By Richard Stone, Stone Junction, a Stafford based technical and engineering PR firm

Choosing a PR agency is a minefield. How do you make sure that the company is right for your business? How do you know if you are paying too much? How do you know if your business will be important to the agency once you are on board? Here Richard Stone, managing director of technical PR agency Stone Junction, helps answer some of these questions.

It’s my belief that the first question you should answer is; ‘do you need a PR agency at all?’ Occasionally I come across an SME that has an effective PR or marketing team in-house and it genuinely doesn't need a PR agency. Mostly though, in house teams work with external agencies to provide specialist PR support. Equally, if you are a very small, owner led, company it may well be that the best thing to do is invest in some good training and handle the work personally.

However, there are plenty of good reasons to hire a PR agency. So I thought I would start with a list of the five best ones:

The written word: It’s hard enough trying to keep up with all the reports you need to produce and meetings you need to attend without having to generate regular articles and press releases. Any PR agency worth the money will provide professional writing support across a range of media from the trade press and trade Web sites to Blogging and content for other marketing material.

Contacts with the media: Providing you choose a specialist PR agency you will find that they know your media quite well. You may well have a few contacts in the press already, but you have to ask yourself if they are really the right people? Knowing the ad reps isn’t a great way to get press coverage; just a great way to buy advertising effectively!

Objectivity: Is the story you are planning on putting out really newsworthy? Or are you just pleasing the sales team, CEO or board by putting out a puff news piece? A PR agency will offer objective advice to help you decide and you should be prepared for them to occasionally say, ‘this isn’t news’. That’s not to say you can’t write the piece for your Web site or Blog, just that it’s not going to help your reputation amongst journalist.

Creativity: Most marketing people are great at identifying news and case studies within their companies. But not all are as good at choosing the right subject for an evocative opinion piece, a letters campaign or a piece of soft news. PR agencies should offer this level of creativity as a minimum.

Measurement: Public relations firms have to measure to prove their efficacy. But I have often started a campaign with a client only to be told that the previous incumbent or team in-house didn’t measure at all. PR agencies should provide this service as a standard part of the package.

Finally, I know I only said I was going to provide five reasons but PR companies always want to deliver a little bit extra so here’s my sixth; bravery. Its takes bravery to pitch stories to an unknown journalist, bravery to tell a client they are making a bad decision and bravery to live in the agency world where everything changes constantly and you have to stay ahead just to keep up. Bravery is a quality that isn’t lost on most of us but how often do you look for it in a business partner? It’s worth thinking about when you look for support out of house.

Which agency is right for you?

Once you’ve established what you are looking for in a company, the next step is to actually find an agency to do the work for you.

You can look for PR companies in a search engine using a specific relevant term, such as ‘engineering PR’, ‘fashion PR’ or ‘construction PR’, depending on what you do. Alternatively, you could use a match making service, like the one provided by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) or Marketing Quotes. Another route to finding a good agency would be to ask for advice from the editors of one or two of your key trade publications. Most will welcome this kind of call - but make sure you speak to a journalist, not an ad rep, unless you are looking for an advertising agency!

I would recommend contacting three or four PR firms and inviting them in for a coffee and an informal chat. At this point you should give the agency a written brief, explaining what you are hoping to achieve using PR. Treat the meeting as an opportunity to find out if you get on with the person you will be working with. After this round of meetings, invite two or three of the agencies you have spoken with to deliver ‘pitches’, during which they will present the ideas and techniques they plan to implement on your campaign as well as the associated costs.

Preparing a brief for the agency

I’ve delivered over 100 ‘pitches’ to potential new clients in the last decade and I can honestly say that the content of those pitches has been a surprise to many of the recipients. In some cases this is because the scope of services I was offering was wider than the other agencies presented. But in other instances it was simply because the prospect didn’t know too much about PR in the first instance.

There’s nothing wrong with that; if you were a PR expert you would probably be working in the industry. But you do need to know enough about the subject to properly brief a potential agent. When you come to write a brief, these are some key points to consider:

• Ensure that the PR Brief reflects your true needs – i.e. the strategy and objectives of the business

• Engage with agencies throughout the pitch process and be as open and accessible as possible

• Screen agencies to ensure you proceed with only those agencies that are aligned to your needs; and keep short-lists short!

• Be clear and realistic with regards to budgets

• Set a realistic timeline: give agencies time to develop meaningful proposals as it will benefit the business in the long run

• Aim to have all stakeholders reach a consensus about the PR needs and goals; and to have all decision makers involved in the pitch process

• Be clear about evaluation criteria: both in terms of the agency selection process and measuring the success of your PR

• Be honest about the review process: don’t use it to pressure an incumbent; don’t use it to harvest free ideas

I think that if you stick to these basic ideas, you may well find that the written brief you end up with is substantial enough to help you make the right choice first time. You might not get as many nice surprises, but you will certainly avoid the nasty ones.

Making the final decision

My belief is that a lot of your final decision will come down to gut instinct.

Of course, you might need to eliminate an agency from your decision making process because their prices are too high, because they don’t know your industry well enough or because you think you will pale into insignificance next to their other clients. However, once you’ve done this, you may well be left with a choice to make between your two or three favourites.

It’s at this point that you will need to reach a conclusion, take a leap of faith and just be confident in your decision making skills. My advice is to think clearly, think quickly and then act. You’ve navigated your way through the minefield, now it’s time to claim some media coverage as your reward!

About Stone Junction: Stone Junction, a Stafford based technical and engineering PR firm, was established in early 2006. Current clients include ALR Services, Barton Technology, CP Automation, Cressall Resistors, GAMBICA, Industrial Design, Nexus GB, Powermaster, PPM Software and SolutionsPT. Previous experience includes PR campaigns for Arup, CIENA, Moeller Electric, Parker Hannifin, Roche, Schneider Electric, SKF, WorldCom and Yaskawa. Stone Junction provides its clients with the tactics and techniques to drive sales and lead opinion. Services include trade, online and national PR, copy writing, e-mail marketing and Web content optimisation. If you want to stay constantly up to date on the latest news from Stone Junction, you can subscribe to our Blog here: http://stone-junction.blogspot.com/p/subscribe.html.

Join us on

Follow @freshbusiness