I meet with a few hundred venture capitalists each year, and many have told me that one of the most common questions they get from their portfolio companies is, "How should I select a public relations agency?" This isn't surprising. PR is, in part, an art form, and that doesn't bode well for engineers, scientists and data-focused techies who want every input to be measured, analyzed and formulated. Simply spending more money on a PR firm, for example, doesn't get you more media coverage, as frustrating and confounding as that is. So what to do? In this two-part series, I'll be outlining how to pick and manage your PR firm. Let's dive in:
Get crystal clear on your goals.
Any PR team you bring on is going to fail in someone's eyes if the goals of hiring them are vague or, worse, misaligned. Let's say the founder wants press to elevate her personal brand, but the sales team wants direct leads, and your HR department wants to impress potential talent. These desires may be fine, but if the CMO or whoever is wrangling the PR effort doesn't get sign-off on what the reasonable and prioritized objectives of the PR goals are, then the PR firm you bring on likely will not succeed in the long run. Telling a PR firm you want their efforts to "support growth of the organization next year" is also faulty.
Instead, garner buy-in, and write out what the PR firm's most immediate (six months to a year) goals are. If there are certain media placements that you can point to as examples of how you'd like your company to be featured, then make a note of those as well. Put this all into a specific creative brief, or a summarized one- to two-pager that breaks down the problem and the KPIs, as well as the guard rails, such as budget. Then, ask for feedback on the objectives from potential PR agencies. Solid ones will be direct and educate your team on what's feasible and realistic, but beware of those who promise the world and don't manage your expectations.
Even if you get a solid referral to a PR firm from an investor or trusted source, never dismiss the importance of obtaining proof. PR people have solid sales skills by nature, so don't ask, "Can you get us into all the top-tier publications?" The easy and lazy answer here from a PR firm is, "Of course!" Instead, I would recommend phrasing your request to something such as, "A couple of our target outlets are Bloomberg, TechCrunch, The Today Show and Fast Company. Could you send me recent placements you've secured in those outlets?" What you receive will be tangible proof, and if the potential agency doesn't have enough proof in one outlet or another, they should have an array of similar successes.
Meet with the real team.
This is one of the worst tricks I find startups fall prey to: The founder or partner of the PR firm dazzles and delights you, but once you actually kick off your campaign, you find you've fallen victim to a "bait and switch" – this senior leader will never touch your account, and you discover a greener executive will serve as your main point of contact. If you're serious about a PR firm, ask to interview and meet the entire team who will be working on your campaign. Save this request for the final stages of your campaign to get the best chance of meeting who will actually be on your campaign, as agencies are constantly courting new business, and team availability shifts. But once you've narrowed down the one, two or three top contenders you're looking to hire, consider making this request.
Ask the tough questions.
Your PR firm relationship should be a long one, just like the one with your investors or other key stakeholders. There will be tough and sometimes disappointing moments (a missed story opportunity, a less-than-flattering feature, a TV interview that didn't go as expected), but what matters is how your PR firm navigates these moments. Be proactive, and bring these potential tough moments to light with your potential agency. I suggest asking, "How do you ensure we don't get behind on our KPIs and have a less-than-successful campaign?" and "What is your practice of feedback so we're upholding a solid partnership?" You don't want a situation where your agency hopes you don't notice a lack of performance or says yes to every request you have for a story idea.
Once you've selected your firm, you'll need to manage the relationship, just like with investors. I'll cover managing your PR firm in the next article.