Many innovative small companies make a decision to invest heavily in hiring a public relations firm. It's expensive but, done well, good public relations can have an enormous return on investment. Too bad most agency public relations professionals that I have encountered recently are lazy, and not worth the investment.
To help drive home my point, let me give you a few examples which are representative of my overall experience with agency PR professionals, and what I think is a better alternative to hiring a PR firm.
Blown Opportunity To Get Attention On A National Story
A major company in the peer-to-peer lending space announced that they were entering the small business loan market. The story had major implications for companies that provide online small business loans, and was picked up by publications like Bloomberg, Businessweek, and Forbes. I contacted the PR agency representing one of the largest non-bank small business loan companies. Shockingly, the agency wasn't even aware of the news story, and was completely unprepared to further leverage the opportunity.
Offering An Interview Opportunity and Then Not Arranging It
I received an email from the PR agency representing a health care services firm offering up a key executive for an interview. The topic wasn't the right fit for me, so I suggested a different topic. The PR professional said they would get back to me shortly. After waiting a week, I emailed and called. No response. Finally, a couple weeks later, I got an email back with an apology, and an excuse for the delayed communication. When I said I would still would be interested in doing the interview, I again did not get a response.
Not Maintaining Dialogue With Important Reporters
A startup which I have a relationship with recently hired a PR agency, in part because of the close connections it claimed to have with reporters in his industry. There are only five or six reporters at "big" media outlets that regularly cover the niche. One of those reporters wrote a major piece on the market niche, that it appears had been in the works for several weeks. Too bad the PR firm hadn't spoken to the reporter in a few months, and the company was left out the story.
These are just a few examples of the types of things I hear about, and experience personally, when dealing with PR firms.
What's the Alternative?
Are all PR people lazy? No. In fact, most of the experience I have had with PR people working directly for individual companies has been very positive. They tend to be better at following up, and more knowledgeable than their agency counterparts.
Even internal PR people with less experience tend to do a better job, because they have a personal investment in the story. This is especially true at small companies, where positive press can make or break a new initiative. The internal PR person's success is more directly tied to the success of their small business, so they are more likely to work hard at getting positive press.
The internal PR people I work with almost always have better knowledge of their product than external PR people as well. This means when I ask a basic question, the internal PR person can answer immediately. When asking basic product questions to an external PR person, they generally do not know the answer. Instead of answering on the spot, they have to send a request to the company, and wait to hear back.
Internal PR people are also almost always faster at getting back with interview requests. Where an external PR person has to send an email or make a phone call, the internal PR person can simply tap the CEO or other source on the shoulder.
The Bottom Line
I have been astounded by the lack of effort and follow through that I have seen from the PR firms startups and other more established firms have hired. From my experience, hiring a PR firm is a mistake, and companies should instead handle their PR internally.
If you can't afford or don't need someone to work on PR full time for your company, then give the job to one of your staff as an additional responsibility. As long as they are willing to reach out to people, can answer questions knowledgeably, and respond to questions in a timely manner, you will doing a lot better than what you will get when hiring most PR agencies.