Gini Dietrich

Are You Ready to Hire a PR Firm?

By: Gini Dietrich | July 11, 2013 | 

Are You Ready to Hire a PR Firm?

By Gini Dietrich

I was in a meeting the other day with the chief executive officer and the chief marketing officer of an organization that is right on the tipping point of success.

They’ve done a lot of the right things: Their sales team has the right connections, they’re gaining industry recognition, and they have the right people both setting the strategy and executing on it.

But when we asked what they do differently than their competitors, the silence was deafening.

So we tried the question another way, “What makes you excellent?”

Again, no answer.

That’s not entirely true. They did try to answer it, but they couldn’t come to a consensus.

Much to the surprise of my team, I cut the meeting short. I closed my notebook (yes, I still carry a notebook), pushed back my chair, and said, “Gentlemen, you’re not ready for us yet.”

Sure, a communications firm can help an organization figure out their messaging and positioning, but if they don’t have the slightest inkling of what it is before they spend money on PR, it’s pretty likely the firm isn’t going to succeed.

Are You Ready to Hire a PR Firm?

So how do you know if you’re ready to hire a PR firm?

  • Know what PR is in today’s digital age. Yes, a good majority of PR firms will still pitch themselves to you as a media relations house. They’ll call themselves a PR firm, but all they’ll do for you is pitch stories on your behalf. I am telling you right now, if you hire a firm that only does media relations, you will think it’s a huge waste of time and money about six months from now. I hear it all the time. “Oh they were great at getting stories about us, but it didn’t really do anything. It was a waste of money.” Seeing your name in print is great for your ego, but it does not make the cash register ring. If the firms you interview don’t talk about how to integrate media relations into a larger communications (or marketing) program, you will feel like you’ve wasted your money.
  • Be ready to share your business goals. And this means even in the introductory meetings. Have them sign a non-disclosure agreement, if that makes you feel better, but don’t hide your goals. We once had a prospect tell us their search engine optimization had decreased significantly and they didn’t know why. When we asked for access to their analytics, they didn’t want to give it to us. We can’t help you if we don’t know what you’re trying to achieve.
  • Have realistic expectations. If the PR firm is worth its salt, you will spend some money on it and you can expect a return on your investment anywhere from two to five times what you pay them. BUT it won’t happen overnight. It won’t even happen in 90 days. It will take at least six months for you to begin seeing a return. That said, most will be able to give you metrics to track from day one that show whether or not you’re on the right path. Ask for those.
  • Ask yourself if you have the time to spend with the firm. Communications does not happen in a vacuum and your involvement is pretty necessary. If you – or someone on your team – does not have at least an hour every day to spend on PR, you’re not ready to hire a firm. Without your help and your involvement, the PR firm will only get so far. They don’t know your business as well as you do and, as it turns out, customers, prospects, journalists, and influencers would rather talk to you than some middle man. Your PR firm can create those conversations for you, but you have to have them.
  • Be willing to take some risk. Technology has completely changed the way a PR professional does his or her job. Using the web – and socia media, in particular – means you’re going to build your brand and gain awareness much more quickly than in the past. It also means you’ll be under some scrutiny. Make sure your PR firm has experience with crises on the web and be willing to let them get you out there. The more uncomfortable it is for you, the more likely it is to work.
  • Be uncomfortable. There is nothing worse than a prospect saying they want out-of-the-box thinking, and then asking for really boring, non-sexy strategies. If the PR firm doesn’t make you a little uncomfortable when you meet with them the first few times, nothing you do together will be extraordinary. It’s the discomfort that gets us to stretch beyond what we think we can do. Let them guide you down that path.

Of course, if you aren’t ready for a PR firm, there are lots of other options you have. You can hire someone internally, you can do some of the PR yourself, or you can hire a freelancer or soloproneur.

Knowing when you’re ready to hire a PR firm is the first step in your success.

