Finding the right PR firm can be tough, as agencies come in all shapes and sizes. With so many options out there, it’s hard to know where to start.  Finding a firm to deliver on your expectations, fit with your culture and, most importantly, implement programs that will move your business forward, can be quite a task.  Another issue complicating this further is the integration of agencies and capabilities.  In the past, ad agencies did advertising, PR firms did PR, marketing firms marketed, and so on. Today, it’s hard to tell who does what! There are big agencies who claim to do it all and there are specialized firms who focus on specific industry segments.

While it helps to understand the PR landscape, all you really need to know when choosing the right PR firm is one, why you want to hire an agency in the first place and two, what you’re trying to accomplish. That level of understanding, along with some research and initial screening, should enable you to assemble a solid roster of candidate firms from which to choose.

Once you begin your outreach to agency candidates, keep these five things in mind:

1. Do they understand your business?  Finding a PR firm that specializes in your industry is key. If you are a hotel developer looking to get into travel trades and consumer publications in order to woo investors and customers, then hiring an entertainment-focused PR firm probably doesn’t make sense. Specialization allows a firm to understand your offerings and ramp up more quickly, but equally important, your account team will have existing relationships with the right reporters, eliminating ramp-up.

2. Are they willing to give you a sneak peek?  For good reasons, PR firms are reluctant to lay out a detailed strategy before you’ve hired them. However, the right agency will be willing (and able) to walk you through various approaches and ideas they might consider – before you make a decision. If they have experience in similar situations, they may have case studies from other engagements they could be relevant to you. If you like the way they think, that’s a good start!

3. Who is the Team?  This is important: since PR agencies usually deploy small teams for each client, you will likely be working with several people. Find out who will be your main point of contact (you’ll want one in order to streamline the communications process). Who is their back-up, when they’re on vacation or out of the office?  Do you like them?  Chemistry is key.  You’ll also want at least one expert on your team who has strong relationships with the journalists and influencers you’re targeting. Your account team might have great contacts at CNBC, but if you’re trying to reach widespread consumers via an outlet like the Today Show, business press won’t be helpful.

4. Is their fee structure fair and does it make sense for your business?  Nobody likes to talk about budgets. However, getting the financial terms right in the beginning is critical if you want a successful experience with your PR firm. While you may be really good at driving your vendors’ fees down, don’t treat your PR agency like a vendor.  And remember, you get what you pay for!  The right agency will be an extension of your team – a true partner – and you should treat (and compensate) them that way.  Be sure to ask agencies you’re considering to explain their fees and how they set them. Do they bill hourly, or do they have one fee that covers all work?  There should be a rationale and it shouldn’t sound arbitrary. Do they charge you for things like photocopies, or their team members’ cell phone bills?  Certain things really are the cost of doing business, and your agency partner should be one who does not nickel and dime.  In many respects, the way an agency structures billing, and your financial terms, form the foundation of your relationship with your PR firm.

5. Do you click?  If you are an engaged client (and you should be!), make sure there is personal chemistry – again, you should really like and mesh will with your PR team. You’ll be working with them every day. If all other things are equal and you like the people, culture, and even the office space of one PR firm over another, pick them. Compatibility breeds productivity. Why not make the experience a positive one all the way around?

Bottom Line

Selecting the best PR agency is a critical and often challenging decision. A well-structured selection process will help assure a good match that is both a good fit and produces positive and measurable results.