Like many others in the agency business, our growth is often predicated on responding to and converting RFPs and inquiries into paying clients. It’s not a quick or efficient process; sometimes the most complex requests come in cold—with a tight deadline for delivering a comprehensive plan by e-mail—from an intern or lower-level corporate employee who may be communicating with dozens of PR firms. We don’t typically participate in those kinds of blind shootouts. They’re too time-consuming and we have a business to run.
The far better scenarios are when we’re asked to participate in getting-to-know-you or “chemistry” meetings, provide samples of our work and discuss the prospect’s business and competitive environment. As the field gets whittled down, negotiations can get underway, references shared or we might be asked to develop a speculative plan or directional outline (though often at our expense and with no guarantee of being retained).
I share the above not as a complaint but as a window into a new business team’s challenges. However, there are some questions that emerge during the new business cycle that make my eyes roll into my head and my brain rattle. In the spirit of educating—and hopefully not alienating—would-be clients, here are some of them and our typical responses.
Q: Can you get our company into “fill in the blank”: TechCrunch, Wall Street Journal or the New York Times?
A: Perhaps. But save your money in hiring a PR firm if you have just one target you’re going after. You should think of a PR firm as your strategic partner in developing a communications strategy designed to support your business objectives and not just a handyman you call in to fix a gutter or paint a wall. It’s not how you get real value.
Q: How many placements can you guarantee?
A: While we’re at it, how about forecasting the stock market or the weather with absolute certainty? Ethical public relations practitioners can’t predict which specific outlets will run a story or how many placements a campaign can engender. What we can do is help you to assess the strength of your business story and the likelihood the media may find it newsworthy. A good PR firm should be able to provide you with many concepts for a campaign that will reach the individuals you are trying to influence. And if you’re putting out valuable, credible, engaging and/or actionable content, the results should speak for themselves.
If the question is not of absolute numbers but of accountability, that opens up a far more strategic discussion between an agency and the prospect. A client has every right to ensure that their agency’s efforts and expenditures are measured. In developing and finalizing PR plans for our prospects, we work with our clients to set KPIs or goals for each activity that make it into the final plan—not just measuring media hits but speaking platforms and awards applied for—and later won—industry analyst briefings, trade show briefings, social media growth and more.
Q: Instead of a retainer, can we just pay for successful placements?
A: There are law firms that take cases on a contingency basis and yes, there are some PR firms that operate on a pay-for-performance or success formula. In the PR industry, these types of arrangements shift the focus from strategy and creativity to quantity—not necessarily quality —and open up the opportunity for illicit payments to producers or journalists.
As businesses, most PR firms are compensated for their strategy, planning, execution and results. Focusing just on the results portion of our work puts a disproportionate focus on an outcome that may be adversely affected by client actions, competitive developments, other news and numerous other factors beyond an agency’s control. It also devalues our strategic efforts. If an agency fails to deliver agreed-upon results as part of its mandate, and the reason is their lack of effort, creativity or incompetence, they should be terminated.
Q: Have you ever worked for a firm identical to our own?
A: Perhaps, but the expertise of an external communications team relies primarily in its knowledge of public relations and the full toolset available to help clients achieve their business objectives. Past experience and tactics from totally different industries can be extremely useful in relating to a client challenge in a new industry. That’s not to say a company shouldn’t be looking for an agency with relevant experience—sector familiarity can be quite valuable to a client seeking agency representation and to avoid having to teach the basics.
Q: Can we test your team out for a few months before signing a more formal/longer-term contract?
A: PR campaigns, depending upon their nature, can easily take several months before results are visible and that doesn’t take into account the initial learning curve and infrastructure set-up. In addition, asking an agency to consent to a short-term starter relationship suggests the client isn’t sure about its selection process and may not be fully committed to the campaign’s success. Better not to hire than to set an artificially short time frame that may ensure failure.
Q: Can you provide a list of reporters you know?
A: This is one of my favorite pet peeves. It’s often asked to try and ensure that the agency knows the publications—and journalists—that may cover their company. But there are so many assumptions tied to this seemingly innocuous request that makes it virtually worthless.
First, every agency subscribes to a media database of some sort and can generate a list of reporters in any city or market niche. Secondly, knowing a reporter doesn’t guarantee coverage. Sure, journalists get to know PR practitioners who are reputable and deliver reliably. But that doesn’t guarantee coverage, which typically is what a prospect is seeking to learn. Thirdly, reporters change beats or organizations with increasing frequency—the days of your “connection” at one publication for 20 years is an interesting historical artifact. And finally, what we believe is the key factor here—it’s the strength of the story and the storytelling that rules the day—not which reporter ran a story on a prior client six months ago.
I provide these examples of common missteps in the PR agency vetting process not as a gripe fest, but rather as an attempt to redirect prospective clients’ energies down a more positive and productive path. I’d love to hear your pet peeves and constructive examples for improving the process. Forward them to me at [email protected] and I’ll round up the most interesting in a follow-up column.
Henry Feintuch is President of tech PR firm Feintuch Communications.