Wednesday, October 15, 2008

5 ways to pick a better PR firm than the last one

Who knew that back in 1971, the brothers Osmond would sing an immortal chorus with a philosophy that would resonate in the public relations world many years later:

"One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, girl."

I'll admit, I've had to cite that slogan several times (dropping the "girl" part) when trying to convince a potential client to ignore being burned by past PR firms and go with me. I've used other examples to make my point such as "If you go out to see a movie and you don't like it, it doesn't mean you're never going to see another movie again, right?"

The potential client wants to hire another PR firm, maybe even me, but just like after dating a long line of losers, they don't want to be heartbroken again. At the same time, you're convinced that you're the right guy and you know what to do that the past firms fumbled at, so why can't they see that and move ahead?

Some people have burned through so many PR firms that by the time they are auditioning for the next one, they are looking for the impossible to make up for past perceived (and real) transgressions. I've got one of those on my hands right now, where the potential client has made it clear they will accept nothing less than the Today show and NY Post for their upcoming yet unknown "career lifestyle expert." Those are guarantees you can't make unless your last name is Zucker or you are a major NBC-TV network advertiser. I am trying to educate them now on the proper way to build a brand and hopefully, they will have the patience and see the light.

Just because you picked the wrong firm(s) in the past does not mean the whole profession is incompetent and should pay for it. Just like contractors, auto mechanics, gardeners, barbers and any service profession, some people perform their jobs well, many are mediocre, and a small group are just plain bad but stay afloat.

While it's the PR firm's job to meet and ideally surpass expectations on a long-term basis, the burden is on the client to pick the right firm to accomplish just that.

If you've gone through more than two PR entities in 18 months, then the problem most likely lies with how these agencies are chosen.

While there are no guarantees in picking PR firms either, you can certainly improve your odds that you've hired the right one.

  1. They should genuinely have relationships with the press that matters to your area. Ask journalists if they've worked with them and what their experiences were. Examine the firm's track record with those publications.
  2. They should know exactly what to do with you in getting your message out. If it sounds like they're guessing, that should be a red flag right there.
  3. Make the effort to speak with at least two of the firm's present clients and find out what it's like working with them, if they still are producing ideas and executing.
  4. Meet the account team you'll be working with at least a couple of times. Let's face it, you may not be working with the firm's founder or president most of the time, no matter what they sell you, so you may as well get to know your day-to-day team well beforehand. Do they speak up? Do they have good ideas? Are they enthusiastic? What's their background? What's their game plan? Are they conversant with your area and the media? Could you see having a beer with them and enjoying it as people, not just client/agency?
  5. Give them a six-month agreement with mutually agreed-upon achievable goals. You need to set the path ahead together so you both have a stake in the results. If the results are there, don't hesitate to renew the agreement as a vote of confidence all around.

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