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How to Hire and Get the Most from Outside PR Counsel

Jack O'DwyerJack O'Dwyer

Public relations covers such a broad array of communications services these days that defining it has become harder than ever. The experienced PR professional more than ever before is involved in the shaping of messages and strategies for clients as well as getting these messages distributed in the most efficient manner possible.

PR pros, in dealing with the skeptical and idealistic general and trade press, must provide the facts on which they have to base their stories. Any variance from this policy can damage the future of the PR pros involved.

However, PR people, often working in close coordination with marketing and advertising people, find themselves involved in all sorts of special events, promotional activities and other means of publicizing a client.

While some PR veterans considered measurement to be a redundant activity, the new PR pros know they are dealing with numbers-oriented and sales-oriented executives and must speak that language if they are to survive in the industry.

PR has long been known as the field of “third party endorsement” but few agencies today want to limit their activities to that goal. There are too many other ways to
garner public attention and get points across. These include use of the Internet, sponsorship of public events, placement of issue advertising, and other activities that do not involve a third party.

Media have credibility

As for the believability of the media and reporters, a $150,000 study by PR Society of America and the Rockefeller Foundation, which drew responses from 2,500 members of the public, found reporters to be highly credible. The results were released in 1999.

On a list of 45 spokespeople, network TV news anchor was found to rank 12; local reporter, 15; nationally syndicated columnist, 19, and reporter for a big TV station or newspaper, 23.

Ranking very high in credibility at No. 5 was “local business owner.” Your input as CEO is vital every step of the way in dealing with the media.

Ranking at mid-level in the study at 25 was “head of a big corporation.” This is not as high as the press or other types of spokespeople (Supreme Court Justice and “teacher” were at the top of the list) but it is certainly far higher than “PR specialist.”

Anyone shopping for a PR firm should talk to both the giants and the independents. You’ll get different views of what PR can or can’t do for you.

O’Dwyer’s Directory of PR Firms lists several dozen big ad-agency owned PR operations employing more than 15,000 people and more than 2,000 independent firms, many of them employing fewer than ten people each. There is plenty of good PR being practiced in both types of firms, depending on what your needs are.

Person on your account is important

Public relations often comes down to the person working on your account. At big agencies, supervision of the day-by-day account team is highly important. The smaller independents will argue that if you hire them you’ll get the principal or principals all or most of the time.

One view of PR is that it’s communicating in an editorial format where editors set all the rules and stories are written from the viewpoint of the reader, not the subject of the story.

Control-oriented sales and marketing executives have flooded into the PR field in recent years and are making their influence felt. Their values are client confidentiality, concentration on getting across a well-defined message, and measurement of results.

The “old days,” when Public relations pros went largely unsupervised as they built press relationships via lunches, dinners and other forms of contact, appear to be over.

PR has become a much more disciplined field where agency people usually keep track of how they spend each hour of the day.

Propelling this discipline is the fact that a great majority of the 15 biggest PR firms have been acquired by the large advertising agency holding companies. Management and financial controls have become standard in a field once known for its looseness. Worldwide accounts in the multi-million dollar category demand such controls if PR firms are to keep control of their costs.

PR can be seen as separate

We like the definition of PR given by John Wolfe in 1989 when he was New York bureau chief of Advertising Age: “The ad agency’s job is to convince consumers of something; the PR firm’s job is to convince the media of something.”

However, the current dominant philosophy is that all forms of communications must be coordinated or “integrated” if the best results for clients are to be achieved.

High-tech West Coast PR and marketing guru Regis McKenna gives this advice: “Treat the press the same way you would a major customer.”

Michael Wolff, whose Internet company ran into financial difficulties, hired a PR firm to win ink but found that doing that was far from easy.

Wolff, who now writes for New York magazine, said that “it’s hard, really hard, to influence the media—especially for people and companies with no news.”

Wolff also wrote he thinks clients hire PR firms because it’s “unpleasant” to deal with reporters.

“They’re peremptory, cranky, and ego-bashing,” he wrote.

Ask for qualitative research

Anna West, of Kearns & West, San Francisco, recommended emphasis on qualitative research rather than quantitative research (formal projects involving large numbers of

Kearns, writing in the March 1998 newsletter of the Counselors Academy of PR Society of America, said five or ten calls can be made to the right people in only a day or two and “can have a tremendous impact on a project’s strategy, direction and outcome.”

