Gini Dietrich

PR Firms: How Do You Know it’s the Right Fit?

By: Gini Dietrich | August 8, 2013 | 

PR Firms- How Do You Know it's the Right Fit?By Gini Dietrich

My team and I were in a meeting with the founder of a new startup a few weeks ago.

A very smart man, he asked us to spend a little time educating him about public relations, marketing, social media, and how they all interact because he knows his business very well, but nothing about what we do.

As is very typical of us, we were completely transparent with him. At one point I joked we were going to talk us out of working with them because I even gave him names of competitors who I respect.

Toward the end of the meeting he asked us to describe how he knows if the communications firm is the right fit for them. A data scientist, he wanted something solid on which to place his decision.

Unfortunately, I told him, 99.9 percent of working with a communications firm is gut, chemistry, and trust. But I could tell he was very uncomfortable with that answer and I’ve been thinking about it since.

I, of course, have never hired a communications firm because I’ve worked inside one my entire career so I had to put my business owner hat and think about how we hire professional services firms for work we can’t do.

PR Firms: Is it the Right Fit?

So how do you know if the PR firm is the right fit for you?

  1. Metrics. What kinds of metrics do they talk about? This particular founder wanted to know if he spent $100,000, if he would get a $10 million return. I told him I thought that expectation was high, but a communications firm should be able to give you an average return-on-investment they achieve for their clients. We average a two and a half or three times return. So, a $100,000 budget would mean another $300,000 in revenue. Chris Penn wrote a smart post about this, too. Check it out here.
  2. Strategy. It’s very, very typical for communications professionals to talk in tactics. The industry, as a whole (not everyone, but most) will talk about speaking engagements, events, content, social media, and crisis communications, but they skim over the strategy part. That said, most firms have really experienced professionals at the highest levels who are excellent at strategy. How much time will they spend in the beginning helping you develop the strategy? If you see the senior level people in the initial meetings, but only junior people after you sign the contract this will be a problem early in the relationship as the strategy is being developed. Make sure you understand how their structure is set up and what kind of attention you’ll receive from the senior professionals.
  3. Integration. In today’s 24/7/365 digital world, the firm should be talking about how they integrate the traditional forms of communication with the new. What kind of experience do they have working with the other disciplines? Can they integrate flawlessly and efficiently? What examples can they provide to show you success?
  4. Multiple forms of media. A few weeks ago, we talked about the four different types of media. Even if the firm doesn’t do all four (paid, for instance, typically resides in an advertising agency), they should know not only how to do all four, but how they integrate with one another.
  5. Chemistry. And yes, I’m sorry to say, chemistry is a big player in who you hire. There are going to be some evenings and weekends you’ll have to work together. Do you like them enough to spend time with them, even if it means they’re taking you away from your family for a little bit? Do you like them enough to get them what they need to be successful? There are going to be days you are completely swamped and don’t have time to deal with them. If you have great chemistry, you won’t mind dropping what you’re doing to help them.

Communications is not a science; it’s an art so it’s very difficult to put data around hiring a firm. But if you like the people, like their philosophy, and they do all of the things listed above (and can prove it through case studies and references), you’ll have a good match.

P.S. I had a non-life threatening, but serious bike accident yesterday so I’m cheating today and running an AllBusiness Experts post I wrote a few weeks ago. It’s cheating because I wouldn’t normally run two non-exclusive posts here in one week…having done that this past Monday, too. Forgive me?

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’m curious about point #2. I agree that there is often a focus on tactics rather than strategy, but why? Is that more the “art” part of it while strategy is more of a science?

    • Word Ninja I think it’s a few things, but mostly because most PR professionals don’t run businesses. Even if they make it to the executive suite, it’s pretty rare they are in charge of a P&L. In large agencies, there might be two or three partners in one office that have a P&L. So it’s really hard to understand how a business makes money, which always drives the strategy.
      It’s not like that for everyone, but I’d say it’s a good majority.

      • ginidietrich That makes sense. What’s the best then for those in PR to educate themselves better about strategy? Besides reading great blogs…

        • Word Ninja LOL! I hate to say it, but it’s really hard to understand the business side of things until you actually do the work. An MBA will help, but it’s not the same. Find yourself a job with an organization that puts you on the track for running a profit center or a business inside a business. I’ve set up my organization so there are six business units inside. Which means there are at least six people, not including my executive team, who have P&L responsibilities. That will grow as we grow.

        • photo chris

          ginidietrich Word Ninja “It’s hard to understand the business side of things until you actually do the work” What a GREAT thing to know! It seems so obvious, but one of the things that keeps me from freelancing is that I know enough to know that I don’t know everything I think I need to know about running a business. Perhaps Gini you should read that last sentence when you are rested up, lol.

        • photo chris  Word Ninja Uh oh. Is my concussion speaking for me right now?

  • I think chemistry is under valued. 
    When you spend significant amounts of time with people you need to be confident that you can have open and honest conversations about challenges and what needs to happen to overcome them.
    When you can sit them down (or vice versa) and ask the hard questions and know they will be addressed good things happen.

    • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes I got a weird look when I said that so I wanted to really think about how to know it’s the right fit without the chemistry. But I think you’re right. It is under-valued.

      • ginidietrich I used to work as a project manager for a general contractor. Whenever I would talk to prospective clients I made a point to talk to them about chemistry too.
        That was because if they hired us the next few weeks/months would put us in a situation in which I and the crew would be hanging out in their home daily.
        When people don’t like each other and can’t get along it just makes everything much more difficult.

        • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes A LOT more difficult.

