4 Questions to Ask a Prospective Agency

4 Questions to Ask a Prospective Agency


Mike Bush, Founder, Nomad Communications

Finding the right PR agency partner can be challenging. Quite frankly, in a pitch meeting or RFP, professional communicators who are skilled at helping their clients put their best foot forward are being asked to apply these skills to themselves. The results are often quite similar, as firms generally offer comparable answers to questions about media relationships, past/relevant experience, case studies, etc.

This isn’t to say all agencies are created equally, nor is it to say they’ll all deliver the same results. The following four questions can help prospective clients differentiate agencies from each other, and allow clients to pick agencies that will meet, or exceed business goals.

How do you measure ROI? 

This seems like a simple question, but the idea of quantifiable ROI has been a blind spot for decades in the PR industry. For years, firms used some version of ad equivalencies. Essentially this means, “if this article was an advertisement, here is how much it would have cost.” Ad equivalencies have come a long way in the digital age… years ago, PR pros would cut articles out of the newspaper and actually measure how much space the mention of their client took up, citing the cost of a column inch as part of the ad equivalency. Yes, the value of a media placement depended largely on the liberties an entry-level PR person took with scissors.

Some firms will rely on monthly billing and time spent as a way to discuss the value of an investment.  Realistically, PR results can’t be guaranteed since media relations professionals are depending on members of the media accepting a story pitch.

All of this, of course, can be changed. Some firms are adopting services like TrendKite, which provides a number of ways to measure the value of PR, including share of voice and digital ad equivalencies, but also connecting to Google Analytics to see how many clicks are generated as a result of an article. For smaller companies, TrendKite’s pricing can be prohibitive… but there are less expensive solutions on the market. CoverageBot (from CoverageBook) provides interesting metrics such as expected readership, and domain authority (a metric that’s important to search engine optimization).

PR should be a part of a company’s marketing initiatives, and it should contribute to the company’s overall marketing effectiveness. Any potential PR partner should be able to offer some way that they contribute.

How do you handle competitive situations? 

There is a particular challenge in picking the right firm when it comes to experience. On one hand, a client wants a partner with experience in their particular market. This means a quicker on-boarding time, and established relationships with key members of the media. On the other, it may mean that a client is actually competing for the services of their PR team.

The answer to this question might have something to do with the structure of a firm. Some PR companies have established practice areas, perhaps focusing on healthcare, ad tech or cannabis. This approach has merit, since these teams will (theoretically) offer deeper expertise and media relationships. Other companies may carry competitors, but they won’t let individuals in the firm work on both companies. This can be great for individual client efforts, but might hurt the overall institutional knowledge of a firm (increasing onboarding time and decreasing the creativity necessary to stand out).

To offer a specific example of this issue might manifest; PR people use services like HARO, in which reporters ask for sources who can be part of a story they’re writing. If a reporter in infosecurity is looking for a source, a PR firm with 3 clients in the space is faced with a decision. Do they reach out to each client for commentary, sending the best fit? Do they send a reporter quotes from all three clients and let the reporter decide which (if any) to include? Do they look at recent coverage across their clients and identify which client really seems to need the media hit and prioritize that way (or focus on the client with the biggest budget)? 

All firms will have some sort of competitive issue. Using the HARO example, a reporter who asks about “one leadership tip CEOs wish they knew before they were promoted” can theoretically be a fit for every client in a PR company. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for prospective clients here, but the answer should help to determine comfort level with a firm. 

Can you send me all the coverage you’ve secured over the last three months? 

Before getting to this question, it’s important to ask how many clients a firm carries. After that, this question will offer a number of revelations about of PR firm. It should offer some sort of average coverage per month per client, which can help to determine whether the proposal aligns with the typical output. This can be an important distinction from case studies that are presented in the RFP. After all, firms that show successes from 5 or 10 years ago may have turned over their entire staffs over that time period.

On a more basic level, it will also help to determine how successful the firm is when it comes to reporting. If the majority of value from a PR firm comes from earned media, asking a firm to show where it has been successful recently should be easy enough. 

For larger firms, this question isn’t always possible to answer, and may even skew the picture. A firm working on Coca Cola may have massive coverage results that perhaps don’t align with the goals of a startup in the telecom space. In these instances, asking about the coverage a specific team (or department) has generated can have the desired effect.

What happens if this doesn’t work? 

A PR initiative can fail for a number of reasons. If a campaign is being built around case studies, but it turns out that a client’s customer won’t talk to the media, there may be a need to shift gears, or postpone an initiative. If a company’s spokesperson fails to be compelling in interviews, and is uncoachable it’s possible that the media won’t pick up the stories the PR firm is telling. It’s also possible that the firm doesn’t ever really “get it” when it comes to certain aspects of a client.

In these instances, it’s important for a prospective client to know what will be needed to get out of the relationship.

Most firms have some sort of exit clause in their agreements, but these clauses are almost never identical. Before picking a PR partner, clients should understand what they’re getting in to.

Using the questions above will not necessarily ensure that the agency relationship will be without challenges, but can help a prospective client make the right decisions when it comes to picking the right PR partner.

About the Author: Mike Bush is the founder of Nomad Communications, a B2B tech PR and marketing firm specializing in connecting earned media to ROI. In 15+ years, he’s been involved with client exits and funding events totaling more than $2 billion. For more information, visit www.nomadcomms.io.