A version of this first appeared in my weekly AllBusiness Experts column.

P.S. Join DJ Waldow on July 25 at 11 a.m. CT for the Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing. Register – for free – here!

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Ahem. So instead of giving them my card and saying ‘This Alien can help you develop everything you didn’t have ready for me’ you just left! ACK!
    I guess my point is yes they should know what makes them special. At least all employees should have an idea. I mean they are selling stuff right? Just needs someone to pull this all together.
    I think what is even worse is when you ask ‘What makes you special’ and as a marketer I did a lot of research and then after hearing the answer say ‘No in fact that is not what makes you special’ Then I am much more concerned. I mean it could be 100% their price and they might think it is because they make the only one in blue.
    So here you are in a meeting and they obviously need help and guidance but don’t have it. You could provide this but my guess it is work lower down the food chain. Do you advise them where to find the help?

    • Howie Goldfarb You’re special Howie……..

    • Howie Goldfarb Sometimes…but there wasn’t any love in the room. No chemistry. So we cut our losses.

  • First of all, you have to commit and be willing to spend some money to make some money. But, you can’t expect the PR firm to make you something you’re not and think just because they hired a firm now all they do is have to show up.  
    I know all too well in our industry in how we are painted with the same brush. Sometimes it is hard to articulate how we are different. One of the ways, like you did in your presentation, is to have walk away power if it’s not going to be a good fit. 
    The other thing we have been doing is to let our ‘success’ stories help us open doors to prospects they may know via either phone call or letter. Most have been more than willing to do this and gives us instant credibility too. 
    If it was easy, everyone would be doing it, huh?

    • bdorman264 We had a managing director who used to say, “One of our goals should be to have F you money. When we get to that point, we’ll be able to scale.” That means being able to walk away in a meeting.

  • Great post – and great posture relative to the prospect (once again, being honest serves agency and client the best).  I particularly appreciate the last two, related points about risk and getting out of your comfort zone.  Tough for companies to do, but it’s almost impossible to really help them if they don’t.
    BTW, sounds like this client needs a good brand strategist to help identify their simple, differentiating truth… hint… hint…

    • creativeoncall I don’t think it’d be a good client for you. I wouldn’t refer them to anyone I know.

      • ginidietrich Thanks… I like having a professional advance team vetting prospects!

    • creativeoncall Oooo, I like that…”simple, differentiating truth.” Nice.

      • Word Ninja Nothing works better.. at least, not in the long run. The truth, when clearly presented, is also self-evident and so requires less selling, and enables more believable “telling” (hmm… anybody into brand storytelling in this conversation?)

  • This is where I get into trouble. Or give away the store. I keep pressing w/ a few questions, shoot down the ‘well we’re local’ answers w/ the ‘so what? national X is better, faster, cheaper’ and so on until they figure out why they’re not ready for PR and the plans they need to make to get there. And FWIW, I am a Solo working on that overall communications strategy. Sigh.

    • 3HatsComm I meant no offense…just that a solo would A LOT cheaper than a PR firm, which is what companies sometimes need in order to figure out how this all works.

      • ginidietrich No offense taken, really.. on a different scale sometimes, but we’re often fighting these same “PR is so much more than publicity” battles as we convince TPTB that Communications is a strategic, essential business investment. So get ready to work on that brand statement, on that reputation – or keep it moving.

  • Fabulous points!

  • I carry a notebook too! 
    Great tips – I especially like the sharing of the goals and taking risks. Getting out of your comfort zone is when things become interesting, fun, and in my experience, educational. Whenever I feel out of my comfort zone, I know I’m doing something exciting but like creativeoncall said, it’s difficult for organizations to do, no matter how hard you push them.
    I love that you are honest with prospects and clients – you don’t just say “ok we’ll do this” just to make money. You really want to make a difference and help them. It takes guts to walk away and I’m sure it’s not easy.