        • photo chris

          Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes ginidietrich ahhhh, I wish more people would realize the value of this in life overall. If you work with people with whom you don’t have good chemistry, things are impossible.
          Working in wedding photography we STRESS to potential clients that we have couples meet their photographer NOW- within a few weeks of booking services.
           The reason we do this is because we want to ensure we have a good  fit, ESPECIALLY for the bride who we will photograph getting ready, through tears, dealing with family…it’s a LOT of stress. It’s impossible to get journalistic shots of someone when they are uncomfortable with you, they automatically clamp down on any vulnerability and shut you out. 
          Not only does it ruin the photographs of the day, it ruins their MEMORY of it. Ever talk with someone who hated their wedding photographer? It’s one of  the FIRST things they tell you about their WEDDING DAY! 
          We actually have a cancellation policy in our contract that says if we CAN’T find a couple a good fit, we’ll cancel their contract AND refund their retainer. We get to book the day, the client has plenty of time to find someone they like, and everyone walks away happy. 
          Yes, wedding photography, pr, contracting, it doesn’t matter, chemistry is crucial in a working relationship.

  • You’re forgiven! Plus, now I know where else I can find your writing! I think this sentence wraps the article up perfectly, “Communications is not a science; it’s an art.”
    With that said, you offer solid examples of how to bring some data points and metrics into the communications conversation, and any business-minded person will appreciate that.
    Thank you for sharing, and hope you heal quickly!
    PS. Love reading Chris Penn 🙂

    • Cision NA I also just finalized a deal with OpenForum so begin writing there next week!

      • ginidietrich That’s amazing news! Does it mean you’re going to get one of these ads? I LOVE THEM! An oldie but a goodie. I say we draw one up for you either way 🙂

        • Cision NA I forgot about those ads! I agree…we should do one. LOL!

    • Cision NA Thanks 🙂

  • We’re all in the human-to-human communication business, no matter how technical or seemingly impersonal a product or service is.  If you cut out the chemistry, you cut out the humanity. I always tell clients that the decision equation is  Reason (I get it) + emotion (I like it) = decision (I buy it!), and it’s operative whether selecting a cell phone or a PR firm.

    • creativeoncall I like your formula. I am going to shamelessly steal it.

      • ginidietrich Be my guest! Besides, I believe I “appropriated it” from others myself.

        • creativeoncall Good! I’ll keep the candy I was going to send you, then.

        • photo chris

          ginidietrich creativeoncall hey…if you’re handing out candy….I’m local 😉

  • Humans are driven by emotion. We connect with people, not necessarily with businesses. That’s why culture is so critical. Culture dictates just what people are part of your organization. Great blog. Now go back to bed and rest up, k?

    • jeanniecw I will…I have a webinar to host this afternoon and then I will. I promise.

  • photo chris

    um, of course you’re forgiven and who do we need to beat up for hurting you? 🙂

    • photo chris I was JUST thinking about you! Like, literally, five minutes ago.

      • photo chris

        ginidietrich photo chris Me? Oh, that’s nice! All good thoughts I hope!

  • Thanks for the kind mention, Gini! Also, get well.

    • cspenn Thank you, sir! And thanks for the post on how much to spend on PR. I thought it was really well done.

  • Chemistry. Trust. Do they have a track record?
    but i  think if you can figure out a win-win where the goals of the client result in positive return for them… is a positive return for the agency. To me that would be a great fit.
    Clients want a big upside (here is your flat rate and if it all goes gangbusters I keep it all)
    Agencies want their efforts paid in full with no risk if they do a bad job.
    You are lucky your Agency sounds like either a bank, a hedge fund, or a security agency. All give people confidence in you. Imagine trying to make it as Lanier Upshaw….makers of photocopy/fax machines, cheap hosiery, or worse insurance! bdorman264

  • JasKeller1

    The past month I have been searching for my next job and these criteria are almost identical to what I was using to find the right fit for me! Different context, same idea.

    • photo chris

      JasKeller1 any other tips on your process in building that list of criteria? I am stuck; possibly because I am heartbroken that I’ve finally accepted I need to move on. I jot things into evernote as they come to me but I think I need some direction (and fairy godmother and crystal ball wouldn’t hurt either!)

      • JasKeller1

        I’d say you have to be really honest with yourself and what you as a professional offer. One of the most important parts of my job search was applying and interviewing for jobs a little outside my expertise. Once you see how other jobs aren’t a good fit, you can build some introspective and better understand who you are.

  • Thanks ginidietrich for the the thoughts “Chemistry.”  It hit home with some things I’m dealing with these days.  For the first time in a while, I’m now hiring vs being the one getting hired.

  • Wait. You had a bike accident?! Somehow I missed this. Are you okay?! Sure hope so!
    In other news, this is a great post! I love the run-down here. I would maybe add “process” to the list. How do they work? What can the business expect? I think that ties in with strategy a bit, but understand how a team works and what’s expected is important. And yes, chemistry is huge!

  • I missed this — hope you are okay!! 
    Hiring a PR firm is the same as hiring a business partner. Chemistry is important, but you also have to agree on strategy if it’s going to work. I love that you included both! I would also add that it’s important to agree on expectations. If the client thinks goals will be met in 2 months, that’s going to be a problem!

  • I was surprised that the text AND the instructor reiterated the importance of chemistry in my advertising class last semester. And it showed up on the test, as well. So, yep! When you’re working closely with someone who is engineering the outward face of your brand, you darn well better respect each other!
    <taking notes> …….
    This was a GREAT bit to repost, because it is chock full of great information. Here’s to road rash that heals quickly!