Time-consuming and expensive quantitative research is useful when a large audience is involved such as consumers or voters, she wrote. But this, too, can benefit from qualitative research, she added.

Some PR people believe deeply in research and recommend it to all clients.

McKenna’s advice on research was that “You don’t have to ask 300 people to find out something.”

PR closes the sale

While advertising creates excitement and interest in products and services, many consumers will seek further information sources before making a final decision. Sources include general and specialized publications, friends, and the Internet.

Word-of-mouth is decisive these days and the verdicts on products and services are usually delivered in brief, blunt terms. This is one of the arenas in which PR people should operate.

PR can have an immense effect in a short period of time and at a comparatively low cost. But the CEO of a company often must be personally involved in the PR efforts including press relations. You want top-flight business intelligence in your specialized area—such as what reporters and security analysts are saying about you not only in print but informally.

You want knowledge of upcoming stories and surveys, news of your competitors, and news of your industry before it hits print.

Sometimes, you can ward off a negative story by showing a reporter he or she is way off base. You can make sure your company is included in stories that mention all your competitors.

Press can help in search

Companies seeking a fast start can do initial research by asking general and trade reporters what they think about a company or product, talking to employees, and using existing research.

A media-oriented program will seek to build relationships with reporters and analysts so that the company becomes a source for these influencers.

The best type of PR is when the reporter calls you with a story idea and asks you for advice. He or she does this because you have been helpful in the past—sending newsclips, feeding tips or helping the reporter to understand your industry.

You want a PR firm that knows all the major analysts and writers in your field and can broaden your range of press contacts.

The analysts and reporters will need plenty of help from your firm or PR staffers but there will be times when only a discussion with you will suffice.

Reporters and analysts, meanwhile, can help you by supplying documents, clips, background, etc., on a subject you want explored.

Returning calls of reporters will build your list of press contacts because reporters will tell their fellow scribes you were helpful.

Companies are paying large sums of money these days for sponsorship of sporting and other events, stadiums, etc. They’re satisfied that their names are being seen by large numbers of people and are not worried about exact demographic breakdowns or exact measurement of the effect of such plugs.

They’re satisfied that large numbers of people see their names and marketing wisdom is that people tend to buy products they’re familiar with.

PR “team” has four elements

The PR firm is one part of a four-member team that is needed for good PR.

You, the CEO, are the most important member. The other three members are a close aide that is always on tap to handle press calls; your outside PR counsel, and the press and security analysts themselves.

Checking your plans and programs with the outside world from the start can save you a lot of trouble later on.

Thinking of the press and analysts as fellow team members rather than as “the enemy” can save you lots of time and money.

Of course, a few rules are needed in dealing with media. Reporters should be cautioned that everything is “on background” and not for quoting unless quotes are specifically approved. Reporters, and particularly trade reporters, want to build relationships, not destroy them. An occasional bad experience with a reporter or publication should not cause a client to adopt a bunker mentality.

Negatives must be faced

CEOs must realize that the negatives that can be ignored in ad campaigns cannot be ignored in dealing with the press.

Reporters, to protect themselves from charges of inaccuracy or even libel suits, are more apt to probe for details about negative developments than positive ones since few companies are likely to complain about a questionable statement or two in a positive story.

The same mistakes made in a negative story can be used to attack the credibility of the entire story and get the reporter and news medium in deep trouble.

One definition of PR is that it is “doing good and getting credit for it.” Another is that PR is “winning good will.” The latter was the one used by Bert Goss, longtime head of Hill & Knowlton. Our definition of PR is that it helps the client in appearances in the public forum, when the public may be demanding explanations of a client’s conduct. The public can be a severe judge.

The media provide more space and time than ever before to all sorts of opinions and voices via letters-to the-editor columns, op-ed pages, and call-in radio and TV talk shows. The media constitute a platform rather than the exclusive preserve of writers and editors.

Those who are articulate and well prepared are the ones who will fare the best in the public forum of news and opinions. The internet has spawned a host of new information and opinion-forming entities including blogs that are operated by individuals.

