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Marketing • Apr 16th, 2016 • Helen Armour

Choosing a PR Agency

For small businesses choosing a PR agency may seem like a black art. Read our guide on why you might need a PR agency and how best to select one.

A PR Agency Guide

For many small companies, choosing a PR agency and getting the most out may seem like black art. Most articles on the subject seem to be written by PR (Public Relations) people rather than customers. This article is targeted for small businesses, but some of the truths are universal.

Why PR?

I’m a fan of PR. I’ve always found that if you are building a product company it can help you punch above your weight. Service companies are more difficult, it is much easier to build stories around products. You’ll get a few leads but mostly it is about brand building, getting the name out so that when people finally start looking for what you sell they know your name.

More recently, as editorial in printed publications gets reduced, it can also help your search engine optimisation if you make sure your press releases are optimised for your keywords. For example, at SpotlerCRM, our keywords are optimised around the words “CRM”, “Simple” and “Online”.

PR Basics

You need to build a list of the key publications and blogs that you want to feature in. Conventionally you’ll have an A list of maybe ten publications/sites/blogs, a B list of another 20 and then the rest.

You need to make sure that you can supply the PR company with a story every month: product releases, users stories, surveys, awards. Doing a “We’ve launched a new company” release and then disappearing is not worth the expense of hiring a PR company, if you have neither the budget nor the material for monthly releases then do what you can in-house and leave the PR company for when you have both.

Good PR Companies

A good PR company will:

Have some knowledge of your product and market

Know the key editors and journalists at your target publications

Be able to place user stories with your target publications

Allocate an account manager to you who will learn about your company

Get calls from journalists at your target publications who need a quote from somebody in your industry

Have an editorial schedule that tells you what topics the key publications will be covering over the next six months

Tell you what the journalists are wanting to write about this month

Hassle you for stories if you don’t give them any

Come to you with ideas for stories

Work within your budget and not continually try to upsell you to more expensive services Like all suppliers, you need somebody who is the same size as you so you aren’t a minor client for them.

Ask your friends, colleagues, social networks for recommendations

Find out who does PR for your competitors. The ideal PR company may have just lost one of your competitors as a client!

Read your target publications. Are there any non-competitive businesses that seem to be mentioned all the time? Get the name of their PR company

Shortlist three to six agencies. Meet them and talk through how they work. Does it make sense? Are they nice people, do you get on with them?

Don’t choose the company on what you feel about the partner who leads your first meeting and then signs you, choose them on the basis of the account manager who will be doing all the work.

Like lawyers, the partner who signs you up will be working on larger accounts once the ink is dry, it’s the account manager (or even assistant) that you will be talking to every day and who will be doing the work. The partners just do “strategy” and lunch.

How Much to Pay a PR company

All PR companies want you to sign a retainer, and most will want you to sign a contract that gives them three months’ notice if you cancel. I used to try and get out of retainers, but if you are using the PR company every month it is not worth trying to pay on a project basis. And if you aren’t using them every month then you shouldn’t be using them at all.

Be open about what you can afford

Sometimes it seems that the monthly retainers are plucked from fairy-tale land. If you are a small company then £2,000 a month is the asking rate. But if times are hard and you can pay a lot less providing that you tell people up front that this is your budget, and they’ll be more as you grow. With your retainer you are paying for an account manager’s time. However, many PR companies have more time available than customers these days, so anything for them is better than nothing.

If there is a contract, insist on being able to break after three months without notice, and try and get the notice period after that reduced, or removed altogether.

PR Goals

Be realistic. Hundreds of new companies are launched every month, you won’t get regular press in mainstream publications every month. What is a big sale to you is chicken feed to national publications. To start with go for at least one editorial mention somewhere a month, plus coverage in what I call the cut ‘n’ paste news sites. Try and get a major story out once a quarter.

It’s about people

PR is a person business. Once you’ve found an account manager that you like, trained them in what you do and the right messaging, you don’t want to lose them. Good people get promoted to bigger accounts – so make it clear that if your account manager moves on, you’ll be asking them and other PR companies to re-pitch.

And finally

Beware the tell-tale signs that this is about to happen: a new assistant is introduced at a meeting; the new assistant seems to be doing all the work; the old account manager gets the new assistant to return your calls; the account manager can’t make the next meeting but the new assistant will stand in. If you know that this is happening you can form an opinion of the new assistant and if you’re happy for them to take over, you can let it happen. If you’re not happy, then a discrete telephone call is needed. I always put a clause in the contract that if the account manager is changed, I can terminate instantly.

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