Gini Dietrich

How to Choose a PR Firm for Your Business

By: Gini Dietrich | May 21, 2013 | 

How to Choose a PR Firm for Your BusinessYou’ve started a new business or your existing business needs help growing to the next level.

You talk to your peers and trusted advisers and everyone recommends you hire a PR firm.

But what does that mean? How to choose a PR firm for your business?

Typically, business leaders hear “PR” and they instantly think about seeing their name in lights. After all, if celebrities, sports figures, and politicians can become famous seemingly overnight through the media, why wouldn’t it work for you?

Publicity vs. PR

It can work for you, but there is a difference between that – which is really publicity – and PR.

Publicity or earned media or media relations is all about getting your organization covered in the news. It’s great for the ego, it’s great for building awareness, and it’s great for credibility. It’s not great, however, for making the phone ring or for increasing sales.

When combined with PR, it can be a very powerful tool in both building your organization’s reputation and growing your sales.

So what is it, then, a PR firm should do?

In today’s digital age, a PR firm should begin to look a bit like their marketing peers. Not only should they be focused on media and blogger relations, crisis and issues management, event production, and strategy, they also should be doing content (blogs, white papers, ebooks, webinars), email marketing, social media, and more.

They should have a process in place that helps you generate leads and nurture those leads until they’re ready to buy. They should be working hand-in-hand with your sales team (or with you, if you don’t have sales yet) to grow the top line. They should be able to measure their efforts to real business goals. In other words, if they can’t tell you how they’ll help you grow your sales, they’ll be focused instead on increased Facebook fans, lots of stories, and increased Twitter followers.

While those things are important in brand building, they don’t mean a thing if those people don’t buy.

How to Choose a PR Firm

When you’re working through how to choose a PR firm, ask the following questions:

  1. Do they have experience in your industry? It used to be more important the PR firm have industry experience, but it’s less so today because the web provides so much information to get smart quickly. Even so, if they have industry experience, the learning curve won’t be as steep.
  2. Can they give you case studies? The case studies could be proprietary (we have three clients who won’t allow us to post their case studies on our site), but they should have them and they should detail the results they achieved for the client.
  3. Are they willing to share references? Even for the clients they no longer work with. It’s important for you to have a full understanding of their strengths and weaknesses before hiring them. Every organization has its faults. Is the PR firm willing to let someone else tell you what theirs are?
  4. Do they understand how you make money? If they do, it’s more likely they can help you achieve your business goals.
  5. Do they do more than media relations? If not, you’re hiring a publicist, not a PR firm. That is fine, if that’s what you want. But if you want more than stories in your newspaper or business journal, look for a firm that recommends an integrated program.
  6. Will they work with other firms? In some cases, you may also hire an advertising agency or a specialized firm, such as social media or web design and development. Can they play nicely in the sandbox with those firms?
  7. Can they show you real results for other clients? We have a client that, in 2011, we generated $2.6 million on a $90,000 annual budget. Last year we generated $3.2 million on the same budget (we got a raise this year). Can they demonstrate that kind of value?
  8. Are they willing to put some skin in the game? I’m not saying they should work solely on commission or performance; most firms can’t afford to do that and still keep the lights on. But are they willing to set a low retainer for a piece of the revenue they help you generate?
  9. Do they pay attention to metrics and data? These are the things that help you make informed and educated decisions about the work you do through a PR program. Ask them to show you what kinds of metrics and data they use to help them tweak their programs as they progress.

There are probably a zillion other things you can ask, but this a good list to get you started. The other thing that is important is chemistry. No matter how smart they are or the great results they get, if you don’t like them, you won’t be working with them in six months.

The mantra “hire slowly and fire fast” rings true when hiring a PR firm. Ask the right questions, get lots of information, and make a decision based partly on gut and partly on their past results.

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

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!

