All too often searches for PR agencies are conducted in a rush. A project is about to be completed, a round of funding is ready to be announced, there’s a crisis, or the CEO wants to raise the profile of the company – right now!
When speed is the driver, issues important to the success of an agency engagement don’t get the attention they require, including the scope of work, required skillsets, how the search itself will be conducted, and, critically, whether the company is PR agency ready.
If hiring an agency is in the cards, it’s important for companies to take the time to evaluate the resources they have and the capabilities they need. Business and corporate communications leaders must also determine if they have the time, budget, and expertise to engage and effectively manage an agency or consultant. And, they need to think through the process they will go through to find agencies, evaluate and compare capabilities, and ultimately engage those best-suited for projects and communications programs.
Going through these key steps before starting the search will lead to a more organized search and on-boarding process – and produce the best outcome for the search.
There are many potential downsides of a rushed process: candidate agencies that may not be a good fit for a project, clients that don’t have the internal capacity to properly engage with their newly hired PR team and, frustration on both sides when the expected goals aren’t achieved. The net result? Money down the drain, rather than in the bank.
To help companies determine if they are agency-ready we’ve drafted this Are You PR Agency Ready Checklist covering what to review before starting an agency search.
For companies choosing to work with a search consultant, this pre-flight check is an important part of the process. If you’re flying solo, it’s important to run through them before you pull the search trigger.
Here are the key things to think about.
Do You Need a PR Agency?
This is a fundamental question for startups in particular, and certainly for any company looking to engage an agency for the first time. Before jumping into an agency search, take the time to think about what you need from the agency – and keep in mind that hiring an agency is like bringing on board a new public relations team, all at once. It’s valuable to reach out to PR or communications professionals outside the company to get perspective. We’re happy to be a sounding board – contact us.
Watch this video from our Agency Search Series on “When is the right time to engage a PR or communications agency”.
Define the Scope of Work for An Agency
Having reached the conclusion that you’re ready to engage an agency, it’s important to determine exactly what you want them to do for your business. Public relations, social, content, SEO and digital marketing are skillsets different agencies and professionals may be able to bring to the table. As a first step, review the capabilities you have and decide what you need. Based on this, draft a scope of work to serve as a guide for your search process and to help candidates clearly understand what you are looking for.
Match Your PR Budget to the Scope of Work
It is essential to establish a budget that reflects not only what you want to invest, but that takes into account your expectations and scope of work for the project. If you don’t have a good sense of prevailing agency fee rates, how agencies typically utilize and manage their personnel, and how they charge for out-of-pocket expenses, it’s worth doing some homework to seek out experienced corporate communications professionals. It’s important to get perspective on what makes sense for your business and project, before you end up with agency proposals and budgets that aren’t aligned with your expectations, or worse – you hire an agency and watch costs spiral out of control.
Managing an Agency
Managing an agency search, and the agency you choose to work with, takes time – often far more than most imagine. A key question: Who will manage the relationship? Delegating this role to junior members of your staff is never a good idea. For the relationship to work effectively, the agency will need access not only to senior communicators in the company but to key decision makers, including those in your C-suite. If no one has the time or inclination to manage an agency, don’t hire one. You may as well burn your money.
Because an agency often supports a range of departments – marketing, sales, legal, finance, and human resources – getting organizational buy-in across departments is a key to success. If you expect your agency to work with other departments, they should be included in the selection process.
It’s important to give consideration to how you will search for an agency to achieve the goals you have set. Although many companies simply ask for referrals from their peers, our “Client’s Guide to PR & Communications Agency Search” maps out a thorough search process that recommends using agency search tools to find qualified firms by industry and communications expertise, as well as by location, size, and other key factors. We also suggest using a request for qualifications (RFQ) and request for proposal (RFP) process to shortlist firms for final presentations. Our online RFP tools make this is a much simpler process than you might imagine. And, if time is limited, consider using an agency search consultant for turn-key searches or assistance in the process. This is a service we offer through RFP Associates.
Creating and sticking to a timeline for the agency hiring process is a valuable step to keep searches on track. It’s also important for agencies (and internal business partners) to be able to plan to attend presentations and complete materials.
If the timeline and mandate is to get an agency onboard as quickly as possible – the “right now” scenario – make sure “quickly as possible” still gives you time to map out the hiring process and develop materials to support it. This will provide the best chance for a successful search outcome.
Using these points as a guide for your own search, or by engaging a search consultant to help evaluate your “PR agency readiness” as part of the process, will inevitably save time, money, and headaches not only during the search, but after the contract is signed. A thorough search process – which includes the evaluation of being agency ready – is the single most important factor in finding and hiring the PR or communications firm that’s the best match for your needs and positioned to most effectively support your brand and reputation.
Find out more about our agency search resources at https://www.communicationsmatch.com/agency-search-resources
About the Authors
Steve Drake and Robert Udowitz founded RFP Associates in 2011 after observing the agency selection process from “both sides of the aisle” and recognizing the need to streamline and improve the way searches are made and agencies selected from an honest, unbiased approach. Over the course of their careers Robert and Steve have worked at agencies, corporations, and trade associations in New York, Washington, and, for Steve, in Beijing, China, where he opened Fleishman-Hillard’s first Asian office. In recent years they have also been sole practitioners for a variety of clients seeking media, crisis, and strategic counsel.
Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatch™
Locke developed and launched CommunicationsMatch, an agency search and engagement platform with 5,000 listed firms and professionals in 12 countries, to help companies find and engage agencies, consultants and freelancers that match needs. A founder of communications agencies and startups, he previously headed communications functions at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank.