Two choices present themselves—hire an ad agency related PR operation or an independent firm. Both have pluses and minuses.

The PR volume handled by the five conglomerate operations is in the hundreds of millions and dwarfs the revenues of the independents.

One reason is that PR, advertising and marketing are integrated at the conglomerates. A restructured Ogilvy has noted that PR is no longer a separate function.

Nearly all press relations have shifted to agencies. Many companies, and particularly blue chips, do not have PR departments or even a PR function. Their “corporate communications” units are focused on executive and employee communications, company websites, social media, retirees, local communities, public service and other audiences.

PR Council

Seminar, founded in 1952 and known as “PR Seminar” until 2007 when it dropped the “PR,” has 200 blue chip corporate execs as members. Fewer than five have “PR” in their titles.

“PR” Retained by Major Trade Group

However, the PR Council, comprised of 100 PR operations including conglomerates and many major independents, has examined the issue and has kept PR in its title.

Members of the PR Society of America rejected an attempt at the Oct. 7, 2017 Assembly to replace “PR” with “communications” throughout the bylaws. Both terms are now used.

The numerous functions of a PR firm have been noted by CooperKatz which says the chief value provided to clients is media outreach.

Anne Green

Anne Green
Cooperkatz Pres. & CEO

Defenders of “PR” note that “communications” also refers to communications infrastructure such as cellphone towers, telephone equipment, etc.

Specialty Practices Emerge

Firms have developed specialty practices in recent years that give them deep backgrounds in at least a dozen areas including healthcare, tech, financial, food, environmental, beauty/fashion, entertainment, home furnishings, professional services, travel, sports/leisure and agriculture. The O’Dwyer website provides a link to 124 documented ranked firms with these practices.

Consultants who specialize in helping companies to find the right firm are RFP Assocs., Washington, D.C., headed by Robert Udowitz, and Pile and Co., Boston, headed by Meghan McDonnell.  

First step in searching for a firm would be opening a dialogue with four to six likely prospects, an even number of ad agency-related and independent firms.

Firms billing more than $10 million yearly are looking for monthly retainers of $50,000. Smaller firms are looking for fees of $20K to $30K. Ask for the size of the budget. Expenses could be an extra charge.

Ask for account lists to check for conflicts.

Look for clients in similar industries and check their size and prestige.  Would your company be a giant among midgets or vice-versa? Look for press placements in major as well as trade media. Compare minimums and other prices being charged. You want a firm that speaks your language.

Ask two or three interested firms to make written proposals. Most will come up with run-of-the-mill PR ideas and programs. But one or two will come up with some really good...even great...ideas. Those are the firms that should be hired. A well-written RFP will outline the specifics the agencies need to address.

Visit Offices of Contenders

Visit the offices of finalists. Look for staffers who are busy at computer terminals. Empty offices, outdated clippings on the walls are bad signs. Meet the support people. If a big agency is involved, your work may be farmed out to writers, artists, placement and other specialists. Meet them from time to time.

The firm you pick should have deep background on the industry or industries you are representing and should not require a long break-in period.

Make the PR firm part of your company. Don’t be adversarial. Have one informed person at the agency and let him or her fill in the other agency departments.

Ask agency principals before you sign how often you are going to see them each month. Meet the A/E who is assigned to day-to-day contact with you and know what other accounts he or she is working on.

Accessibility Is Needed

You need instant accessibility to your firm. Some of the smaller firms keep all their employees up-to-date on their accounts as much as is possible. A client who calls can always expect some kind of help or at least knowledgeable interest in his or her problem.

Too many firms wait for the client to take the initiative.

Monthly meetings with agency principals are also important. If you don’t like your A/E, that’s the time to bring it up. Don’t be afraid to ask for a new one. Many companies have switched agencies when all they really needed was a new A/E.

Performance Can Be Measured

There are many ways of measuring the performance of a PR firm. These include obtaining higher sales and profits for your product, increased floor traffic at consumer outlets, increased market share, increased profits, publicity obtained, and reaching tangible goals such as passage of legislation.

A PR firm on a sizable budget should be able to come up with four or five major placements a year—besides counseling and the day-in and day-out product, personnel and other routine announcements.

Examples are a "personality" profile in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, a feature in a major magazine, a segment on a nationwide TV program. That is the most efficient way to reach big audiences. The company may be so important to the field that the trades have to pick up just about every word it says.

Also important is creating a dialogue with influencers on social media. This can be a significant requirement of clients. The third parties help to validate what the clients are saying.