    • yvettepistorio It’s been a long time coming. I didn’t used to walk away from business.

  • Here is the rub, do you know what makes them special and why? One of the reasons they need help telling their story is because they don’t always see what is different and why it is novel/interesting/special to someone else.
    Example: I once sat with a group of people who didn’t go to universities with a Greek system and for a good twenty minutes I told them “ordinary” stories about my time in a Fraternity and they loved it.
    To me it was basic, “boring” stuff that I figured anyone who had been to school would know about, but to them it was cool.
    It is important to establish boundaries and tell prospects and existing clients what to expect, but sometimes it needs to start with more aggressive hand holding.

    • By the way, I never understand how Livefyre picks out latest blog posts because that is not it.

    • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes It depends on the organization. This one, in particular, needed much more work than what we can do because it’s all internal. They couldn’t even agree, in a one hour meeting, what they are selling. No amount of branding or positioning or messaging can help that.

  • I have sat with several groups over the years listening to their thoughts on what makes their organization “distinctive.” Several contrasting ideas are voiced, and yes, they all may be important qualities of that organization. But at some point, some leader-type has to say, yes, this is our distinctive, and this is what we’re telling the world.

    • Word Ninja Yep…and that’s what was missing here. The leader wasn’t saying, “This is it.” They were all talking over one another and disagreeing on everything.

      • ginidietrich An important part of deciding on a distinctive is knowing who your main audience/customer is. Organizations can serve various types of groups, and so people from different departments sometimes identify very different distinctives based on the type of group they most often serve.

  • “We do the same thing as those other guys — the difference is, we do it BETTER!” Been there, heard that.
    To echo a couple of the other comments, I’ve worked with executives who, for instance, didn’t really know what their strategy was. It was there somewhere, in giant 5-inch binders left behind by a Bain or McKinsey, but as you went from executive to executive you never got the same story twice about exactly what their strategies or priorities should be. So I’ve done some really gratifying work being part of an iterative process where you sit down with leaders and gradually hammer out and articulate the strategy. So you’re not just communicating the strategy — communications is a vital part of devising the strategy.

    • RobBiesenbach There definitely is a place for that, even in the work you and I both do. These guys weren’t ready even for that.

  • Accurate, honest and detailed information is so important. When I was freelancing I had a client who had created a particular product. 
    It was selling OK, but he wanted to boost sales. I asked about his inventory and his supply chain and the response was “we have plenty and can get more” or something along those lines. His instructions were to sell as many as quickly as possible. He paid in advance. The check did not bounce, so I bit.
    We launched a great campaign. Less than a month into it, I got a call and was told he was going to have to stop me. He was sold out of the product and it was going to take 3-4 months to get more manufactured.
    I was so mad for not demanding detailed information about his existing inventory and the process for getting more inventory.

    • ClayMorgan UG!!!!! I would have been so angry! ARGH!

      • ginidietrich Yea, I was very frustrated. A hard lesson learned.

  • photo chris

    …. and here’s where I get lost in the particulars and dividing lines of the industry….why not help them figure it out?

    • photo chris With these guys, it was an internal issue. We could have helped them figure it out, but they wouldn’t have agreed on it internally and they would have wasted their money. Until their leadership could agree, they couldn’t expect anyone else in the organization to agree…let alone hire a PR firm to help tell their story.

      • photo chris

        ginidietrich photo chris  I think this is amazing. Truly. To know your place well enough to know what works; and what will cause you to bang your head against the wall and frustrate everyone, and the ability and courage to walk away from something that you already deemed was at a tipping point of success… If you have a 1/10th of your bravery to share, I’ll take it 🙂

        • photo chris It took a loooong time to get here. In the beginning of our business, there is no way I would have walked away from that. And then, six months from now, my team would be begging me to fire them.

  • JennyBrooks

    Thank you for this! I feel so validated as a PR professional who has struggled with clients who don’t get it and against others who say they do PR when all they do is media relations. PR is not media relations – yet so many PR professionals perpetuate that idea.

