How to use a PR agency

When to get a PR agency

  • Using a PR agency doesn't come cheap - we're talking at least several hundred to a couple of thousand pounds - but there are certain circumstances when it will become absolutely invaluable for your business.
  • Launching your business :
    • Start by defining the objectives of your launch - whether you want customer to interact with your product, or you want them to find out about the business through media, or so on.
    • If you want some media attention when you launch your business, a PR agency, though costly, is by far your safest bet.
    • PR is possibly the most effective way of drawing people to your business and getting your brand out there.
    • It is also typically more cost-effective than advertising on a large scale.
    • A PR agency already has an established network of media contacts that can hopefully guarantee some coverage, where, unless you come from a journalistic background, it will be much, much tougher to get the same attention yourself.
    • They also know how to pull stories out of new launches to excite the press.
    • You can use an agency just for your launch. Balance the costs against how much you are overall spending on your launch and what your objectives for it are. If you're planning to publicise your business purely through PR, there's no harm dedicating 85% plus of your launch budget to paying for a PR agency.
    • Remember to maintain relationships, as it's often preferable to use the same agency for other projects further down the line than starting with a completely new one from scratch.
  • Launching a product or range you have invested heavily in:
    • If you've gone to a lot of expense to develop a new product or stock it, you want people to know about it.
    • Again, unless you have mature media contacts and relationships, an agency is going to get you far more media attention than you're likely to yourself.
    • Budget for the agency again according to your overall marketing and sales objectives for the product.
    • If it's a product of new service that hasn't cost you that much or that you feel your customers will discover in ways other than through the press, consider simply writing your own press releases as a support to the other means you're using to save money.
  • As a very general rule of thumb, if your PR budget is more than £10,000 annually, you're probably at about the level where you need to bring in an agency to help out, as this is a significant budget to handle on top of other activities. Obviously this figure will vary though, and you'll probably be able to tell intuitively when it's time to bring in an agency - either when PR is simply taking up too much of your time, or when you can see very healthy ROIs that you know would make it worthwhile investing properly in someone professional to handle it.
  • If you're going to need ongoing, sustained publicity for your business, consider bringing in a dedicated PR person within your business to handle things. This may be cheaper in the long-run than using an agency full-time and an employee of your business is likely to be more dedicated and knowledgeable about your brand and products than an outsourced agency.
  • If you use another marketing or communications agency:
    • They may recommend the use of a PR agency, or they may offer it as part of their services.
    • Always ask whether they offer PR services when you're trying to find a communications or marketing agency to begin with as using the same company for both can save you cash further down the line.
    • If you're using a professional marketing agency, it's likely you're at the level where you need to outsource your PR management too, depending on what your overall marketing objectives are.
  • If you're uncomfortable handling the press or are low on time. Establishing and handling press relationships, making contact with journalists, writing press releases, organising stunts and following all that up all takes times and effort. If you're struggling, a low-cost agency with experience of small businesses can really help.
  • Your own endeavours aren't working out. When you keep writing press releases and get absolutely no results, it's time to throw in the towel and leave it to the professionals - otherwise you're just wasting your own precious time. If your objectives are to get media coverage, it's also well worth the investment if you can't manage it yourself.
  • If you want to use an agency, you have to make sure:
    • Your business or product is completely ready. There's no point publicising something only for members of the public to go to find out more about it and it be incomplete. They won't come back a second time.
    • You know exactly who your target customer is and you know your market. It's not a PR company's job to research your target market. You need to have an idea of their demographics and interests so the agency can identify the publications they're most likely to read or the types of media they respond best to.

