Get results from a PR firm: 5 tips

By Joanna L. Krotz

Fashion stylist Nancy Beltrandi has years of experience grooming supermodels and celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Halle Berry, Gwyneth Paltrow and Derek Jeter.

She eventually branched out to create confidence-building image workshops for teenagers. Based in New York, Beauty-Buzz took off. Beltrandi now runs self-esteem workshops that offer advice about hair, makeup and fashion. She appears at high schools, college career events, Girl Scout troop meetings and more. She's found demand from older women as well as from teens.

Now, with world-of-mouth building and revenue reaching consistent levels, Beltrandi is ready for the next level. To get there, she plans to hire a public relations professional. "I want PR to put me on the map," she says. "Having exposure and getting more people aware of your products makes it easier to sell — it will grow the business."

Beltrandi's got the right idea. But too many business owners still dismiss the value of PR.

Used strategically, PR agencies can do a lot more than manage media contacts or issue press releases, especially for small businesses that lack profile and reach. "We often sign on to launch companies and then move to the next phase with them," says Amy Bermar, president of Corporate Ink in Newton, Mass. "Two of our clients measured [return on investment] from PR and calculated it at $4 in new business to every $1 spent."

In fact, when done right, PR not only builds recognition but also increases sales. To hire PR pros who can boost your business, consider these five guidelines.

1. Strive hard to get a good fit.

Invest upfront time to determine whether the agency can add strategic value. Don't fall for fancy digs or impressive client lists, which may not be current. Instead, tap a pro who thoroughly gets what you do.

"Publicists need to have the right skills and some knowledge about your industry — like technology, manufacturing or medical — so you don't have to invest time in bringing them up to speed," says publicist Ron Hanser in Omaha, Neb. On the other hand, everyone's different. Beltrandi says, "I have a tremendous number of contacts at fashion magazines and in the industry. As far as PR goes, I need someone who has just as many contacts that are completely different."

Accreditation from the industry's largest association, the Public Relations Society of America, carries weight. But the portfolio and experience count most. What successes has the agency had? Does it match your needs? Journalistic experience is helpful. It means the PR person understands what makes a media story and how to approach editors and reporters.

After that, you want to be a highly valued client who rates immediate attention. For smaller businesses, that usually translates into hiring a smaller agency or a sole practitioner. Once you sign a contract based on the star-studded pitch of a larger agency, your account is likely to be turned over to junior staffers. "Ask specifically who in the agency will be working with you," says Suzanne Boland at RFB Communications Group in Tampa, Fla.

2. Phase in the fees.

Don't begin on retainer. Set up a specific project with a price tag attached so you can evaluate results.

Paying for customized services is another option. For instance, hire a publicist to write press releases on an hourly basis. You can also contract with a PR pro to work in-house for you. Rates vary. Some PR companies, such as Pinnacle Worldwide, provide a network of international independent agencies, so you can contract for services in any country or city.

Here are some warning signs that usually indicate you will not get what you pay for:

  • A firm promises "guaranteed results." No one can ensure press coverage or other specific outcomes.
  • A firm does too much research. "There should be a balance between planning and doing," says Dave Kowal, whose agency is based in Northboro, Mass.
  • There are proposals with no specifics. You should know exactly what's planned.
  • You're charged an unusually low retainer. This probably means you can't expect much work.
  • You get status reports but no results.

"You catch more typos than the PR agency does," says Steve Capoccia at Lewis PR in Boston.

3. Define what you consider success and measure results.

Publicity and media coverage take time. When you're launching a product or service and want to build awareness, start talking to PR people at least six months beforehand.

Some agencies promise a specific number of media exposure within a month; others, within 100 days. Ask what you should expect. It will help enormously to figure out what you want to achieve, such as:

  • A certain number of column inches, air time, sound bites or Web hits, or a feature in an influential journal.
  • Greater customer awareness of your brand.
  • A specific number of sales leads within a specific timeframe.
  • Invitations to speak at prestigious events or seminars.
  • Specific industry awards.

To track results, "develop a survey before the publicist starts to set a milestone. After their work has had a chance to be absorbed by your market, re-survey to find if the needle has moved," says Vince McMorrow at RMD Pubic Relations in Albany, Ohio.

4. Manage the process.

Check in regularly and ask for progress reports. Most PR pros draft monthly status memos about reporters contacted, media placements accomplished, queries sent out, tasks accomplished and so on. But that's not the same as a sit-down that delves into whether everything's on track and the tactics still make sense. In this climate, you're apt to re-jigger business often — is your PR agency up to speed?

If you've given it six months or so and it's not working, ask for specific better results, renegotiate or walk away.

5. Plan strategies based not on the here and now but on where you want to go.

One of the most overlooked factors in public relations is that it's a "trailing indicator," as Amy Bermar puts it. "Stories appear based on news and information that was sent out weeks or months earlier." When you sign on or discuss campaigns, talk about "the company you will become and not the company you are today," she says. That will certainly affect decisions about media kits and material or which influencers or analysts to target.

Last, make sure your expectations are realistic. Lea Conner, at Conner Dudley Communications in Spokane, Wash., tells of a self-published author who wanted to appear on TV talk shows to publicize her book. But she'd never done any media interviews. "I learned what she really wanted was to sell her books," Conner says.

So the two agreed to build up to major media over several months by creating marketing materials and having the author gain local media experience. A month later, however, the author grew impatient. She wondered why she hadn't yet been booked on "The View" and "Oprah." Says Conner: "It's easy for clients to get so caught up in their own dreams that they fail to realize the amount of work it takes to achieve major results."

In other words, be strategic and bold, but give it time.

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