PR should take advantage of opportunities that pop up during the course of a year. The client as well as the agency should keep their eyes open for such opportunities. Anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of a budget can be spent “hitching your wagon to a star.”

How to begin your search

In starting your search for a PR firm, check with business associates and your trade association about their experiences in hiring outside PR counsel. The trade press in your industry is apt to have a good handle on hard working, reliable PR pros and firms. Local press are also likely to be knowledgeable.

Almost all PR firms cite “referrals” as their main source of new clients. The PR firm you pick will want to win the same type of recommendation from you.

Look over the firms listed in O’Dwyer’s Directory of PR Firms, using the geographical index, the ranking of firms by 11 types of special skills, and the rankings of firms
by size.

There are good PR people in all sizes of agencies. Most often you will want a firm with a specialty in your product category. The days are gone when PR people could handle “anything.” They might, but how good a job would they do? It’s the same as in law, medicine and other professions. You would go to a real estate lawyer, for instance, if you were involved in a real estate deal.

After picking out a half dozen or so likely agencies, examine their account lists carefully. See if there are any conflicts with your company.

Look for clients in similar industries. Look at the size and prestige of the clients. Would your company fit comfortably among the clients on one of these lists? Would it be a giant among midgets or vice-versa?

Try to compare the current account lists of the agencies with those of several years ago. See how many clients the firm has been able to keep. Rapid turnover in accounts is not necessarily bad these days because of the increase in project work. However, the agency should be able to show a continuing relationship with a good number of clients.

Ask for an up-to-date list of clients along with the contacts at these clients and their telephone numbers.

Agencies that don’t have their own branch offices are often members of worldwide PR networks such as Worldcom Group, Pinnacle Worldwide, IPREX-International PR Exchange, and PR Organisation International. This helps them to compete with the dozen or more PR firms that have their own branch offices throughout the world.

How some companies shop for PR

One way of learning how to shop for a PR firm is to see how others do it. Here’s how one client conducts his searches:

“First, I call in four or five agencies. They prepare nothing. Rather, they are asked about themselves. The PR firm you pick should speak your language. You must be comfortable with them. Otherwise, the agency might try to mold the company into what the agency is. The PR firm must fit in with the company’s personality—not vice versa.

“Then I ask two or three to make written proposals—for which they may be paid. Nothing too elaborate. Most of the agencies who get to this stage 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 agencies I hire.

“You can expect plenty of meetings but you can’t expect too many press placements or other results in the first three months. During that time, you educate them on your business and the business of your competitors.

“Above all, make the PR firm part of your company. Too often, it’s an adversarial relationship. A company hires a firm and says, ‘Okay, let’s see the SOBs do it.’ Don’t dare them to do things. Trust them.”

One corporate PR director said briefing of the agency can get out of hand. Have one informed person at the agency and let him or her fill in the other agency departments,
he advises.

The PR director of a blue-chip company which has a number of PR firms likes to follow the news to see who is winning the important new accounts and who is doing good work. He will then call in a few firms and let them do the talking. “We can tell what type of people they are by the kinds of questions they ask,” he says. “We ask them to
send along whomever would be working on the account. We get their account list and call up the clients for further checking.”

The PR director then takes written proposals. He discourages “big, glamorous flip-chart presentations.’’ One of the firms is picked without too much hesitation and notes are kept on the rest for future possible use.

One longtime New York PR counselor said clients should visit the offices of the two or three finalist agencies before making a decision.

“You can judge the size and strength of an agency best by a visit,” he said. “Bad things to look for are offices that are empty, outdated clippings on the walls, secretaries who read magazines. Pluses you may find are staffers busy at computer terminals, the frequent jangle of incoming phone calls, some clutter—that’s often the badge of busy, creative people.”

Don’t expect too much too soon

New York consultant Tom Leighton, who also helps companies find agencies, says the most common mistake clients make is hiring an agency in a hurry to fight fires that have been burning for years. The client wants the fire put out almost immediately.

“During 14 years in PR consulting and previous years on the client side at Sears, Roebuck and other companies, I learned that the people who hire agencies often don’t know anything about PR and the people pitching the account often don’t work on it. The inexperienced people at the company are confronted by the best sales people at the agency and what the company usually makes is a chemical guess. The result is often a bad match,” says Leighton.