  • I wrote 3 posts for Shonali about my struggles going through interviewing then hiring 3 successive PR Pros for my Ice Cream Sandwich client. Really Publicity and all said they wanted to work with me, until they didn’t because they weren’t performing. I found the hardest part was understanding expectations from the Brand Side. They all talked a big game. 
    What I didn’t know was: What would activity look like. How hard is it to generate solid leads and get some coverage. What to expect in a certain time frame. The monthly budget was small so they all had some skin in the game in terms of growing the business so their business can grow with the client.
    I think the key is ‘Do you have a real budget?’ because if you don’t you probably aren’t ready for a PR Pro or firm.
    Lastly and MOST IMPORTANT….when you interview meet with them did they use the Google? None of the 6 people I interviewed did to see what kind of coverage the client and I already had gotten. I think they need to present ‘We did our research and here is where you are…and here is where we are going to take you’.

    • Howie Goldfarb I would say the flip side of your last paragraph, as well. Does the prospective client use the Google? You would be shocked at how many prospects call us having never even looked us up. We’ve been referred to them or they’ve heard me speak and that is all they do. They have no idea who we are, where we’re located, how we think, what we do on this blog. It’s rather shocking.

      • ginidietrich Howie Goldfarb Have had the same experience in regard to prospects not checking my site. They go on referrals, which is great in terms of the quality of the referrals, but I’m surprised when they haven’t done any research before contacting/hiring me. 
        Excellent post, too. It’s a similar topic to one I have on my blog list but haven’t written yet: how to choose a freelance writer. I jumped the gun a few posts ago and wrote: how to communicate effectively with your freelance writer.

      • ginidietrich Howie Goldfarb That’s crazy. You’re an amazing speaker and have a ton to share but how would anyone ask someone they don’t know to work with them or speak at an event without doing their homework. You can Google someone and within a few minutes have a least a high-level picture.

        • EdenSpodek ginidietrich Word Ninja yes funny since we all know the Google and use the Google for so many other things. I actually use it to find twitter accounts vs the twitter. that box it rocks 8)

        • EdenSpodek Happens all the time. They’ll say, “So tell me a little bit about you” and when I mention things like the blog, I can hear them clicking away trying to find it. Jeez.

        • ginidietrich EdenSpodek I would imagine that cools your desire to work with them a bit?

        • JoeCardillo ginidietrich EdenSpodek when Gini gets stoed for speeding which is often she says ‘ Dont you know who I am?’ they always reply ‘Yes Ms Dietrich we read your blog. That is how we know you speed’

    • Howie Goldfarb Shonali Not using Google is basically saying that you are not digital. Totally fine in personal relationships, not ok in business relationships.

  • Drives me bonkers that people can’t differentiate between PR and publicists.

    • belllindsay You and me both.

      • ginidietrich belllindsay Heck, a lot of PR people think they’re one and the same. Not kidding.

        • EdenSpodek ginidietrich belllindsay I remember when people used to confuse PR and Advertising. Those were the good old days — I’d much rather be mistaken for an advertiser than a publicist.

        • RobBiesenbach EdenSpodek belllindsay You mean, like on Mad Men two weeks ago?

        • RobBiesenbach ginidietrich belllindsay Peggy rocks even if she is an advertiser writing news releases.

        • EdenSpodek ginidietrich belllindsay Ha-ha, I didn’t pick up on the Mad Men reference right away. As far as I’m concerned, Peggy can write anything she wants!

    • belllindsay There’s a difference?
      Bahahaha! Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself this morning.

      • ClayMorgan Gini says there is. 😉

      • ClayMorgan belllindsay Clay, do not make me fly down there and kick you with a high heel.

        • ginidietrich  belllindsay Oh Gini. Now, if I’m not mistaken,  you work from home, and we ALL know that people who work from home are in their jammies all day long. So should I really be worried about a high-heel?  😉

        • ClayMorgan belllindsay True…it’d be more likely to be a bike shoe cleat.