    • JennyBrooks IT IS NOT MEDIA RELATIONS! I’m with you – it gets exhausting when prospects call and say they want PR and all they really want is their name in the NY Times.

  • ToniAntonetti

    Really good post, and points we have made to clients and prospects time and time again. What we have encountered fairly recently is clients who expect a PR program to generate traffic and buzz immediately without any effort or additional expenditures on their part.

    • ToniAntonetti I JUST left a speaking engagement where I said no less than five times this is a time investment. It doesn’t happen overnight.

  • I used all of this advice today to make sure a potential client was ready to work with a firm like ours (thankfully the answer seems to be yes.)  Asked them to provide sales data, make a time commitment and made them outline specific exceptions.  I love it when a blog has immediate impact!  🙂

    • HeatherTweedy OMG! Really?! That makes me so happy to hear!

  • a_greenwood

    All I can say is: yup.

    • a_greenwood Ha! You’ve always been a man of many words.

  • CommProSuzi

    Wow! Another fantastic effort, Gini! Your writing helps me solidify the nebulous thoughts in my brain. 
    I am curious to know what metrics you would suggest asking a firm to provide: 
    “…most will be able to give you metrics to track from day one that show whether or not you’re on the right path.”
    Many companies think they need a public relations firm, but haven’t an inkling what the firm does, why it does it, or how public relations efforts can help them.  I also take great pleasure trying to explain why crisis communications is important, how it differs from media relations and other public relations functions, and why crisis communicators make up a special team in big firms. 
    Thanks so much for your efforts! You make us all better. ~ Suz

  • I’m biased, but I think it’s incredibly important to have an internal PR person before hiring  firm.  At least for larger companies. A pivotal part of the internal PR pros job is to share information about new programs, ideas and generally be able to feed great concepts to the firm. Incredibly important — the success of both the firm and internal PR person is linked at the hip.

    • CommProSuzi

      Frank: How do you determine what tasks are handled by the agency v. The ones you tackle internally? ~ Suzi

      • CommProSuzi Good question.  In my experience with firms (I’ve had five over the course of two gigs) while in-house, I find they are usually good at either media relations or content, but *usually* not both.  So I like to have them focus on their strength and I work on the other, but also try to ensure our efforts complement each other. 
        In addition, if they are focused on media relations, I’ll still do a little pitching on the side but reserve that efforts for trying to turn up opportunities they might not otherwise consider.  I’ll go for a local angle (if it makes geographical sense), or go after a vertical I know they are not touching, or dig deep for a feature in one of those hard to write and slightly offbeat columns. 
        One thing that is very important:  I treat the firm as an extension of my team.  We have one unified report so our results are shown to management together – there is no “them and us” — its just “us”. How I divide the work is my purview and all upper management needs to see is the results. I’m make an effort to ensure the firm sees that I’m working every bit as hard as they are for the same thing. I try to be quick to complimentary when the results merit.

        • CommProSuzi

          Thanks! You’re a good dance partner!
          I loved working with my agency. They sharpened me.
          Conversely, I also loved working with my client, who taught me a lot when I was coming up in the business.

  • I was on vacation this week, so I am catching up on some Spin Sucks posts. This one really hits home because it is soooo true. I especially love the advice that you have to be willing to be uncomfortable and share some of your secrets. When you hire a PR firm, you are essentially building on your existing team. We are ALL on your team, regardless of whether we’re in the same building. 🙂

  • I was also on vacation last week, so I missed this installment.
    First off. lady you rock!!! Hats off to you for being able to call it off and speak your mind! I just love that abou you ginidietrich 
    We are delving into PR for SYDCON as you know.  I agree you have to be open with the team you hire. And, for Pete’s sake if we cant explain why we are different or awesome we sure as heck shouldnt expect someone else to be able to do it!

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