Here are some other observations Leighton makes:

“The smaller the search committee, the better the choice. Too often, the search for a PR firm is viewed as a semi-social occasion, an opportunity for deserving executives to enjoy a number of agency dog-and-pony shows in the big city. Almost invariably, the committee sees too many agencies in too little time and winds up choosing the winner in a blur of fatigue.”

Don’t withhold key facts

“Clients don’t know how much a solid PR program costs. They expect too much, too soon, for too little. Clients are inclined to hold back essential information during agency briefings prior to the presentation. Later, they are surprised that the presentation is off target.

“PR firms are frequently denied the opportunity to advise clients. Instead, they are encouraged to tell clients what the clients want, rather than what they need.

“Companies continue to confuse advertising with PR and they evaluate PR firms by ad agency criteria.”

Robert L. Ferrante of The Cantor Concern, a management consultant who assists in searches, says he asks clients who are looking at PR firms to separate their real needs from their imagined needs.

An objective framework of tasks and goals must be set up and the substance of PR presentations separated from the overall sales part of the presentation, he adds.
One of Ferrante’s aims is to coordinate the possible input of the prospective PR firms with any in-house capabilities the client may have. Another aim is to set up a means of evaluating performance. He prefers that one person or a small committee make the choice.

What to expect from your firm

Find out from the agency principal or principals before you sign the contract how often you are going to see them each month. You should also meet the account executive who is assigned to day-to-day contact with you and should know on what other accounts he or she is working.

“Most clients do not want their A/Es working on more than two or three other accounts,” said one PR executive. “They really can’t handle it. Their minds become too fragmented.”

Not only should you meet the account personnel, but also the support people. If a big agency is involved, your work may be farmed out to writers, artists, placement and other specialists. You should meet them from time to time.

What you want from a firm is “instant accessibility,” as one PR person put it. Some of the smaller firms keep all their employees up-to-date on all 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.

One longtime New York public relations counselor says that for tens of thousands a month a client should get almost daily contact with his or her PR firm.

“For hundreds of thousands a year a company could have a full-time PR pro although there would be secretarial and other costs.

“If you’re doing a day-in, day-out job you’ll find that monthly review meetings will take care of themselves. They’ll arise spontaneously. You won’t have to lock yourself
into a schedule, such as having the meeting on the 25th of each month.

“And if you’re at the client every day, you won’t need to do a lot of reporting about your activities. You and the client will know what you’re doing.”

Going by the client once a week or waiting for him or her to call doesn’t work. Too many firms wait for the client to take the initiative. Successful account executives do not operate that way.

While daily contact with the account executive is stressed by some PR people, others point out that the monthly meetings with agency principals are also important. “If you don’t like your account executive, that’s the time to bring it up,” says a corporate PR man. “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,” says one PR pro.

Measuring performance

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. Sophisticated models for assessing each
press clip or broadcast mention by various criteria are also available.

A vocal school insists that the PR profession will not win full acceptance among top management until the measurement issue has been settled.

A New York PR counselor with more than 25 years’ experience said that 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.

“These are the ‘home runs’ of the business,” the counselor says. “I mean a ‘personality’ profile’ in the New York Times, a feature in Newsweek or Time magazine, a healthy time segment on a nationwide TV program or a prominent mention in Reader’s Digest.

“This is the most efficient way to reach big audiences. Stories in the trade press don’t count that much. The company may be so important to the field that the trades have to pick up just about every word it says.”

Don’t let firm coast after hit

“PR firms have a tendency to coast after a ‘home run’—say a piece in Fortune or an item on the first page of the Wall Street Journal. There is a tendency for them to say, ‘That ought to hold them for a month or two.’ But the client should continue to put pressure on the firm...keep feeding them information. Actually, the PR firm should lead the ahead of it.

“Time sheets should be kept by the agency so it can tell who spends how much time on what account. The client who is paying you $10,000 a month wants as much service as the one who is paying you $20,000. You have to keep a certain rein on the smaller client or his time will eat into that of the bigger one.

“But the time sheets are for internal use only. They only confuse the client. About 25 to 40 percent of the budget should be allotted to capitalizing on unforseen events,” says the New York counselor.