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Whether you are just starting an online business or working to grow a brand already selling millions per year, securing favorable press coverage is one of the most impactful things you can do to reach new audiences and attract customers. In fact, Bill Gates once famously said, “If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget, I’d spend it on PR!”
Of course, the world’s richest man’s love affair with PR isn’t altogether surprising. What’s not to like about PR, right? After all, media coverage, as opposed to paid advertising, is ‘free’ and typically perceived by consumers to be more credible than any other form of marketing. Michael Levine, a renowned publicist and author of Guerilla P.R. and A Branded World, estimates that “an article is between 10x and 100x more valuable than an advertisement.” This sentiment was further validated by a 2014 Nielsen study that concluded PR is almost 90% more effective than advertising.
As consumers, this is intuitive as most of us are conditioned to trust and listen to individuals we see as experts, whereas we are naturally skeptical of ads, which increasingly permeate every aspect of our lives. According to some estimates, the average American now encounters as many as 5,000 advertisements every day. With so many brands vying for our attention, it’s little wonder that we naturally seek out the advice and recommendations of those we perceive to be most knowledgeable about the products we are considering purchasing.
Levine compares the value of public relations to gift wrapping. Speaking with Forbes, Levine explains, “If I went to visit a woman today and gave her a gift in a Tiffany box, it would have higher perceived value than if I just gave it to her plain.” Simply by virtue of being discussed, recommended or written about by respected news outlets, as consumers we are naturally more inclined to consider a given product more strongly. That’s the power of PR.
Unfortunately, recognizing the value of PR and actually getting good press are not one in the same. In an effort to secure this type of ‘gift wrapping’ for their brand and products, many businesses ultimately opt to hire a PR agency to assist with generating favorable press coverage, product reviews, gift guide placements and other accolades. Yet, navigating the confusing world of PR agency retainers and finding the right complement to your business is often easier said than done. As a result, business owners frequently get burned by entrusting this important marketing function to a third-party firm.
To help you navigate those choppy waters, here are four tips to help you select a PR agency that will generate headlines, and sales, for your company.
1. Determine Your Goals
Getting ROI from PR, like most aspects of running a business, begins with goal setting. The most common, and often most damaging, mistake business owners make when outsourcing PR is failing to determine goals in advance of the vetting process. This will come back to haunt you on two fronts.
First, without pre-determining the goals of your PR program, it’s likely you’re going to get very general recommendations and responses from the PR pros you encounter during the agency search. Without some specificity about what you are looking for and questions to help separate the wheat from the chaff (see #4), it may not be readily apparent which firms truly understand your industry and are able to produce results and which are merely skilled ‘pitchmen’ ready to move on to the next opportunity as soon as it arises.
Secondly, for PR agencies — as with many other service providers (e.g. lawyers, accountants, etc.) — time is money. And if there’s one thing all PR agencies are exceptional at doing, it’s making sure they are compensated for their time. That’s not to say PR pros are trying to swindle you or bill you for more than what is due to them. After all, every hour spent consulting you on PR or representing your business to the press is an hour away from another client (or potential client). Simply put, the better you can articulate goals, the more efficient and cost-effective your agency can be on your behalf.
Even a world-class PR agency or consultant will struggle to meet or beat expectations if they aren’t clear on your expectations and the business problem they are working to solve. So whether your goals are securing reviews from influential reporters and bloggers to generate demand and improve conversions or getting your company featured on Good Morning America to build brand awareness, make sure to set goals in advance and regularly revisit them with your PR agency so time is spent on activities that map to the broader goals for the business.
2. Set a budget
Let’s address the elephant in the room and talk about budgets, shall we? One of the biggest misconceptions about hiring a PR agency is that only massive brands with deep pockets can afford to hire professional PR support. Having worked at both a large, global PR agency representing Fortune 500 brands and at a small, boutique agency supporting startups and early-stage businesses, I can speak from personal experience that there are virtually limitless agency options for businesses, and budgets, of all sizes.
