The headline of this essay is deliberately provocative. I wanted to grab your attention and if you are reading this, I suppose I have succeeded. What I do not mean, of course, is do not hire a PR agency at all. Far from it.
Agencies remain the most efficient and cost-effective means of resourcing an organisation’s public relations requirements and I have spent much of my tenure as chair of the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) making that case. Agencies are staffed by PR specialists with years of experience and a wealth of expertise to bring to bear on communication challenges of whatever hue; they are professionals who not only keep abreast of the latest techniques but in many cases innovate and apply new ones, moving the whole discipline forward in the process.
What I mean is that there are important questions one should ask a prospective PR agency partner as part of the selection process. I am not talking about the questions posed as part of a request for proposal, but something more fundamental – questions that strike at the heart of the issues with which our profession has wrestled for too long and which, if answered satisfactorily, will make an agency selection more straightforward.
Question one: How do you plan? There was a time when sparky ideas and a good ‘little black book’ of journalist contacts were enough for most agencies and clients. But times have changed, I am delighted to say. The PR industry has, for the most part, matured, and switched-on organisations now recognise the value that a professional PR function can add. More than that, the advent of the digital age and the wealth of data available as a consequence not only mean it is now possible to plan and target campaigns in ways not previously feasible, but that it is essential to do so.
Social media analytics; Mintel and other third party research; TGI data; the ability to commission, analyse and interpret original qualitative and quantitative research – all of these should be part of a first-rate agency’s response to the ‘planning’ question. So too should a robust framework or process, because what use are the tools unless they are properly utilised? I am sure Grayling is not the only agency to have a dedicated planning director to ensure such a process not only exists, but is applied to every brief. You can have the best black book and all the sparky ideas in the world, but unless that creativity is rooted in a sound strategy, which in turn is based on data-driven insights, then it is all for nought.
Question two: How do you remain creative? Great ideas have always been essential elements in the success of a PR campaign. Without them it is not possible to cut through the clutter and really engage an audience, be they consumers, customers, shareholders or even politicians.
Anyone who says there is no need or no room for creativity in corporate or B2B communications has a narrow definition of the term. Creativity is key and asking about how creative ideas are generated will doubtless elicit responses from any agency about brainstorming techniques and the like. But what happens when the pitch is a distant memory and the client-agency relationship is no longer new? The real question is how creativity is sustained over the long term.
This is what you should be looking for: first, a dedicated creative resource – someone whose role it is to keep things fresh, to innovate and challenge. Not every agency has a dedicated creative director, but it is important to understand whose responsibility it is to ensure a sustained creative input. Once a year is not enough.
Second, a process. Many PR people – certainly those in the ‘old’ mould – will run screaming from the very idea of having a process for creativity. “Processes stifle creativity,” they will argue. But I would argue the opposite. The best agencies utilise their left and right brains in equal measure and create a structured environment in which creativity can flourish. At Grayling we hold regular internal client reviews with participation from across the business to bring in new points of view.
We draw on the different perspectives of the Grayling Creative Collective – a global panel of experts from the worlds of art, design, film and beyond – and we balance the need for stability and institutional knowledge with the need to keep account teams fresh. There are other techniques, of course, and these are the kinds of things you should expect to hear when you ask question two.
Question three: How do you measure results? This is the million dollar question, but I am afraid there is no right answer. Or at least, not a single one. There are guiding principles; specifically, the Barcelona Declaration of Measurement Principles. Any PR agency worth its salt – and certainly any member of the PRCA – should subscribe to these principles, which enshrine not only the importance of goal-setting and measurement, but the idea that PR’s effect on business results can and should be measured. The Barcelona Principles should be the starting point. Beyond that it gets more difficult.
The idea that there is an ‘off the shelf’ evaluation model that can be applied to any client or campaign is nonsense. That would be like comparing apples with Tuesday. The answer to this question should be about agreeing desired outcomes (note: not outputs) at the outset and building a bespoke model to measure and evaluate these. And any agency that mentions ‘advertising value equivalents’ should be shown the door.
So there you have it: three killer questions to ask during any agency procurement process. There are many more, of course; it is important to understand the level of resource that will be allocated, the depth of sector knowledge, and the degree to which digital skills are embedded (or conversely, ‘bolted on’). Even if you ask these questions and no more, you will be in a good position to make a selection that will add value and enhance your organisation’s reputation. Because whatever answers you get to these questions, and whichever agency or agencies you appoint, that is what effective public relations
is all about.