authorised to speak on your behalf. Questions from journalists often lead to quotes or help to flesh out the story. This is an opportunity to sell the best bits and further enhance an already good quality story. Using someone who is inexperienced and has a limited knowledge of your company will inevitably lead to a lower standard of answer, which will create a poor brand image.
  • 5.Thinking the job is done once coverage is gained. The best PR agencies will leverage this coverage to gain more coverage in the future, and establish a lasting relationship with the media. If the journalist likes your material, the chances are that other material related to the same industry and written to the same high standard will also be of interest to them.
  • 6.Being complacent. A lot of PR opportunities occur spontaneously as events develop - and you have to be able to move quickly to be the first to seize them. So don't be complacent and become the prisoner of your own PR plan – rely on your PR company to act quickly in your best interests to see opportunities and recommend additional ideas that weren't covered in their initial plan. It is also important to actively look for new stories, rather than waiting for the client to do all the work.
  • 7.Overusing complex technical jargon. By all means use terms that are standard in your industry and familiar to your intended audience, but remember to spell out their meanings at first mention. Editors have to deal with a huge diversity of technical subjects, and if they don't know what you're talking about – if an arcane acronym hasn't been explained – they may well put down the story and go to the next one. Editors these days are very busy people.

    Consider the reader too. As someone highly familiar with your product, you might use complex terms when talking about it, but this does not mean that all readers will understand the terminology. It may also make the piece seem too dense and difficult for non-technical people to read, which could put off potential customers who are not engineers but financial managers. Your message has to reach them too.
  • 8.Passing marketing/advertising material off as PR. Marketing, advertising and PR work nicely together, and the best campaigns have elements of all three. Using marketing brochures and advertising material as a story, however, never yields credible results (and frequently annoys editors and other recipients who have to sort the fact from frippery and flam). Good editorial should inform the reader of new information, new applications and solve their problems or offer new research. Unlike paid advertising, it has to rely on its information value to be published.

Some final words of advice on a human level:

Make sure you employ people you feel comfortable working with. Trust your gut feelings. If something sounds too good to be true, if probably is.

If you don't feel trust and integrity in the people you're talking with, often it isn't there.