The answer always varies – it depends on the company’s size, their budget, and how many job functions they need the person to perform. Sometimes I recommend using a freelancer or consultant, since they can do more with a smaller budget. Sometimes I recommend an in-house hire, since an in-house person can handle multiple areas of your business (PR, events, customer service). And of course, sometimes I recommend an agency like ours, especially if you’re looking for help with multiple areas of specialty (for example graphic design and PR), or if you want to plug into an agency’s existing PR relationships.
But especially in our PR practice, I often encounter people who have had negative experiences with PR agencies in the past. Either the agency wasn’t proactive, or they didn’t secure them the type of coverage they wanted, or they felt they weren’t the right fit for their industry. So today I’m outlining the 10 questions you should ask as you interview PR agencies, along with notes on the responses you should be looking for.
1. Who do you and your team have relationships with in the press – who do you know will always answer your phone call or respond to your email every time? You’re hiring an agency for their expertise, but also for their relationships. Having great relationships with the target media outlets you want to be featured in is the most important factor to consider, so find out not just who they have on their media lists – anyone can research that – but the ones they work with often, who they know they can get a response from – and make sure those contacts match up with your top 10 list of desired publications.
2. Which geographic areas do you have press relationships in? If you’re a Canadian company but your market is the U.S., you shouldn’t be hiring an agency like ours who primarily has media relationships in Canada. Similarly, if you’re targeting the Quebec market, you need to know if the team is bilingual, and has relationships with French press. Make sure their relationships match your target cities – and just because they’ve worked on one PR launch in Calgary, doesn’t mean they have strong relationships there, so try to figure out where they REALLY have relationships.
3. What other clients in my industry have you worked on? If you’re a healthcare company, you don’t want to work with an agency who only works on beauty and fashion clients. Industry expertise is important, both because of the relationships the team has formed in that industry, and because of their experience working on similar projects so they know what works and what doesn’t.
4. Who will be working on my account day-to-day, and how involved will you be on this project? Agencies are famous for sending in the Don Draper for the presentation, and then having the most junior person actually executing on the day-to-day. Make sure you know if the people selling you on working with them are actually going to be the ones working on the account – and if not, do your research on who those people will be, if they’re educated on your industry, and whether they have enough experience to be successful.
5. Would I be your largest or smallest client? The downside to working with a large agency when you’re a small business or have a modest budget is that you’ll probably be one of their smallest clients, which means you often get moved to the end of the priority list. On the flip side, working with a freelancer or small agency could mean you’re their largest client, and are priority one. Know where you sit on the totem pole.
6. Can I speak to an existing client and a past client? Not enough prospective clients ask us for references. Yes, we’re going to send you to clients who have had good experiences working with us, but it’s still worth getting on the phone with them – not to ask whether they liked us, but to ask things like how long it took to get a response to an email; whether they were available for calls/meetings; whether they were proactive about coming to them with ideas; and whether they delivered the media coverage they promised.
7. How do you measure success for your clients, and how will you report success to me? This question is as much for the agency as it is for you. We once worked with a company that measured our success by examining whether the products he sold from press coverage referral traffic totaled more than what he paid to us in agency fees. Whether you’re measuring it that directly, or you have intangible metrics like general brand awareness, find out what they’ll use to measure success, and how they’ll communicate it to you.
8. What happens if you don’t secure the press coverage you’re promising? I’ve heard too many horror stories of companies who hired a PR agency and walked away with no coverage. While agencies can’t guarantee coverage with any one publication, they should guarantee that they will do what it takes to get coverage. That means coming up with campaign ideas, additional outreach angles, or researching additional people to reach out to. By asking this question, you’re trying to get a sense of what happens if their initial outreach flops – and seeing how resourceful they are in the face of failure.
9. Can you tell me about a press campaign that failed, and what you did to change course and ensure its success? Every single PR agency (every single one – full stop) has had a failed PR campaign. Maybe it was because they held a press event the day of a major global news event, or maybe they misjudged the newsworthiness of an announcement – but whatever the reason, get the agency to outline why it failed, and what they did to turn things around. Just like in question #8, you’re trying to get a sense here of how resourceful the agency will be.
10. What additional budget will I need to ensure PR success? Often the PR retainer is just the base fee you will pay to an agency. PR success often means hosting events, commissioning surveys so you have proprietary data, putting press releases out on the newswire, or hiring spokespeople. Find out up front how much you’ll need to budget for in addition to the base agency fees so you’re not surprised down the line.
Asking these questions should help you find an agency that’s right for your size and your industry, and help you know what to expect from your campaign.