Public relations is one of the most frequently used tools for getting the word out about a company, product or service. But hiring a PR agency often means making a big investment in time and money, and it may not be the best tool for your needs.
Public relations, or PR as it's called, is a method for promoting a company by building its reputation and credibility. PR doesn't directly aim to drive sales like marketing does. The goal is to persuade customers to get to know a company and trust that it is what it claims to be.
To market a restaurant, an owner might hand out coupons for a free dessert with the purchase of an entrée. If that same restaurant owner invited guests to a dinner to meet the chef and learn about the foods being served, that would be a PR strategy. Both strategies might ultimately result in sales increases, but the first seeks an immediate return while the second aims to define the restaurant as an authority on food.
PR agencies tell stories designed to shape a company's image and reputation using many different methods. Some techniques are mostly used by larger companies, but a small business might find utilizing these services can also make the company appear bigger than it is and help it to stand out. Some of the methods most often used include:
Media and influencer relations. PR agencies get client companies mentioned in publications, broadcast, and social media by writing press releases and using their media relationships.
Creating and managing events. PR agencies create and manage events like grand openings for restaurants, product launches like new software for tech companies, and holiday parties for internal staff and clients. Tasks involved in organizing an event might include sending invitations, booking caterers and photographers and renting décor, creating press kits and goody bags, securing speakers, and inviting social media influencers and journalists who might feature the event in the media.
Crisis management. PR agencies are brought on board to manage negative press reports or other issues that might damage a company's reputation. Agencies typically work with company management and the media to shape responses and soften potential fallout.
Internal and external communications. Writing and design services for newsletters, financial reports, status reports, and other communications to clients, staff, and associated businesses like banks are used to keep clients top-of-mind in their network of relationships.
Social media. Agencies create content and manage social media websites for their clients.
Speaking engagements and speechwriting. Another way to build a company's reputation is by securing speaking engagements for company executives at events like trade shows and conferences. PR agencies might also be enlisted to write the speeches for these events.
Media relations training. PR agencies help company executives learn the best ways to communicate with reporters to effectively get their point across.
Though some agencies also provide advertising services, the focus of PR is what's called earned media coverage. Agencies use their powers of persuasion to get stories placed in the editorial sections of print and digital newspapers, magazines and broadcast media rather than paying for an advertisement.
Knowing what you want to accomplish is the first and most important step of a public relations effort. Some of the goals PR is best suited to address include:
Once you have decided what you want to accomplish, you can begin researching how different PR agencies would address your goals. A clear understanding of your objectives will also help when it comes time to evaluate the work the PR agency has done.
Many small business owners might find that they can handle their PR needs in-house. Let's say you own a local printing shop in a neighborhood with several competitors. If you want your customers to remember and choose you when they need printing services, a monthly postcard campaign done in-house might serve that purpose. But if you were the unlucky recipient of many very poor Yelp reviews because one of your employees (who you since fired) was treating your customers rudely, the job of restoring your reputation might be a job better handled by a PR agency.
The goals you have set will also help to choose the right agency. Among the factors to consider are:
Experience in your industry. An agency that has experience with your industry will know the media companies, reporters and influencers most likely to have interest in your stories and won't waste time getting up to speed.
Capabilities. Choose an agency that has specific experience in the services you need and ask to see samples or case studies of their work.
Size of the agency. While larger agencies might have more resources, they are also more likely to be focused on their bigger clients. But you also want an agency that will have the resources you need, so ask how many team members will be dedicated to your account and what experience these individuals bring.
Understanding of your needs. Is the agency giving you a boiler plate solution or is it presenting ideas that are directly related to your business, your market, and your goals?
Likeability. If you are buying widgets, liking the salesperson probably won't matter much. But when you work with a PR agency it's important to see eye-to-eye with the team and to enjoy working with them. PR is a collaborative process, and you should feel like the team members are partners in the effort.
Most agencies will work with you on a single project basis or on a retainer basis. Which option you choose will be based on your needs, and it will also play a role in the cost.
A single project might be setting up an open house for a new real estate listing or a launch party for a new product. When you work on a retainer basis, you pay a monthly fee for the agency to handle all the needs that arise, whether or not they produce any work in a given month.
Hiring an agency on retainer can range anywhere from $1,500 per month to $8,000 per month or more. If you are hiring an agency to write and distribute press releases as the needs arise, your costs will likely fall at the lower end of the scale. Costs would be considerably higher for, say, a construction company beginning a large project that required media relations through different stages of the project, a monthly newsletter and social media campaign for investors and potential renters, ground-breaking events, and the launch.
Project-based fees can vary widely as well, from $250 to $2,000 or more. If you contract with an agency to develop one or two social media posts per week, the cost will be much lower than the cost to set up and run a launch party which requires a lot more time and staff.
You or a member of your team will also have to spend time working with the agency to provide information and feedback. The results your agency achieves are often directly related to the time and effort you devote.
Your agency should provide you with reporting and analytics, but PR is not meant to directly increase sales and goals are not always quantifiable. You'll probably also have to make a judgment call about whether the time, money, and effort is worth what you are getting back so it's a good idea to start an agency off with a single project before committing to a long-term relationship.
If you are hiring an agency to build your social media presence you will want to track views, likes, and increases in followers, and whether posts are picked up by others. But you will also want to determine whether the content posted is meaningful to your customers.
If your goal is to build awareness for your company, you'll want your agency to provide statistics on how many media mentions you receive in a specified time period along with the actual press clips. Although there is some truth to the saying, "I don't care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right," you should also pay attention to the way your company is portrayed in stories.
You should also ask your clients for feedback and ask new customers how they heard about you to help determine if your PR is paying off.