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Public Relations for Your Business: How to Choose the Right Agency For You
by Victoria Hurley
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Victoria Hurley is published author of several articles on marketing and business strategy and owner of Helicon Public Relations & Marketing, a full service PR agency in Los Angeles.

Public Relations for Your Business:
How to Choose the Right Agency For You

By Victoria Rierdan Hurley

Public relations is an area of marketing that if done well, can make a huge and long lasting difference to a company. Third party validation is a powerful way to reach potential customers. Working with a public relations agency or consultant is generally the most effective way to initiate a public relations campaign, particularly in a down economy. They have the expertise, the contacts and the experience. In many cases, reporter and editors prefer to work with a professional PR person than their client. PR people and reporters speak the same language. The PR person can approach the editor with an objectivity that the business owner cannot. In this day and age, anyone can dash off an email to their favorite publication. However, the ability to do something and the wisdom of doing it can be very different things. Editors are inundated with pitches. An agency or consultant knows how to cut through the clutter and put the best face of your product or service forward.

Although businesses frequently reduce their marketing when the economy slows down, savvy companies can make great strides by maintaining, and even increasing, their marketing outreach. Although it may seem counter intuitive, now may be the best time to hire an agency or consultant.

Once you have made the decision to use an outside vendor for public relations, the questions then become which agency is right for you and your business and how will you know? Should you go with one of the big agencies, a boutique firm or perhaps hire a consultant or freelancer? The answer will be different for every company depending on budget constraints, desired outcome and type of customer. But it helps to have a little insight before you start your search.

Months can be spent researching and interviewing potential agencies. At the end, you may be left with more questions than answers. Most of the agencies will dazzle you with tales of what they will do for you. That is what they do – they dazzle. Large agencies will show an impressive PowerPoint presentation, wow you with their global network of offices and drop the names of high profile clients. The smaller shops will discuss their “hands-on” tactical approach. Freelancers will sell you on the depth of their experience, writing skill and personal contacts. Each of the three will talk about customization, personal service and amazing results. The trick is determining how much is show and how much is real. It comes down to which firm understands your business, your challenges, and your market.

The following tips can help during an agency search. They can help you narrow your choices and select the right agency to make sure your goals are reached.

Determine what your goals and expectations are, both short and long term.
This is the most important thing to consider when working with a PR agency. It is a given that your objective is to create awareness of your business and/or product and increase sales. Getting from where you are now to where you want to be must be a partnership between your company and the agency. Both sides must clearly understand the goals of the campaign. A happy client/agency relationship can only exist when there are agreed upon results and milestones by which to measure success.

Think about what you will consider success. And be realistic. Would you feel good about a story in your industry’s trade publications or will you only be happy with a front page story in the Wall Street Journal? A good agency team will tell you, based on their experience, what you can reasonably expect given your business and the current trends in news coverage.

One of the frustrating things about public relations is that there are no guarantees. You can have the most talented team in the world on your account and still not break through. There are also timelines to be aware of. Most monthly publications have lengthy lead times, television shows only tape certain months of the year and even newspapers schedule their non-breaking stories out a few weeks.

Initiating a conversation about goals and expectations at the first meeting will give you a feel for the agency’s philosophy and approach to public relations. A reputable agency will let you know if your expectations are realistic and will suggest ways that they can be reached.

What is your monthly budget?
Whether large or small, make sure that the agency can work within your budget. Some agencies have a minimum retainer or minimum monthly billing amount. Find out what this is early in the process to determine if your budget is realistic. You do not want to be surprised at the end of the month. A high monthly retainer does not necessarily mean better service or better results. Sometimes in larger agencies most of the retainer goes to pay for overhead. In other cases, you get what you pay for. The most important thing is to decide what you can afford and find an agency or freelancer that can work with it.

Do you need marketing assistance?
Public relations and marketing are not the same thing. Depending on your internal resources, you may benefit from a marketing program to support your public relations efforts. This could include collateral development, e-marketing, direct mail and email/newsletter campaigns. A comprehensive approach is always more effective and can, in many ways, overlap beneficially. If you do not have a marketing department in-house, make sure the agency you choose provides marketing and marketing communications services.

Does the agency understand your business and your customers?
Part of what determines a successful pubic relations campaign is the ability to reach your target audiences and communicate in a way that resonates with them. Do not go to an entertainment agency if your business is children’s clothing. Will you get the most benefit from industry trade coverage or mass market consumer coverage? Does the agency know where your customers get their news and information? Does it know how to speak to them in the most effective way? While the answers to these questions are probably not readily apparent, listening to how the agency will approach your account will tell you how well they understand your customers. Ask what kind of experience they have in your industry, who their other clients have been and what their successes were.

Check references
With pretty much everything online these days, it can be easy to make sure that the people you are speaking with are on the level. There is almost no need for those uncomfortable phone calls. Google is the answer. Search on the agency name, the names of the people on the account team or the freelancer’s name. You will see right away what they have done and read the quality of their writing. There is still value, however, in making the phone call.

Who will be running your account?
Sometimes, what you see is not what you get. Some agencies will bring out the big guns for the sales presentation, and then assign your account to a junior staff member. This can happen in both large and small firms. Find out exactly who will be in charge of your account and how much time they will be spending on it. If considering a freelancer or consultant, make sure that he or she is not over-committed and can devote the necessary amount of time to your business.

Lastly, feeling comfortable with the person who will be in charge of your account is critical. You are spending a lot of money and putting a lot of faith in whomever you choose as your public relations point person. You do not have to become best friends, but you do need to respect the person and their ability to get results for you. Good communication on both sides is the key to a successful relationship between client and agency.

About the Author
Victoria Rierdan Hurley is the owner of Helicon Public Relations & Marketing, a full service agency based in Los Angeles, California. For over fifteen years, Hurley has advised large and small businesses on marketing strategy, public relations outreach and employee communications. With magazine covers and stories in the Wall St. Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, INC and other national publications, Hurley is valued for her insight and ability to get results for her clients. She can be reached at or

Published: Aug 6,2008 20:38
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