Choosing a PR consultancy

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Public relations consultancies come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and specialties.  Choosing the right one can be difficult, and many organisations end up retaining theirs for the wrong reasons.

Things to consider when selecting a public relations consultancy include:

The pitch

The consultancy that is best at the pitch isn’t necessarily the best at implementing an agreed program.  Nor does being good at presentations mean the consultancy is best at doing the job.  It may simply be that they are very experienced in pitching for new business.  After all, consultancies are much more experienced at new business presentations than a prospect is at assessing them, because they do it more often.

To help evaluate presentations, always start the search process with a briefing paper for prospective consultancies.  This gives you something to compare the consultancy’s proposal against, and to evaluate the quality of the response against what you are seeking.

Large or small

Some clients like a large consultancy offering a wide range of services.  Others prefer a smaller, specialist consultancy.  It’s horses for courses and there’s no right or wrong approach.

When getting competitive pitches, make sure you meet the consultant nominated to work on your account, especially with large consultancies, and make sure that this consultant is involved in the pitch.  The consultancy head might promise the world but the reality is it’s unlikely you’ll see much of him or her when the pitch is over and the account won.  Keep in mind that larger consultancies could have a team that is responsible for pitches, but who will not work on the program at all.

If the consultant nominated to work on your account is introduced to you as a banking and finance specialist, check how he or she is described on the consultancy website.  One person can’t be all things to all people.

Another warning sign is when a consultant is introduced as “our specialist in healthcare, financial services and fashion”.  How many areas can a consultant specialise in?

With smaller consultancies, ask questions such as what is the back-up plan during consultant holidays or extended breaks?  This is especially important with one person businesses.

Website check

It’s a good idea to compare what the website says with reality.  The website may well show an impressive list of clients, but how many are current, and how many of these clients have the same consultant working with them as has been allocated to you.

Industry knowledge

Many larger consultancies have specialist industry groups within the consultancy, which should have expertise in the particular areas they serve.

But even so, if you are a financial services organisation, for example, make sure the consultant nominated to manage your account does know something about your needs and how the industry works. Also check that their career to date hasn’t been spent in an unrelated area.  Too often consultants end up learning about an industry on a client’s time.

If possible, arrange a one-on-one meeting with the nominated consultant as part of the search process.  You might find out that they have no real interest in financial services at all and think it boring.

Check references

As mentioned earlier, seek a list of current clients and contacts. Check a couple of them out.  It’s a step often overlooked, yet current client attitudes should be a critical part of the evaluation process. 

Also, if you know a couple of journalists covering your industry, give them a call.  They deal with consultants every day.  Is the one you’re considering known to them and are they any good?  If not, who would they recommend?

It may be that an international consultancy makes much of their financial services strengths in New York or London, but it doesn’t mean they have the same level of local expertise in this area.  In fact the local arm of the consultancy might be quite weak in a number of areas and it is only by talking to people locally that you can find out.

Cheap or expensive

There’s no rule which says the most expensive is the most effective in public relations.  While you generally get what you pay for, it’s easy to overpay.  Ensure you get monthly reports or fee invoices that show work done.  Consider different fee approaches – you may choose to pay for hours actually worked, or have a set monthly retainer. For example, one advantage of paying only for hours worked is that it encourages the consultancy to always be looking for, and creating, opportunities.

Don’t be sold – buy

Avoid being seduced by a consultancy’s sales pitch.  Is it really what you want or are you being talked into something you don’t need?

For example, pitches by the local arm of a global consultancy may play heavily on the ability to draw on international experience and expertise to help local clients.  But does it really happen?  And are you ever really likely to need international consulting help?  It may sound appealing for some time in the distant future, but most likely will never be needed.

If one of the key things you are looking for is to lift your profile in the media, be suspicious of consultancies the claim one of the things they are asked to do is keep clients names out of the media.

This gets back to having a briefing paper for reference.  Is what is being offered really what you’re looking for?

Seek generosity

Having a consultancy that is generous with ideas, contacts and information can make a lot of difference in the cost effectiveness of a program. It can often be seen during a presentation – the consultancy that responds to a question about journalists they know by saying that this is the sort of information they give clients after they have been retained. Compare this with a consultant who volunteers that one of the first things they’d like to do is arrange a meeting with so-and-so, or names journalists they deal with without any prompting. Which is likely to give more for the money?