8 ways to select the perfect PR agency
This article originally ran on PR Daily in June of 2017.
Your business is changing.
You might be on the verge of a brand launch or introducing a product line,
or perhaps you’ve received major funding and it’s time to hit the
accelerator. The time has come to hire a new PR agency; with so much at
stake, you’ve got to get this right.
Hiring a new agency is both exciting and daunting: It’s a big opportunity
with lots at stake, yet you have to squeeze it in while doing your
You want to hire an agency that will grow with you into the future, but
that’s becoming increasingly difficult. According to the
Bedford Group, the average client-agency relationship tenure in 1984 was 7.2 years. That
number declined by 25 percent in 1997 to 5.3 years, and today the average
tenure is 3.0 years or less. What’s going on?
Clients often hire agencies that can’t meet their ongoing needs. Here are
the top criteria you should consider (some seemingly counterintuitive) to
help you find the best long-term PR agency partner:
1. Do the agency staffers get you?
This is an important factor, but it doesn’t mean they must have specific
experience in your industry. Your best PR partners will give you “signs”
that they understand your business problems and have creative, effective
solutions. Often, experience from other categories can generate media
coverage and sales.
Are your potential collaborators inventive or even provocative? Can they
show their effectiveness in implementation and results? If they inspire
you, that’s a harbinger of success.
2. Agency size
Don’t fall into the “big budget, big agency; small budget, small agency”
trap. Some big agencies bait and switch during the pitch process. Senior
people pitch and sell, and then junior people are left to implement (to
optimize revenue margins), with lots of turnover.
Of course, if you have a large, global network of offices with important PR
needs in many countries—and if you have a large global budget to support
them—it makes sense to hire a large, global PR agency with offices in all
your countries. If not, by working with a smaller agency you can have
senior leaders involved with you and your own senior team every week. Even
if the smaller agency has to hire people to support your program, a growing
agency has a vibe that can best a larger agency with its priority on cost
3. Capability alignment
You need PR, but you also need content, social media management and, in
some cases, digital marketing to support your program. Some agencies have
the PR experience but fake the social media or digital marketing
Make sure the other capabilities needed for your program are supported by
experienced (even inspiring) people with specific skillsets aligned with
your needs. Every agency says it does everything, but a check of the entire
team’s qualifications will reveal how strong the agency is in areas other
than traditional PR.
4. Budget alignment
The size of your budget is less important than your objectives and the
different capabilities you need to meet and exceed your goals.
Still, exercise discipline when developing your budget, especially when it
comes to the array of capabilities needed for an outstading PR program in
today’s digital age. To help, here’s a blog written by my colleague Mike
Monahan about “How Much Should You Spend on PR.”
[RELATED: Distracted audiences? Mind-numbing topics? Cut through the clutter with creative corporate writing.]
5. Candor about the point people
Most agencies have a “closer” who leads their business development. It
could be the head of the agency or the leader of the top accounts. If one
or two senior people are fronting the agency during the pitch, look behind
the curtain. Your ideal partner will bring the people who will be leading
the campaign and working on your business. They’re the people you need to
That’s not to say the head of the agency won’t be involved, but the
qualifications and personalities of the people you’ll work with day to day
If the agency will be developing content, make sure you the people who will
write it are there participating in the pitch. If you need social media and
digital advertising, make sure those people participate in the pitch. This
closer is not why you should buy; the team is everything.
6. Digital capabilities
The walls that used to separate PR, social media, digital marketing and
content creation have come crashing down. The best partner for you, or for
any company, is one with the digital chops to amplify the impact of your
earned media coverage with social media and other online expertise. This
includes knowing the technologies and techniques to accelerate visibility
to highly targeted audiences beyond earned media coverage.
Most PR agencies are capable at traditional PR, and they pretend to be
experts at the digital stuff. Advertising agencies with an embedded PR
capability might have the creative chops, but there’s a firewall between
their PR people and the hidden digital people. True integration can come
only from people with different skillsets working side by side on every
Make sure the agency you hire commits to a specific number of interview
opportunities or media placements each month. Make the reps guarantee a
number in their contract. If they’re not willing to commit because “PR is
an awareness tool and not a sales tool,” maybe you’re talking to the wrong
In this age of accountability, metrics are essential. Can the agency
promote earned media coverage through ads that link to landing pages that
link to your sales pipeline? All marketing tools, including PR, can
influence sales, and you should hire an agency that aligns with your
objectives. Wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what you’d be getting for
your investment? This is a top selling point for your senior leaders, and
your next agency partner should deliver it.
This is the soft side of the selection process, but it shouldn’t be
ignored. I’ve heard clients say they chose an agency because of its name or
its size, even though they didn’t really connect with the principals.
I’ve learned that work is hard and that if I’m going to be in the trenches
with people, I’d better like and admire them. I admire the team I work
with, as well as the clients who partner with us, because of their
tenacity, intelligence, creativity and commitment to results. These
attributes contribute mightily to long-term, successful relationships.
If you use these criteria, tailored to your situation, you’ll probably find
the best agency partner.
Dan O’Brien is the president of
A version of this article originally appeared on
the agency’s blog.