What the “Bigs” Won’t Admit: “Boutique and Unique” PR Firms Are a Sign of the Times


Cheryl Gale

By Cheryl Gale, Managing Partner and Co-Founder, March Communications

You need a cute dress for an upcoming wedding. Do you search the Gap and Banana Republic racks and risk three other women at the event having the same dress? Or do you venture to a local boutique and purchase a dress made by a unique designer? I’m with you, boutique it is.

Now let’s compare shopping to public relations—two completely different topics, yet entertainingly similar. When selecting a PR agency to represent your company, you have a few options as well—large, mid-size or boutique. Like the boutique store you selected, a boutique agency has the capability to tailor to your needs. No matter the budget, a boutique agency is capable of devising a plan to achieve your goals and raise visibility.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

According to an article in the Business Mirror, there are many factors to consider prior to selecting a PR firm. When choosing an agency, PR practitioner Edd Fuentes says you should, “Treat it like a job interview, and find out everything that you can about the potential PR firm/publicist, even going so far as talking to the latter’s past clients to find out why they dropped the PR firm. Like it or not, the PR firm will be an extension of your company and should be able to represent the best facets of the image and the brand you project.”

It’s important to do your research on the agencies you are considering. Make a list of criteria you’re looking for, such as agency size, location and areas of expertise. If you’re a Boston-based company and enjoy face-time with your agency, a Boston-based agency may make the most sense. For European-based companies, having a Boston-based agency is a great way to fill the time zone gap. If your company used a San Francisco-based agency, you’re looking at an eight or nine hour time difference, which is a full workday.

Sign of the Times

It’s clear that public relations has evolved over the past few years and is continuing to change. That’s why it’s also important to look at the agency’s toolkit of services:

• Are they experienced with social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter?
• Does the agency have a company blog or forum?
• Do they provide marketing services in conjunction with traditional PR?
• Do they offer media training?
• Do they understand how to create thought leaders?

You can tell a lot about a PR agency through its online presence—website, blog and social media—ensuring they practice what they preach. In a 2009 AdAge article, the editor states, “The irony is that the same people clients hire to erect communications and social-media strategies often appear uncomfortable using Twitter themselves.” If an agency tells you that they specialize in social media and blogging, check to make sure they have a company blog and Twitter page.

It’s also important to scope out the agency’s current and past client base and browse secured coverage, press releases and written collateral. Is there a good mixture of online and print media hits? Does the coverage feature photos and videos? If an agency is smart, it will display a wide variety of media hits on its website. By glancing at company press releases and collateral, you’ll get a feel for the agency’s writing style too.

Ask Questions

Once you’ve narrowed down your agency selection, pull together a list of questions to ask the agency managing partner(s). Sample questions may include:

1. How do you bill your clients?
2. Will I work with a mixture of senior and junior staff?
3. How do you typically report results to your clients?
4. How many clients do you provide PR support for?
5. Where do you see your company in five years?

Provide a Detailed Brief

In order to get a meaningful proposal, you must first create a brief for the agencies that includes:

1. Company background
2. Products and services
3. Customers
4. Key competitors
5. Company go-to marketing strategy
6. Challenges
7. PR objectives
8. Budgets

By providing a detailed brief, you’ll enable the agencies to respond with a well, thought-out proposal, so you can get started with the PR campaign sooner, gaining faster results and exposure.

Boutique and Unique

Bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to the size of an agency. Companies need to select a PR agency that will work best for them to help meet their goals.

Boutique agencies typically operate between two and twenty-five people, while larger agencies can employ up to 1,000 people. Mid-size agencies fall in the middle, from 25 to 100 employees. If you prefer one-on-one attention with talented, senior level PR executives, then selecting a boutique agency may be the perfect option.

You can ensure that your day-to-day contact will be at the mid to senior level, with support from more junior staff. It’s also guaranteed that you’ll have visibility with the agency’s managing partner, as he/she will constantly check in with the team to discuss tactics, goals and results. Typically, boutique agencies provide a healthier balance of staff on each of their accounts too.

Of course it’s important to do your research and select a firm that best suits your needs. There are pros and cons to consider with every scenario and one size doesn’t fit all, but by selecting a boutique agency, your company will be in good hands, receiving the visibility it deserves. By weighing all of your options and reviewing each and every proposal, you’re guaranteed to make the right decision for your company.

Ultimately, isn’t choosing a PR agency similar to that unique dress your purchased—all about standing out from the crowd?



  1. Adele Cehrs on March 8, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Cheryl, Kudos on such a well-written article. As a boutique PR firm owner myself with a big-agency background, I believe boutique firms are in vouque too. Great advice on selecting an agency, social media review process and budget questions.

    • Cheryl Gale on March 9, 2011 at 6:37 pm

      Thank you. We’ve been receiving RFPs recently from big companies looking for smallers firms. It still comes down to chemistry, great ideas and proactiveness though.

  2. Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound on March 8, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Here are some other questions to ask candidates who you are considering hiring, excerpted from my ebook, How to Hire the Perfect Publicist:

    –What’s the worst mistake you ever made on a client project and what did you learn from it?

    –What kind of experience do you havae working with clients in my industry?

    –What benchmarks do you sugget using so we know if my PR campaign is successful? (If they say, “Number of impressions,” take your money and run.)

    –How often will you update me on your progress?

    –How do you prefer to be contacted by me? By phone or email?

    –Would you accept calls from me on weekends and when you’re on vacation?

    –What is your philosophy on press releases? (Beware the publicist who says they are important to get the media’s attention. Press releases should be written primarily to get consumers’ attention. Customized pitches are needed for the media.)

    • admin on March 8, 2011 at 8:20 pm

      Great comment Joan! Somehow it ended up under a different article. Could you repost it directly to The Hiring Hub article? ^bp

    • Cheryl Gale on March 9, 2011 at 6:39 pm

      I like your last point in particular. The press release’s role is certainly changing. Thank you for commenting.

  3. Ignacio H. Carrillo on March 10, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Hi Cheryl, thanks for the post. I would also recommend a potential client request a meeting and background/expertise of the folks who will actually be running the account- from senior leadership and down the chain. I’ve been surprised how often I’ve heard of agencies that don’t include the actual team bio’s in their pitch/presentation. At the end of the day, clients are investing in human capital and a relationship.