A client recently asked me if I could help them find a suitable PR agency for one of their growth markets. There are things that you really don’t need to ask me twice, things that spontaneously make me smile. This was one of those things.
Why? That’s an easy question to answer. This was an ideal opportunity to show someone that there are better alternatives to the umpteenth cumbersome and – pardon my French – incredibly boring RFP. This is the kind of thing I love to roll up my sleeves for.
Of course, it wasn’t easy. The only thing I was completely certain about was how NOT to go about this. That said, I knew that my first task would consist of determining the various steps in the process and composing a briefing. So, here is a step-by-step approach: How to choose a PR agency from the surplus of PR agencies that, according to some people, is flooding the market?
1. Know what you want
This may sound simple, but it certainly is not. After all, you will have to review your entire communication strategy again. What are your priorities? Which tasks do you handle in-house, and for which do you outsource? Are you looking for support for your entire PESO mix, or are there specific components that require additional attention? For which countries or regions do you need support? Do you prefer to work with a small local agency, or a big international player? And what is your budget?
2. Know what your colleagues (in sales) want
Although you probably received input from your colleagues in sales when drafting your communication plan, it never hurts to involve them in this. Especially if you are in charge of the communication for a big region or for various departments. Double-check your priorities and discuss the role to be played by your future PR agency regarding these. Commitment guaranteed!
3. To pitch or not to pitch
Pitching is not exactly my idea of fun, and this undoubtedly also applies to most of the competitors in our field, as well as for the head of communications who must organise it. Are you the person in charge? If so, start with your own network: ask your peers about their experiences and whom they would recommend, invite their references for an interview and – before you know it – you might just have found the perfect match. But what if it isn’t as easy as this, or you want to – or have to – interview several parties? Try to limit your list to three agencies at most. You will quickly be able to see from their website and social media if they can contribute added value.
4. Give a good briefing
To be fair: our dear friend Google already tells us what your business does. Focus instead on the local situation, the tasks you have in mind and the criteria that your ideal communication partner should satisfy in your briefing. Don’t include too many details and leave enough margin for creativity and for the other party to contribute their own ideas.
5. Honesty is the best policy
Whether you are meeting with just one agency or ten, try to be as transparent as possible about your expectations, other parties, next steps, budget and also about your first impression. Do you remember the stress you experienced as a student when waiting for your marks? This time, you’re the professor. Be gentle.
6. What should you take into consideration? Here are a few tips:
- How well prepared are the parties you are interviewing? Check to see if they have really read your website and other sources of information.
- How knowledgeable are they about your sector? Have they ever worked for your competitors? Or your partners?
- Enquire about their references, and don’t hesitate to ask for contact details.
- Can they clearly communicate their vision on communication? Do you think you could learn something from them? And do their style and vision match those of your company?
- How do they measure success?
- How well acquainted are they with the (social) media landscape that is relevant to your business?
- How transparent are they about rates and budgets?
- What are the next steps? Can they present an outline of these? And is this in line with your expectations?
- And, finally: do you hit it off with the people who will be working for you? Your agency will be an extension of your team, and that is exactly what it should feel like: like collaborating with your colleagues.
7. Hire the attitude
Obviously, you must assess which agency is most knowledgeable about your business and your sector – or at least understands it. That said: if an agency doesn’t already have clients in the same sector, it is very difficult for that agency to be fully knowledgeable of all the ins and outs of a specific sector, let alone fully understand the solutions chosen by a specific company. The agency with a “can-do” attitude that wants to invest in building up its knowledge and dares to ask critical questions is your best option. Hire the attitude, train the skills.
Now that you have found the perfect agency, what can you do if their budget proposal exceeds the proposed limit? Don’t give up too quickly and communicate transparently about your possibilities in terms of budget. Perhaps there are still some options for lowering the budget: by handling some of the work by yourself, for example, or by working on a project basis. Or perhaps, based on the arguments presented by the agency, a little more budget can still be freed up internally. Are your expectations miles apart? Don’t to go too far in looking for a compromise: checking every hour worked is unpleasant for each party involved, and will often result in seeking an alternative.
Will the agency bill you a fixed retainer fee or invoice based on time worked? Will you sign a contract that has to be renewed each year? How will you be informed about how much budget is left? Will the agency take a margin on the expenses of third parties? No two contracts are identical, but make sure that you are informed of all the terms and conditions with a view to avoiding frustration.
The start-up phase
10. Well begun is half done
Were you selected, and have you set a start-up date? Make sure you organise a good briefing and a proper presentation of the agency in-house. Invite the team so they can meet management, the experts and other people with whom they will be in frequent contact or who can provide them with relevant information. Make sure that they are completely up-to-date about what is going on within the organisation. It is an investment that will pay itself back many times! This is the only way that an agency will be able to fully acquaint itself with the company’s corporate house style, tone of voice and priorities. Without this input it is very difficult for an agency to be truly successful in the field of PR.