As you begin to narrow your list of potential PR agency partners, it’s helpful to first assess which agency billing model is best suited for the goals you’ve established. To that end, it’s important to know PR agencies typically charge clients in one of three ways:
- Monthly Retainer
- Project Basis
- Hourly (also referred to as “time and materials”)
The Retainer Model
Often when you hear someone remark that “Hiring a PR agency is too expensive,” or “Startups spending on PR are wasting money,” it’s from those that have had poor experiences with an agency on retainer. Retainers, which can range from as little as a few thousand dollars to millions of dollars per month, are best suited for companies that need and expect a near constant drumbeat of press coverage and exposure supported by a steady stream of product launches, announcements and other marketing activity.
In this model, businesses are tapping into agencies’ talent pool, saving overhead costs, while also taking advantage, theoretically, of access to a team with expansive professional networks encompassing press, analysts, bloggers, influencers and the like. The higher the budget the more likely that both the business and agency require a statement of work (SOW) tied to a specific term, usually a year or longer, to provide stability. Unfortunately, when agency results begin to lag behind expectations, it can lead to an uncomfortable, and oftentimes messy, parting of ways (breakups are always hard, right?). In other words, the retainer model isn’t for the faint of heart, no matter which side of the aisle you represent.
For businesses with more modest budgets or sporadic needs, project-based billing and hourly models are great options. For projects, setting goals and establishing clear expectations about the SOW (both the project scope itself as well as the timeline to deliver) are equally important as with a retainer model; however, in the event that plans go awry, both sides have more flexibility to part ways or invest in other initiatives, whether that be different marketing tactics or funding manufacturing of a new addition to your product catalog.
PR agency project budgets typically start at around $2,000 for basic services (e.g. press release development, media list development, pitching, etc.) and scale up based on the SOW. For agencies with strong credentials and reputations, you should expect to pay roughly $100 per hour of service, which is typically a mix of senior-level and junior talent.
Going the Freelance Route
Lastly, for the business owner that needs or wants PR support but not necessarily as a full-time function, there are literally thousands of highly-qualified consultants and freelancers for hire around the world. Freelance rates vary considerably with well-known PR practitioners and publicists billing fees upwards of $300 per hour and newly independent PR pros often charging anywhere from $50-150 per hour as they work to build their book of business.
3. Narrow Your Search
To recap, you’ve now established goals, set a budget and decided which model is best suited for your business. Congratulations, you’re now ready to find a PR agency! But, how do you find them?
For starters, the Odwyers database and rankings are a great resource to identify firms with experience relevant to your industry. Another benefit to Odwyers’ database is the ability to filter based on geography, a particularly useful tool for business owners that prefer to interact face-to-face. For freelance or project-based work, directories like Solo PR Pro and Freelancer.com are a good place to familiarize yourself with current rates.
4. Ask Questions Before You Make a Hire
In an ideal world, your PR agency should function as a high-performing extension of your business that introduces and represents your brand to relevant audiences, painting you and your products in the most favorable light. To create this dynamic, it’s incredibly important that you understand what skills and capabilities you are getting after you select a PR agency. This starts with asking the right questions before you sign on a firm or consultant.
Entrepreneur and popular PR blog Spin Sucks both have great lists of questions you should ask prospective PR agencies or consultants during the vetting process. Again, the most effective thing business owners can do to ensure they select the right PR partner is to clearly state their goals and expectations. From there, any qualified firm should be ready to explain how they will help you meet those goals within the agreed upon budget and timeframe.
To quote Richard Branson, “Publicity is absolutely critical. A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad.” Regardless of whether you are a new to PR and need guidance getting started or a large business looking for an agency partner to scale your marketing and revamp your brand image, there are no shortage of options and resources to help. Just make sure you first know what your goals are and have time to find the perfect PR partner that can make you, your brand and your products the next big thing.
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