The CEO's Shopping Guide to PR Consultants
by John J. Barr
Cascadia Communication Associates
Pity the poor CEO. She thinks her company needs "some PR help." How does she
choose who to hire? An agency? A freelancer? A lawyer who also does lobbying or public relations?
There may be a dozen or more public relations companies in the Yellow Pages
and Heaven knows how many individual freelancers. Consumers Report
doesnt test public relations agencies although maybe they should! So she auditions a few PR practitioners and finds that all of them are articulate, plausible, and make similar claims.
Every one of them has outstanding cases to talk about. Never any failures, though apparently all public relations projects achieve their objectives! None of them ever ran over budget, couldnt get the clients story placed, or got fired.
Amazing! (Or maybe not). How many doctors post in their waiting rooms the names of patients who died?
Borrowing from Bill Cosbys great line (I wasnt always a father. I used to be a man), I wasnt always a public relations consultant, I used to be a client. In fact I was a client for more than 20 years about the same length of time Ive been a consultant for a variety of public relations agencies, from huge and international to local and small. Knowing what its like to be a client and how difficult it can be to choose a PR consultant, heres my frank and unexpurgated CEOs PR Shopping Guide.
1. Situations when you should consider hiring a very small PR company or freelancer:
Your budget is very small (eg. under $5,000 for a local
publicity project). Small agencies and freelancers have very low
overheads, often operating from a small home office. Many of them
are very competent writers, publicists and special events coordinators
and can deliver a decent project for relatively low hourly fees (lets
say under $150 an hour).
Your problem is relatively simple and doesnt require a team of
people. A freelancer doesnt have a staff of people who can be called
in at a moments notice. But he or she can do the job with the resources at hand.
Your problem is purely local. A freelancer probably knows the local market well.
Your situation isnt urgent. A sole practitioner cant juggle several
projects at once; he or she probably has other clients and you may
have to wait your turn. Youre not in a panic rush.
You dont need highly specialized skills. The average small
agency or freelancer usually is a generalist; a good competent generalist should be able to handle your needs.
2. Situations in which you should hire a larger (usually international) PR
You need help in one or more distant markets. An international
agency has representation, contacts and intimate local knowledge in
You need the support of allies. Lets say you have a government
problem, in a western nation. Generally government isnt going to meet
your needs unless you can meet theirs in other words, mobilize your
allies and support for your position, so that what you want is politically
possible for the people in charge. International public relations agencies have the
resources and "reach" to line up allies and mobilize grassroots support
for your position.
Your problem is complex and intractable. "All of us are smarter
than any one of us": the international agencys ability to tap the ideas,
experience and contact network of hundreds or even thousands of top-drawer
PR people around the world can put awesome thinking power at
your disposal. No matter how arcane or complex your problem, the
collective brainpower of the international agency has dealt with it - and
solved it - somewhere in the world.
You are driven more by value than price. If the stakes are high
the launch of a make-or-break product, the solution to a major
corporate crisis you need the best people in the business no matter where they reside. International agencies charge higher fees because they have to hire and retain top-tier people and pay the higher costs of expensive research and client support.
You need a business partner, not a "supplier". International
agencies are interested in building long term relationships with first-class
clients. The best firms dont have to work at the bottom of the food chain charging discount rates to companies nobody really likes.
3. How to evaluate the candidates
Follow these checklists and youll at least be able to draw up a good short list of
possible PR providers. Now proceed to interview them and make your choice based
-Chemistry. A relationship with a PR company will most likely work out
if you "click" with the key people youll be working with. Did you like
each other? Did they seem to have a passionate interest in you and your problem? Youre going to be trusting them with sensitive information and depending on their competence and determination to help you. Were they objective and candid?
-Thinking. Did they take the trouble to learn something about your
business, your industry, your competitors, or your problems? Did they ask smart questions? Did they make suggestions that were smart and creative, but also practical?
-Track record, as measured by client testimonials. PR professionals
are usually good talkers and presenters; the question is can they deliver? Find out who their clients are and what theyve accomplished for them. Ask for references and talk to those references honestly. Would they hire the firm again? No firm is perfect; what were their weaknesses?
The best people in public relations are looking for the same thing that you are: a
chance to work with business people who are smart, ethical, highly committed and
professional. You deserve each other.