Modern Public Relations (PR) covers a vast range of influencers, including blogs and social media, as well as conventional broadcast outlets and publications. Like all marketing, PR should be linked to the sales effort, but differs from marketing or advertising in that it seeks to enhance your reputation over a longer timescale by influencing the influencers. PR is unlikely to boost this quarter’s sales, but you may engage an agency for a short-term project, such as a major product launch, or to assist in a crisis.
Selecting an agency depends on the nature of your business and what you aim to achieve. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations provides a free match-making service based on geography and industry sector. But there are other ways of finding a suitable agency. If you have a good working relationship with one of your sector’s journalists you could ask them to recommend an agency. An experienced journalist will know which agencies regularly approach them with worthwhile stories.
"A PR agency will generate a cohesive strategy aimed at raising your company's profile against an agreed set of messages. They will then provide the expertise to execute that within all aspects of media relations."
Agencies generally charge a retainer, a monthly fee for an agreed amount of work. If you want more, you pay extra or negotiate to reduce the workload next month. How much you pay depends on the size of the PR agency. A monthly fee of £2,000 could buy you one day a week in the diary of a top-notch independent PR, but will not even get you in the door of a large agency. Agencies can also be engaged for a one-off project fee. Some charge by results, usually a measure of coverage.
Small companies may have a disappointing experience if they represent a small proportion of a large agency’s fee income. The initial pitch may be performed by an impressive director or partner, but running the account may be delegated to junior staff and they tend to move frequently between agencies. As a consequence, you may have to re-brief team members three or four times over a two-year engagement.
This is where a small agency, even a sole PR practitioner, may offer significant advantages. You get personal attention from the equivalent of a senior account director who knows how to make your story attractive to the relevant influencers. “It’s not a matter of big or small agencies or big or small budgets, but big or small angles,” explains Leigh Richards, principal of boutique London agency The Right Image. “A one-man band with a great story can outgun a big agency with a weak proposition every time.”
A small agency will also be able to move at the speed of the client, while a big agency may struggle to keep up. However, the effectiveness of PR is notoriously difficult to measure. One strategy is to engage an agency to conduct a vox-pop among influencers before engagement and then again in a year’s time to see how much, if at all, perceptions have changed.
Trust and frequent communication are essential. The PR needs high-level access, preferably to the managing director, so they can be fully briefed on strategic plans, the product roadmap and so on, and arrange for the best coverage. You also have to be honest if anything goes wrong. Your PR will help handle any press fall-out.
What to expect from a PR agency
A PR agency will generate a cohesive strategy aimed at raising your company’s profile against an agreed set of messages. They will then provide the expertise to execute that within all aspects of media relations while carefully weaving in your brand messages and search engine optimisation (SEO) keywords. “The activities should aim to drive the profile ahead of the company’s growth,” says Leigh.
Activities can include:
- writing or videoing news releases, etc.
- arranging interviews with journalists
- organising web seminars
- sending your products for review
- managing corporate social media accounts, such as Twitter and Facebook.
It is essential to understand that PR agencies influence the media, they do not control it. No amount of PR will guarantee a favourable review if your product is not up to scratch. “I manage the process not the outcome,” explains Jane Lee, principal of independent technology PR specialist Dexterity. Arguably most valuable of all, a PR will advise you on what is and is not newsworthy and what to say or not to say in a crisis.
The PR has two customers: you and the journalists. Anything that spoils the relationship between the PR and the press damages your reputation and reduces the effectiveness of the PR. “Treat the press like VIP customers,” says Jane. “Meet the deadlines your PR sets and take your PR’s advice.” After all, that’s what you’re paying them for.
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