Having spent time a good amount of time in the PR world - both agency and corporate side - prior to jumping into the startup world, I often get asked by other entrepreneurs what to look for when hiring a PR firm. I'm not going to get into whether or not it makes sense to hire a firm or an in-house resource here - that's for another time, but for startup CEOs that have decided to go the agency route and don't know where to start, here's how I sort:
1. Give me the pitch!
The first question I would ask an agency is about the work they've done for other clients in a relative space to yours. Industry experience matters. And when they talk about the other clients they've had, make sure they are giving you a concise, compelling pitch for each client. If they start the conversation with messaging that doesn't clearly and effectively communicate who that client is, in a differentiating manner, how can they possibly do that for you? If they describe past clients as, "sort of a combination of this and that with a little of this other thing thrown in" then run away immediately. They should be able to deliver crisp, clear messaging for each and every one of their prior clients. I don't want them pitching my business to the media unless they can deliver a damn good pitch.
2. Tell me stuff I don't know.
I know what PR is. I know what a media kit is. I know what desk side meetings are. I know what 'jumping on breaking news' means. I know what social media outreach is. (if you don't know any of these things, do some quick research and you'll be a up to speed on all the PR tactics). Don't tell me about the tactics that PR practitioners use. I assume they will use all of these tactics as well as others, to help advance my exposure and reach. I want them to tell me things I don't know. Tell me things about my business or my competitors that might be an advantage or disadvantage from a PR outreach perspective. Make me think. Make me understand that you are thinking about my business, not just how to write a press release.
3. Have a strategic approach.
I always look for an agency to be a long-term business partner and not just someone to get me some press. Someone that can help me evolve my messaging and marketing strategy moving forward and come to me with good business ideas that help advance my company goals. As a result, I want to make sure that the agency is showing the ability to think strategically through a business problem. What I mean by that is when they walk me through case studies of what they've done in the past, if they immediately default to, "look at all the press we've gotten" then regardless of what they say, they will never be a good business partner. Getting press for a company can be very easy if you work with the right company. Some companies are simply media darlings that are easy to get exposure for regardless of how strategically you think. What I want to see is a thoughtful approach to the prior company's campaign. They should be able to articulate what the client's goals were. What were the real challenges prior to hiring the firm? Who was their target audience? What the strategy was that the firm used to overcome those challenges and position against competitors? Were the challenges a result of messaging? A very cluttered competitive set? Prior bad press? What was the audience reaction and/or real business results? They need to really understand the whole path from a business perspective. Showing me a slide full of headlines doesn't show me how you think.
4. Understand the business!
When I have a meeting with a PR firm to discuss my business, I expect that they've already done some real homework on us as a business. I send out some initial details on our company as well as offer to talk to them prior to any in-person meetings. I fully expect them to reach out to me prior to the meeting with a barrage of questions about my business. It's my responsibility to give them the time they need to get as much information as they need to be able to discuss how they can play a role as a business partner for me. If I show up for a meeting, and they haven't reached out to me before hand, or done extensive research on their own to try and understand my business challenges, then it's clear that they won't ever make enough of an effort for me to be a real business partner. The last thing I ever want to hear in a pitch meeting is "tell us about your business." That should have happened already. They should be as expert in your business as is possible without actually engaging. They should know who your competitors are, what their messaging is, what other challenges you might face that you haven't thought of as well as thoughts on how to overcome those challenges. In other words, you want to know that they actually care enough to do the work. They don't always have to be right in their assumptions - in fact they are rarely exactly on point before you get a chance to get them fully up to speed - but I want to see HOW THEY THINK about my issues. Right or wrong, I need to know that they can think about a business and not just how many media contacts they have.
5. Who is the team?
The one thing that matters most in any agency relationship is the point person on the account. When I show up for a meeting, I make sure to meet with, and question everyone who will be working on the account. There will always be a senior person in that meeting who does most of the talking. Rarely, if ever, will that person spend any considerable amount of time on your account. I need to be comfortable with the abilities of everyone who will play a role in my business. I want to understand who will be sweating my issues on a daily basis. Who will you be interacting with directly? I start with the most junior person and ask some strategy questions about past clients. Can every person on the team really help me and my business? Who will be interacting with me, the CEO as we move forward? I know from experience that if I don't feel comfortable interacting with that person in the meeting, I will not feel comfortable interacting with them in a business environment and the relationship will not last. I think about the team the same way I would if I were going to make a hire. Would I hire them as another FTE? Do they make the cut? Do they fit culturally as well as professionally? Am I prepared to invite them to team meetings and be open to their insight on the business? If the answer to any of those questions is 'No' then I thank them for their time and move on.
Hiring an agency partner can be an incredibly valuable move if you find the right partner. As a startup CEO, you have way too many things to be worried about on a daily basis to constantly be thinking about the marketing potential of all your activities. Having the right partner on board can uncover many hidden opportunities that you would never have time to think about. Also, the right partner should be able to question that 'amazing' thought you just had in the shower this morning if it isn't really a great idea. They should be able to take small ideas and help you make them bigger and they should be able to poke holes in your product or service and help you align them better against messaging and target audience.
The right partner can help elevate your business in a lot of ways. The wrong partner can be dangerously distracting as well as a heavy drain on runway. Hopefully these thoughts can help you find the right partner to help you crush it. Take the time this process demands, ask the right questions, and find a good business partner. Don't settle.