  • Taking a bit of an opposing view here and going out on a limb.
    Agreed too many people, including several in PR, think PR is all about publicity. Some PR people and agencies are morphing into the type of work Arment Dietrich does as you’ve described in your post ginidietrich. However, many are not. They’re either not interested or don’t understand how to give their clients what is needed in this new climate. There are also many people/agencies/alliances practicing the type of work you’ve described who don’t necessarily think of themselves as PR people yet they do think of themselves as digital communicators, marketers and/or storytellers or something altogether different.
    What concerns me is the uninformed thinking that what you’ve described is the new PR. But it’s not. Too many people who are still lagging behind will get the benefit of this definition, yet not be able to deliver and those who can deliver may be overlooked.

    • EdenSpodek I don’t think this is an opposing view at all. In fact, I one million percent agree with you. Why do you think I wrote the post to be more favorable to the work we do?! I know most of our peers are not keeping up so if they’re asked these questions, we immediately get a competitive edge.

      • ginidietrich EdenSpodek There goes Spodek, stirring things up again. 😉

    • EdenSpodek ginidietrich It’s worth noting that the kinds of things Gini’s doing as a business are difficult and time consuming. They are also necessary. 
      People in the agency world call me and ask what they think are simple questions like “how can I add X or Y content to make my client look good” when they’ve neglected bigger questions that are homework before contacting someone as smart as Gini/AD. 
      What is cool about SS and AD is that the stuff that makes them great does have a barrier to entry. It’s also a reconceptualization of what a relationship should look like (too many years of clients treating agencies like something you can slap on top, instead of developing a partnership).

      • JoeCardillo EdenSpodek Dear Joe, you’re hired. When can you start? Love, Gini

      • JoeCardillo EdenSpodek ginidietrich Exactly Joe and that’s why I don’t want to see dinosaurs getting credit for Gini’s work and that of other people/businesses that have surpassed the barrier.

  • Oh no…was hoping to hire you to be the girls’ publicist when they hit it big! 😉
    Excellent & informative post!

    • lizreusswig LOL!! I think you’ll want someone who actually has experience doing that. If only I’d gotten that law degree. Then I could be their agent!

      • I’m sure we can find a role for you! 😉

        • lizreusswig want to know how good ginidietrich publicist skills are? She coined Bennifer, Brangelina and Tomkatt. She also was the one who got age 6 of the Daily News covering the Madonna and ARod affair. She was the brains behind howie mandel setting the couch on fire, Jaoquin Phoenix’s Letterman Interview, and the Britney Spears umbrella car attack. She can get anyone in the news!

        • lizreusswig SWEET!

        • Howie Goldfarb You are insane. lizreusswig

  • I think your tips are excellent Gini. To me the top line question (which is reflected in your Qs) is: can both sides answer the question “what matters to you, and why?”
    Eventually I’ll get around to blogging more on the topic, it’s been rattling around in my brain for a  couple of months, but basically if a PR firm or a client can’t or doesn’t want to answer that question than they’re not ready for a relationship. If so, the results are bound to be disastrous (despite the fact that the revenue, for both sides, might improve for a bit)

    • JoeCardillo You know…that reminds me of another thing (what’s the improv thing; “yes, and”?)…if the client relationship changes, so does the budget or scope of work. We recently had a situation that we proposed a new program for an existing client and they hired a new person in a new role to work with us. That person has created four times the amount of work because of her lack of organization…which is eating away at our time available to get results. It’s the first time in our history we’re going to have to have a conversation with the CEO about why it’s no longer working.

      • ginidietrich JoeCardillo Exactly. The answer to that question of what matters and why, can change. Actually that may be an add on tip to your post: are they willing to renegotiate the relationship over time?

  • The publicist/PR topic is a constant issue. There’s definitely a learning curve. However, I am finding that it lessons when you position what you do as more than just “PR” … hmm haven’t you written about that before? 🙂

    • KateFinley Hmmmm…someone smart probably did.