What to look for in a PR agency

  • Any PR agency you choose to use should tick as many as possible of the following boxes. When you've drawn up a shortlist of possible agencies, look at the list below to judge whether or not they're right for you.
  • Extensive experience with businesses your size.
  • Experience working with businesses in your sector.
  • The right fit for your business. If they're other clients are much larger and higher paying companies than you, you're likely to be bottom of their priorities list. Don't get led astray just because they have a seriously impressive client list!
  • It's often better to go for a smaller, possibly younger PR agency as they're likely to work harder for your money to retain and impress you.
  • An attitude you feel comfortable with. Don't go for an agency that seems like the most revolutionary and wacky just because you think you should - you need to be on the same level as them and they need to think in the same way as you. This will ensure the most cohesive working relationship with their brand.
  • Remember that the agency you employ will be your representative. You need to feel comfortable that when they approach media contacts, they will be fairly representing your brand and they will behave in a way that will do you credit.
  • Similarly, if an agency feels more backward than you, they probably won't be a good fit for your brand - you'll be able to tell even from things such as the way they dress and the decoration of their office whether you're on the same playing field.
  • You absolutely must feel that you can trust them and entrust them with your business' image. Good PR requires a very open relationship (god of PR Max Clifford always says that he can only work with clients who are prepared to tell him more about themselves than they tell anyone else in the world).
  • They are responsive to your ideas but not overly led by them. You should be having an open dialogue about possibilities, but at the end of the day, the PR company knows best - it's their job too. If you feel they are leaning too heavily on you for suggestions, be suspicious. Similarly, if they're not prepared to even listen to your proposals, you're not going to have a very healthy working relationship.
  • They have a strong track record. Always ask for results of their previous campaigns and for client testimonials.
  • They make time for you. The right PR agency will always make you feel listened to and valued. That's what they're trained to do.
  • If you don't feel they're giving you attention or listening carefully enough at the outset, you probably shouldn't work with them - if they can't make a good first impression, what hope does the future hold!
  • Judge a book by its cover. PR is all about creating perfect impressions and a great image. If a PR agency isn't capable of creating a good image for itself, you certainly shouldn't trust it with your business' image.
  • That applies to their telephone manner, their presentation, their timeliness, their attitude in meetings and the way their office is presented and decorated.
  • They instantly build rapport with you. Good relationships are the lynch-pin of all effective PR. If people from a PR agency can't build and maintain rapport with you, how can you trust that they do so with media contacts and other businesses? Avoid them if in doubt.
  • The experience of the team and, in particular, whoever will be handling your account if the agency already knows this.
  • The right price. Finally, of course, you have to be able to afford the agency. See below for more advice on paying an agency.

How to find a PR agency

  • Friends and business contacts. Always your first port of call, as you can hear first-hand, trusted reviews of what the agency is actually like too work with. Just make sure what works for them works for you too.
  • Hollis PR. An invaluable directory of PR companies.
  • Any journalists you know. They'll easily be able to give you an idea of who the best PR agencies are that they work with if you're in the same sector.
  • LinkedIn. You can get good recommendations from the community there.
  • In your local area. You definitely need to be able to reach your PR agency's office with not too much hassle - you're likely to have to hold meeting fairly regularly. Don't make it difficult for yourself.
    • Look in local directories or on Yell.com.
  • Make a shortlist of four or five agencies and have face-to-face meetings at their office to see how you get on.
  • Get each to draw up proposals for how they would publicise your business or work on this project. Remember they are bidding for your work against each other.
  • Use the pointers above to assess them.
  • Find out how you'd pay and how much it would cost. Look at all of the following as options and discuss which would best for your business:
    • Per month
    • Per hour (be wary of an agency who is very pernickety about how closely they monitor costs per hour - do they round up or down to the nearest quarter of an hour, for example?)
    • Per project (this can be good for the first time you use an agency as it can work as a trial run)
    • Flat rate (this can be a better option if you're not sure how much work the project will actually involve and if it looks like there's a risk it could take up a lot of time)

How to write a PR brief

Once you've chosen an agency, you need to provide them with a brief, detailing your objectives, so they know what they should be doing. It needs to be detailed - the more information you can give the agency the better. It should cover all of the below, in the following sections:

  • Background:
    • Description of your business and what industry/industries it falls within
    • Your brand values and the image you want to portray publicly
    • Current perceptions of your brand
    • Description of your market and your positioning within it
    • Your competitors
    • Your USPs
    • You overall business objectives for the next year or so
    • Brief summary of your marketing strategy
    • Other marketing activity you're doing that may coincide with what you want them to do
    • Detailed descriptions of your product/s services (price, benefits, how much of each you have, USPs)
    • Challenges you face and potential problems you foresee
  • Target customers:
    • Description of your current customers
    • Detailed profile of your target customer/s - their demographics, interests, habits, etc
  • Communications objectives:
    • Your objectives, quantitatively (e.g. want to see a 30% increase in radio coverage, a certain number or articles, a 10% increase in enquiries)
    • An idea of how you want these objectives to be realised - through certain publications, by organising an event, and so on
    • Anything else you want from the agency -specific media contacts, specific publications targeted (if you have identified them), etc
  • Key messages you want to give out about your business and brand
  • Timescale: deadlines for each objective.
  • Budget
    • Bear in mind this may alter depending on what the agency says is feasible, but giving an upper limit is always sensible.
    • This will all add up to between three or four to ten pages of A4.

Monitoring results

  • Assess at the end of every project thoroughly:
    • How well your agency has met the objectives you laid out.
    • How much value for money it provided (looking at ROI).
    • If you use an agency on an ongoing basis, assess them against your objectives every six months to a year.
    • Don't be shy of speaking with other agencies if your current one isn't hitting the targets you wanted them to, but do things delicately and talk over problems and concerns with your current agency first and foremost. Better to give them a chance to improve before doing anything rash.
    • Good and trustworthy relationships with a PR agency can be worth more than saving money.

Resources

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Other resources include:

Smarta Business Builder

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