Today, the public relations profession involves a number of roles and functions, including media relations, corporate and marketing communications, brand awareness, creative solutions, and many more. Depending on your business, your relationship with PR and the role of PR within your organization can vary considerably.
Regardless if a business is either trying to outsource the entire PR work or use a PR agency only as a support for the in-house communications team, most businesses share a similar understanding of what defines the best PR agency. Defining the criteria, however, is only one side of the story. Another task is asking the right questions and evaluating the answers to them.
Strategic communications agency ADVERUM in Vilnius, Lithuania, conducted a survey on the decision-making process among executives responsible for hiring PR agencies in September 2019. In total 82 decision makers at marketing and communication departments of international companies in Lithuania responded and shared their opinion on the most important evaluation factors when selecting and working with a PR agency. This is a summary of the key findings from the survey.
Look for Quality
Our survey reveals the most important factor for decision makers when choosing a public relations firm is the quality of services. This was identified as the major factor by 89 percent of respondents.
What defines quality?
About 81 percent of respondents trust the agency’s quality if they demonstrate:
- an ability to meet deadlines and keep promises
- capabilities to measure results and taking responsibility for those results (two-thirds of the respondents gave the highest score to this factor)
Finding the right agency shouldn’t feel like spinning a roulette wheel. Asking a few key questions upfront could help identify an agency that can deliver the best quality.
The key question to ask is simple:
What are the results of your recent projects?
Any struggle in answering this question in a direct manner gives a clear signal that the agency won’t take responsibility or care enough about your results. While listening to the answers, try to see if the agency’s representative talks only about immediate and tactical results they have achieved (number of publications, media outreach, etc.).
Do they talk about the change they have generated? Their impact could have caused a shift in opinion, increased sales, and more. You always want your agency to understand how their efforts contribute to your bottom line.
Look for Trust
The second most important aspect decision-makers look for when choosing a PR agency is trust. It comes mostly from recommendations or a personal “gut feeling”. This important factor was indicated by 49 percent of our respondents.
When it comes to trust in your future agency, it looks like it’s a combination of rational and irrational arguments. For example, 40 percent of respondents indicated that the “chemistry” within the first meeting with the agency plays a major role in the decision-making process. The same number of marketing and communications professionals tend to trust highly their friends’ and colleagues’ recommendations of an agency.
Some companies dig into research before listing the agencies to approach, while others ask for contacts to recent clients and make calls to them. If you’re about to make those calls or listen to recommendations, don’t forget to find out what scope of work and level of responsibility was given to the agency. That is a true reflection of the trust an agency really enjoys.
Agencies tend to brag about clients who are most widely known or have the highest marketing spend, but in most cases these brands and clients are not the ones that give an agency a real chance to make a change or a real strategic impact. Before looking for a partner you can trust you better:
- define the role of the agency and
- look for the recommendations in a similar role or agency/client relationship
Don’t Count Blindly on the Portfolio
One of the most common mistakes clients make is giving blind trust to an agency’s portfolio and experience in a certain field or industry sector. Almost 70 percent of decision-makers say they would trust an agency with experience working in a certain field of industry.
When counting on this criteria, don’t forget to check if the people who have this experience are still with the agency and if those people will be the ones working with you. Pay attention to the fact that long-lifetime experience in a certain field has side effects, as well. People specializing in a certain industry gain unbeatable media relations and deep industry knowledge, but they also become less creative and often are too much focused on that area. It is hard to expect them to think outside the box.
Check Their Reputation
According to our recent research, the reputation of an agency in the market takes slightly less importance than personal trust, but it is still one of the major factors for most decision-makers.
It is worth noting that reputation is mostly considered as working with well-known brands and organizations. The only question you must ask here is:
What clients and brands do you currently represent?
Don’t get flattered by the worldwide-known brands that an agency has worked with 10 years ago. Only now is what matters.
A PR agency is a people’s business. You should pay a lot of attention to the stability, principles, and well-established management of an agency. And at the same time try and discover how the agency is changing within the market: Are there enough young people working for it? Does it really understand how to talk to your target audiences the way it is needed today?
Check Their Capabilities
The communications discipline is rapidly changing, and your desired agency should follow and reflect the changes.
We asked decision-makers what kinds of services they currently expect from their PR agencies. A total of 64% of respondents said that strategic counsel and planning are the most important capabilities, followed by media relations (57%), crisis communication (54%), and social media and digital capabilities (37%).
Your ideal future PR agency will tailor their approach around multiple channels and mix earned and paid media, digital and offline tools to help you achieve broader marketing and organizational objectives.
Your right future PR consultant will align PR goals with your business goals. Your right future PR consultant from the right PR agency will ask questions about your business and will understand the answers and will proactively work to integrate with your team and provide strategy and deliverables that clearly match the company’s broader vision for success. Look for that approach and attitude.
Ask who will be your most senior consultant, and how many hours per month this person will work with you. It’s not a secret that agencies go to the first client meetings with people who are the best in sales, but often it’s the first and the last time the client sees them.
If the agency has experience in your industry, make sure there are no conflicts of interest. It’s more common than you might think. And as you could imagine agencies don’t like to turn down work. So, it’s imperative that you make sure you are comfortable with their existing clientele.
At the same time, make sure you talk openly about budget. Before meeting the agency, ask if they would be interested in your current spending. It can save a lot of time for both parties at an early stage and it also helps you find out if you might become “the least important” or “Level C” type of client in the agency’s portfolio. You always want to be important. Feel free to ask how many clients the agency has that operate within the same budget range.
Selecting an agency is not an easy task. Because you’re selecting a partner who will be and should be trusted not only with your most sensitive data, but also your goals, aspirations and biggest fears. A carefully selected and trusted PR agency should become your biggest cheerleader, protector, and a loving friend.
This is probably the reason most companies tend to work with their PR agencies on the long run. When asked about that, 95% of our respondents said they intend to work with the same public relations agency for as long as possible, while only 5% said they would put up the assignment for a tender every year.
About the survey:
The survey was conducted by strategic communications agency ADVERUM in Vilnius, Lithuania, between August 29 and September 10, 2019. In the process, 82 marketing and communications directors representing the largest local and international companies were interviewed.