How to Vet a PR Agency or Consultant for Your Small Business
Hiring is one of the most important things for any business to get right. And when you're hiring an outside consultant, like a PR team, it can get even more tricky. Since we work with lots of small businesses, we also work with a lot of clients whose first time it is hiring out PR, who might be unsure or nervous about how it works and who--perhaps most importantly--have no idea what to look for.
You've probably heard the phrase, "An educated customer is our best customer," popularized by off-price clothing brand Syms but loved by me. One of the first things I do when meeting with a new client or prospect, particularly one who hasn't worked with an agency or consultant before, is give them some background. What we do, what we don't do and generally how we do it. Then, I listen to what they need, give them some ideas, tell them how the proposal process will work, give them a proposal and, if they accept, we're off and running. Having a customer who understands what they're looking for and how to vet me properly is key to getting from the proposal to the "working together" stage, but for many small business owners, my team is one of the first outside hires or consultants they bring on. So, here's my guide to determining whether a PR consultant or agency is a good fit for your business.
There's no better way to get a read on someone than face-to-face, or at the very least, Skype-to-Skype. Get on the phone or in a room with any consultants you're considering hiring as quickly as you can in the process. You'll get a lot about how they work based on the questions they ask, the authority and confidence in their voice and their style of wrapping up the call. You'll also get a sense of their generosity. While consultants can't give it away for free, I expect that anyone meeting with me would walk away with some new and different ideas--that's just part of my "audition."
Be Up Front About Budget
No one likes to talk about money, and it doesn't need to come up right away. But at some point early on in the conversation, you should be asking the PR agency or consultant about their packages and pricing options so you can see if you're in alignment. And while you're at it, be up front about your budget with them so that you can make sure there's a mutual fit.
Ask About Other Clients & Check References
Ask your potential consultant or agency about other clients they've worked with and successes they have had. Allowing the person to talk about concrete successes gives them the opportunity to showcase their skills and you the opportunity to think about whether that's a good fit for you.
Obtain some references and check them. You'll not only find out about the consultant's capabilities; you'll also gain valuable insight into their process and the way they work. Even if the reference is glowing, dig into the process and communication that the client has with the consultant. Does it sound like something you'd want?
Ask About Media Relationships & Processes
The relationships that a PR person has with the media are important, but they're not the end-all be-all of PR. Ask them about their relationships, how they leverage them and how they forge new ones if your product is outside a space they're familiar with. They need to have a good answer about how they work with and introduce themselves to new media.
Be Aware of Contract Terms
Since starting up in 2010, we've always offered contracts with 30-day out clauses, because it has always seemed to me that businesses need the flexibility to make changes on relatively short notice. Being small and lean, this works for us--but there are lots of larger agencies that require 60 or even 90 day notice to leave. Pay attention to this. Also pay attention to payment terms.
Understand the Scope of The Proposal
We did away with hourly estimates in proposals long ago because we felt they pretty much told the client... nothing. So, we started giving a pretty specific scope around what a client could expect from us based on budget and goals. Make sure you understand the scope of your proposal, what happens if you make a change to scope and what the situation is if you go over the number of hours included (if that's how they measure).
Be Clear About Your Objectives
When meeting with a prospective client, the first thing I ask about is what they've been doing, what's been working for them and what they're looking to do with future PR initiatives. PR strategy can vary greatly based on your objectives... a company looking to get funding might undertake a different set of targets and messaging than one who is looking to increase consumer brand awareness or position themselves as experts. If you're not clear on what you want, I can guarantee you, you'll be disappointed in your engagement with a PR consultant. While they can offer their opinion, their job is to use earned media to meet your objectives--not set them. Being vague with them handicaps them and sets you up for disappointment when your goals aren't met.
It all boils down to an open and honest relationship, right from the first meeting, that puts you and any potential consultant right on the same page and aligns you for success. But most importantly, trust your gut. As a consultant who's hired other consultants to work on my business, I can say that is consistently the most accurate detector of good or bad fit, so don't forget to check in with it!