How To Hire A Public Relations Consultant

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. Consumer’s Report

doesn’t 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, couldn’t get the client’s 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 Cosby’s great line (“I wasn’t always a father. I used to be a man”), I wasn’t 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 I’ve been a consultant for a variety of public relations agencies, from huge and international to local and small. Knowing what it’s like to be a client and how difficult it can be to choose a PR consultant, here’s my frank and unexpurgated CEO’s 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 (let’s

say under $150 an hour).

 Your problem is relatively simple and doesn’t require a team of

people. A freelancer doesn’t have a staff of people who can be called

in at a moment’s 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 isn’t urgent. A sole practitioner can’t juggle several

projects at once; he or she probably has other clients and you may

have to wait your turn. You’re not in a panic rush.

 You don’t 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

many markets.

 You need the support of allies. Let’s say you have a government

problem, in a western nation. Generally government isn’t 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 agency’s 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 don’t 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 you’ll 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 you’ll be working with. Did you like

each other? Did they seem to have a passionate interest in you and your problem? You’re 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 they’ve 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.



John Barr, a Canadian communication consultant with more than 30 years of experience in media, politics, corporate communication and consulting, works with private and public sector organizations in the following fields: -Financial services (including insurance and banking) -Natural resources and energy -Transportation. He also works closely with not-for-profit organizations, particularly in health care. He provides strategic communication counsel and various kinds of communication trai...

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