  • susancellura

    “Do they have experience in your industry?”  ARGH!  I recently joined a company who has an agency that claims to know our industry inside and out. As I have worked with them, it’s clear that they do not. One other account does not make one an authority. In fact, this entire list of questions proves to me that my gut is right; they do not know and do not understand what the team needs from them. The good news? We are about to switch. (They are nice people, though.)

    • susancellura I read this comment earlier today and I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon. If they’ve worked on other accounts in your industry, are you expecting too much of them? They’re not in it all day, every day like you are. I wonder if there is a middle ground you can reach? It’s super hard to start with a new firm (unless you’re switching to us, in which case, carry on!).

      • ginidietrich susancellura This one kinda had me spinning too, experience is definitely good (they need to understand your company and what you do) but I’d take smart and learnable over experienced if I could only have one.

      • susancellura

        ginidietrich Good question! I thought about it as well, but when I did the research, they really only had handled one account before ours, and are not truly interested in evolving with us. In other words, if something delivered does not work or is not what we wanted, it’s because “Word is so difficult to work with”, or if we want to add items to our web site ourselves, it’s “let us do it so you don’t mess up the programming”. Blerg. 
        Whereas the creative agency that we are bringing in (strictly creative) never intended to work in our industry yet now has accounts with our customers and competitors in the double digits. 
        A lot to be said about underpromising and overdelivering.  🙂
        Would love to work with you!

  • ginidietrich The flip side of industry experience is the conflict issue. Clients want a firm with specific experience like, “You need to have done work with medium-sized property/casualty insurance firms based in the Midwest … but you can’t have any of them for clients!” Do you find this is still an issue or are potential clients loosening up about conflicts?

    • RobBiesenbach That is FOR SURE still an issue. There have been two instances in our eight year history that we’ve gone to work for a client’s competitor and both times it’s been because the former client hadn’t paid. That said, the big agencies will work for competitive businesses quite often. They set up firewalls and all of that, but I think it’s a pretty murky ethical issue.

      • ginidietrich Same with some of my bigger law firm clients. They push back very aggressively, denying the whole notion that conflicts exist.

  • So Gini, what do you take the letters “PR” to stand for?  Suggestions:  Public Relationships.  Practical Relevance. Or, perhaps, Perpetual Reinvention, as that’s what both brands and their outside resources – call them agencies, firms, consultants, whatever – need to be equipped for going forward.  I personally have always thought of Arment Dietrich as a marketing agency… granted, one arising from the primordial goop of PR – but a well-rounded (in the round?) marketing agency capable of being a clients leading strategic resource (if not it’s only outsource).  No?

    • creativeoncall I thought PR stood for Public Radio. Am I in the wrong place?

      • Howie Goldfarb creativeoncall Well, I was going to suggest that Gini refer to her practice as New Public Relations… but that would be NPR

    • creativeoncall I’ve actually stopped referring to us as a PR firm. We do marketing and communications. The problem, of course, is no one else uses those terms so we still have to use PR for search results.

      • ginidietrich creativeoncall That’s just sad. Now I know not to harass you anymore for calling marcomms PR. ;D

  • patmrhoads

    What a great resource for small businesses just getting started and new to the world of PR. Thanks for giving me something so valuable to share so that I look smart by association. 🙂
    Seriously though, I think one important thing a list like this does is educate people on how much work it is to get this right. Answering some of these questions means that you as a business owner really have to do your research before hiring a firm. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all – quite the contrary. But I do think it makes people aware that it’s not as simple as Goggling “PR firms” and picking one of the companies that’s listed on page one of the results.

    • patmrhoads Aren’t you smart by association just for hanging out here?!?

      • patmrhoads

        ginidietrich Maybe, but if I was TRULY smart, shouldn’t I have known that already?

        • patmrhoads ginidietrich Heheh Gini you have a rhetorician on your hands
          Sadly, sir, I’m afraid you are right…..there probably are people that pick a PR firm based on page 1 Google results

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