Pick a perfect PR partner

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, warned Virgil in the Aeneid. Equally, beware of public relations agencies that promise the earth. When you buy media space, you know what you are getting, but when you buy PR, with the best will in the world, yo

Choosing a public relations agency to promote your brand in the media is a complicated process, and it is vital that everyone involved knows exactly what you want, and why. By Richenda Wilson

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, warned Virgil in the Aeneid. Equally, beware of public relations agencies that promise the earth. When you buy media space, you know what you are getting, but when you buy PR, with the best will in the world, you may not get the coverage you want.

“The media have their own agenda and we have to respect that,” says Pilot PR managing director Jane Herbert. “Sometimes we get great coverage and sometimes we get none.”

While the earth may not be possible, excellent results are, if you work with an agency that understands your industry and your goals. It is worth putting in time and effort to find the right consultancy for your brand and following a few straightforward rules to select that agency.

First, says Melanie Kanarek, managing director of Berkeley PR, “you need to think about why your business needs PR. Understand exactly where PR fits within your marketing effort. Ensure you have the support of your board, even before you approach an agency.”

Experience matters

Experience in your sector is valuable but not essential. “Rather than looking for relevant work experience, it may be better to go for an agency that has experience of working with similar business models or communications challenges,” says Herbert.

Beware also of client conflict: ideally, you need an agency that is familiar with your business area but is not currently working with any direct competitors.

“A specialist in your area is always better, because there’s no learning curve,” believes Matt Bourn, managing director of Braben Company, which has worked with magazines and TV channels. “We don’t just get the sector, we understand how companies operate in it.”

“One of the best ways to find a good agency is to talk to journalists,” says Herbert. “They know who is good and who isn’t. Look at where your competitors are getting mentioned and talk to the journalists there.”

“Study the press,” says Susanna Simpson, managing director of Limelight Public Relations, “and establish which PR coverage you’d love for your brand. Then ring up the companies achieving that and ask them who does their PR.”

Decide what sort of geographical coverage you want. Do you need good regional, national or international contacts?

Paratus Communications is a PR agency that, rather than have the large overheads of a big staff and regional offices, relies on a staff of ten, then hires experts and regional partners for specific projects.

“Even when you have 300 individuals under the same roof, you may not have the right team available,” explains founder Dominic Shales. “We bring in individuals or small agencies to create teams with the right skills. They tend to be older and more experienced. Local consultants know their media extremely well.”

Paratus has worked with B&Q, gaining local coverage for store openings, and has recently worked with Channel 4 on the launch of its magazine 4homes.

“We wanted to do as much as we could across the country,” says Channel 4 magazines publisher Fergus Campbell. “Paratus’ good regional relationships secured us radio interviews and local press.”

Decide on media channel

Another factor to consider is the types of media you want to focus on, particularly now the internet is so influential.

“Digital media are going to completely change PR,” says Bourn. “In ten years’ time there will be no clippings book. Bloggers are the new commentators and PR agencies have to understand the new world and build relationships with online sites.”

Once you have identified the PR agencies with the skills and experience you want, invite half a dozen of them for an initial meeting.

“Gut instinct is important,” says Simpson. “Liking the people and really trusting an agency is imperative. After all, you’re effectively placing your brand image in its hands.”

“Results come with effective teamwork,” says Kanarek. “See PR as an extension to your marketing team. Don’t approach it as a buyer-seller relationship.”

Once you have met a few agencies, shortlist no more than three for a pitch. A good brief is vital. Many consultancies have a briefing document on their website that tells prospective clients the questions they need to know the answers to, of which the chief one is: what do you want to get out of this activity?

Keep PR on-message

“Give your agency a solid brief based on your business and marketing goals, indicating how you want PR to support them,” says Kanarek. “Share your objectives with the agency so it can interconnect with other marketing functions. Messages should be consistent across all channels.”

And tell them what budget you are prepared to invest, she adds. “A good agency will match the best mix of activities against your budget to maximise the results.”

“Beware the PR agency that parades its biggest guns at the pitch in a carefully crafted orchestration of suits, specialists and smiles,” warns Ashley Carr, managing director of the itpr group. “Of far more importance is your day-to-day contact who sits in the trenches. Demand that your pitch team is your account team .”

You should give the agency time to describe their thoughts and processes at the pitch, adds Sarah Mulder, co-founder of Clarke Mulder Purdie: “I don’t think 40 minutes is enough so we always produce a written document that outlines our full thinking.”

Having done all this, you should be in a good position to decide which agency it is that will best suit your PR needs.

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