Choosing a new PR agency can be a tricky and potentially stressful task, so here are a few things to bear in mind that can help simplify the process.
Whether you’re looking for a long-term retained partnership or something more short-term for a specific project, there’s more to the process of choosing a new PR agency than meets the eye.
No matter what their size, businesses tend to come up against a number of common stumbling blocks that make the selection process a tricky one. And it’s an important decision to get right, because entering into a partnership with an ill-fitting agency can result in a lot of time and money being wasted.
To avoid disaster, there are a few simple factors to keep in mind throughout the selection process. Here are the four things we’d recommend thinking about ahead of time:
Don’t leave it too late
When choosing a new PR agency, many businesses have a tendency to leave it until the last minute. That’s just human nature – putting off something that you think is going to be boring, painful, or difficult is natural. This is usually down to one or two reasons: either the decision is motivated by an unforeseen trigger — i.e. something has gone awry and an existing partnership has crumbled — or it’s the arrival of the year’s end and you only have a couple of weeks before budgets are recalculated.
But, investing time and energy in the briefing process is the best way to make sure you select an agency best suited to your business needs, and to avoid a ‘panic buy’.
So, what’s the optimum time-frame for the briefing process?
Well, it’s a delicate balance, as too much planning and deliberation can also be detrimental. But with everything taken into account, we suggest that a 4-6 week period from initial conversation to close, is likely to give you the best results. This gives you enough time to get to know how the agency works without needlessly prolonging the process.
Of course, if it’s a product launch or a crisis comms situation, a 4-6 week preparation period makes little sense — in fact it defeats the point. However, if it’s a “business as usual” change, it’s best to allow yourself a suitable period for reflection before making a final decision.
Remember, to make sure the relationship between agency and client is a fruitful one, you have to be willing to go through a briefing process — a 5-minute chat or an email with a couple of bullets won’t cut it.
Be open to a conversation
Making yourself available and communicating efficiently is one of the most crucial parts of choosing an agency.
As part of the process, the agency and the client should always be open to an initial phone or face-to-face conversation. Talking is key. Sorry! If a client or agency is unwilling to put the time in at the beginning, it’s often a sign of things to come, and should set alarm bells ringing.
The expectation certainly isn’t that every client comes prepared with a comprehensive written brief. Often, an hour’s conversation over the phone is far more valuable, as it allows us to formulate a brief and opens the floor to a frank discussion about goals, strategy and expectations. And honestly – it means we can talk about the things you might not be able to put down in writing!
Further, while it’s bad form for an agency to send over a whacking great list of questions that require detailed written responses, there does need to be some back and forth. Remember that questions can be a good barometer of engagement — if an agency is asking informed and intelligent questions, you know they’re enthusiastic about the potential partnership.
Start assessing the agency from the moment you make first contact
The actual pitch might only last an hour and a half, but it’s important you start assessing the agency from the moment you make initial contact.
This allows you to build the most complete picture of the agency possible, which will give you a far more accurate sense of whether they’re right for you. In other words, don’t base your decision on a glossy presentation alone, but consider the formal pitch a small part of a much more significant process.
Instinct also plays a sizeable role in selecting the right PR agency, and paying attention to those instincts from the get-go will give you an immediate sense of whether the partnership is viable or not.
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Be aware of what the agency is looking for in a client
While the onus is on the agency to demonstrate that it has what it takes to deliver an excellent service, the new business process is a two-way street. Most clients will have a list of characteristics they are looking for in an agency, but an agency will also have a list of characteristics it’s looking for in a client.
The main questions we ask ourselves before moving ahead with any new business prospect are:
- Is the client’s industry / business aligned with our areas of expertise?
- How many agencies are there in the process? Are we in there as filler?
- Do we have relationships with the influencers, analysts and journalists the client wants to reach?
- Is the client willing to have a frank, direct conversation about budget?
There’s certainly room for discussion when it comes to compatibility — as previously mentioned, it all comes down to a willingness to talk. If the agency tells the prospective client that they aren’t the right fit and they respond with “thanks very much”, the agency knows it has probably made the right decision.
So, there we have it, a rundown of the best strategies to employ to make sure you end up with the right PR agency for your business. Allow yourself plenty of time to make a decision, be open to an ongoing dialogue, assess your potential new partner from the get-go, and take the agency’s perspective into consideration. Now go get ‘em!
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