Hiring a public-relations firm for your small business can be a difficult decision. There's no guarantee that a PR campaign will produce the desired results, and the costs can be quite high. Yet, a successful campaign can help you expand your business in ways you never could on your own.
So how do you find a PR agency that is likely to benefit your business? "It comes down to a combination of your budget, expectations, their track record in delivering results, and your chemistry," says Dave Manzer, founder of PR Over Coffee, an Austin, Texas organization that educates small businesses on how to do PR.
Here are 10 questions to help you assess PR agencies:
How are you going to measure your success?
Before hiring a PR firm, you need to know how it will measure success, says Joan Stewart, founder of the Publicity Hound, a publicity firm in Port Washington, Wis. "Likes" on your Facebook page and print media placements are common metrics for success in the PR business. But Stewart advises that you hire someone who looks beyond those measures to factors that will help your business grow, such as tracking how much your prospective client email list and traffic to your website have grown because of a PR campaign.
Which media reach my target audience best?
Whether it's traditional media placements or online promotions, your PR firm needs to know precisely which newspapers or Web sites reach your target demographic most effectively. You also want a firm that has experience with both old and new media if you plan a variety of campaigns.
Have you worked on campaigns in my industry?
You will probably benefit from hiring a firm that has experience with your type of business. Ask to see results from past campaigns with clients in your industry, says Bill Stoller, founder of PublicityInsider.com, a Fort Lee, N.J.-based website that offers small businesses tips on public relations and social media. You should also find out if the people who managed those accounts are still with the agency because you may want to ask to work with them.
Related: The 10 Worst PR Disasters of 2012
Who will be working directly on my account?
When PR firms pitch your business, they send in their best people. But you'll probably be working most closely with lower-level employees. "They send the agency VP out to close the sale and then pass you along to someone way lower on the totem pole," Stewart says. It's important to find out who you will be working with day-to-day and spend time with them before deciding whether to hire the agency.
Am I locked into a long-term contract?
Many PR firms will put you on retainer, requiring an upfront payment so they will be available to offer their services as needed. But you want the option of getting out of such an arrangement, Manzer says. He recommends that you require a review after the first three months. "If they are not delivering after 90 days, you know whether it's going to work or not," he says.
How much do you charge for specific services?
PR experts typically will offer you a range of services based on your budget. Ask for an a la carte menu of costs for such services as press releases, videos, white papers and social media campaigns. You also will want to find out if the agency offers a pay-per-performance model, which allows you pay a lower upfront retainer with payment bonuses linked to results. This approach ensures that the PR firm is sharing the risks with you.
Do you provide media coaching?
Teaching you how to deal with the news media can be invaluable to small-business owners, Stewart says. Find out if the firm offers training for media interviews, and if not, ask if it can refer you to an experienced media coach.
What is your social media expertise?
Whoever you hire should be well versed in social media, Stewart says. What has the agency done for clients on Twitter and Facebook--and with what results? Has it developed contests and other interactive promotions on social networks? "If they are only pitching traditional media, your publicist is missing the boat," Stewart says.
How are you going to communicate with me?
You want to know how often the people on your account will be updating you on their campaigns. Can you call them on weekends? Will they be available when they are on vacation? "If I was going to shell out a lot of money for a publicist, I would want someone who can let me call them when I have something important" to discuss, Stewart says.
What will you need from me to make the relationship work?
Some people hire a publicist and expect their workload to be lightened, but that's naïve thinking. You'll need to be involved in your own PR, whether by tweeting, blogging or being available to speak with media on demand. Find out what your commitment will be and make sure you can do what's needed. "There has to be a clear understanding of what they are going to do and what you are going to do," Stewart says.