By Robert Wynne, Contributor
In the age of Independent Contractors, Short Term Employment and Instant Gratification, the relationships between public relations agencies and their employers can be more tenuous, and stressful, than ever.
The days of long martini lunches, 50-page strategy documents, group hugs and five-year contracts are far gone. But the needs of businesses to react quickly to crisis, create long-term strategy based on sound PR fundamentals in a changing media environment and competitive market for services, remains.
That’s why managing a public relations agency can be the most important step to building and maintaining a renowned public presence. The fundamentals of How to Hire A PR Agency have already been covered in a previous column regarding culture, experience, references and more.
And yes, it’s different for Advertising agencies and PR agencies. Ad agencies tell you what you want to hear – “Hey baby you’re great! You’re the best! Let’s spend another million on ads! This time they’re gonna work.” PR agencies are more important because tell you what you need to hear. “This is what the media wants to know, this is what gets you a positive story, this is what your competitors are doing, this is how you raise your profile.”
For businesses and entrepreneurs looking to hire an agency, here are 10 Tips from PR and marketing professionals on the best ways to manage your PR agency. This advice has been battle-tested by decades of experience from experts ranging from California to the Midwest to Europe and beyond. You should definitely attempt this at home.
DEFINE OBJECTIVES. “It may seem obvious, but you should have clear objectives before you work on a strategy with your PR firm,” says Brigitte Fournier of Noir Sur Blanc in France. “This includes not only what you wish to communicate but also to whom – define the target markets and/or countries in line with your company’s goals.” For example, what’s more important – trade, consumer, B2B, local, national or international media? Are you trying to attract more students to your college? In-state or out-of-state? More partners to join your law firm for an existing or a new practice group? Want to raise your traffic (and revenues) of an e-commerce website or local gourmet restaurant so you can raise funds to expand? Is there a new direction for your company you need to sell to your internal audience and customers first?
START WITH TRUST. “A trusting relationship builds over time,” says Jennifer Lane of Jennifer Lane Publicity in Chicago. “After my clients work with me and see the evolution of a successful PR campaign they are more trusting in me as their expert. Rely on me (as your publicist) to portray you (as my client) appropriately to media and make things happen – whether that be national press placements or a successful cause-related marketing campaign.”
OPEN THE BOOKS. Turn over all the information that’s needed to promote – or defend – the organization. PR agencies are your partners, not your foes. When starting the relationship, offer as many ideas as possible. Many times a client has offered the standard story ideas, often spoon fed by upper management as a “can’t miss” feature that’s about a new accounting software app. “Oh, by the way, we also have a dozen Saudi princes in management who found us via an ancient tunnel near the cafeteria lined by minerals only found on Saturn and filled with ancient dinosaur bones. But here’s another fun fact about that accounting app.” And don’t be shy introducing your senior executives, they can be a goldmine for your agency and for the media.
ONE CONTACT PERSON. “Define an informed representative at your company who is readily available to speak with your PR firm and who is both reactive and proactive in responding to press requests and generating ideas,” Fournier says. “Many companies underestimate the time needed to interact and exchange with their PR firm. Good external communication begins with good internal communication and that includes with your PR firm.”
CHOOSE TASKS. “Be thoughtful in how you divide and conquer,” says Tim Marklein, Founder & CEO, of Big Valley Marketing in Northern California. “Your agency shouldn’t necessarily do all the same things you do internally. Some functions are better managed externally, some are better managed internally, and others are best managed jointly. Work together to define an optimal workflow.” And here’s a bonus tip to stretch the PR dollar and maximize efficiency: “Minimize the RFP busy work and maximize the value-added interaction,” Marklein says.
THREE MONTHS. I always tell new and prospective clients, if we can’t get you good media coverage or set up some good story opportunities within 90 days, there are two options: we don’t have a newsworthy article (client’s fault) or the PR firm cannot communicate that narrative (agency’s fault) to the right contacts. Jumping the gun after two weeks and demanding to know why you aren’t on the front page of the New York Times doesn’t work. PR is a strategy for savvy businesses who are organized, patient and understand how the media works.
TEAMWORK IS KEY. The Cooler Insights website offers these two gems: “One reason why you hire PR professionals to do your pitching for you is precisely because you can’t/ won’t do it yourself. As far as possible, allow them to do their magic in cajoling, negotiating, bribing, wheeling and dealing with the media. Let them update you when the time is right, and refrain from harassing them ad nauseum. Which also brings me to the next point…Effective media relations is only possible when both client and agency reps work closely together. This means that there should be constant communication between both parties on what can be done, what cannot be done, as well as the latest updates or developments in a campaign. Vanishing into twilight zone and expecting your agency reps to spin a huge yarn ain’t gonna work.” Weekly or bi-weekly written reports are standard.
OFFER MORE CONTENT. The Can Impact blog by Debbie Meltzer recommends bulking up premium content. “Publishers are focusing more on press releases that integrate visuals, or video, and e-paper links, and the more impactful, the better,” Meltzer says.“A PR partner is not a magician who can wave a magic content wand. Nevertheless, a good PR partner will consult with you how to create and leverage powerful content without making you work full time on a production line … Do the heavy lifting when it comes to background content.”
“Editors and publishers need a steady supply of smart, impactful content,” said Marklein of Big Valley Marketing. “Market-savvy companies need a content engine (and partner) that can create, curate and syndicate compelling content across multiple channels. This goes way beyond news releases and data sheets — and should put visual storytelling front and center, anchored by a corporate blog and active social channels.”
FACT CHECK. Cooler Insights suggests clients should “Always insist on being the clearing house for all written or official communication materials like press releases and advisories, fact sheets, speeches, boilerplates, quotes and so on. Don’t expect your PR consultants to read your mind and absorb all the facts through yogic meditation.”
BE FLEXIBLE. Strategy and blueprints are great, but sometimes reality gets in the way. As Mike Tyson says, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” Often, a client and agency working together can strategize and anticipate client reaction, media interest and internal barriers. Then external events arrive like a punch. Example: we spent three months planning to promote research and professor expertise for “The Year of Finance” for an Ivy League business school. A week later, the applications for their one-year Biochemistry MBA took a nosedive. The next day we put that on hold, drove to San Diego, interviewed current students and their employers and worked for two weeks straight to create a front page story in the San Diego Business Journal, articles in biochemistry trade journals and other media.
Of course, after following these 10 guidelines and creating a successful plan, there’s nothing wrong with knocking back a few martinis to celebrate.
Robert Wynne owns a public relations agency in Manhattan Beach, CA. He is a former journalist who wrote for Newsweek and the L.A. Times.