Six Considerations When Evaluating A PR Agency

Aug 18, 2021

So, you want to engage a PR agency to help get the word out about your solutions or services.

Sounds like a plan. Sounds easy.

But the process can be daunting, time-consuming, and expensive. And, most importantly, it may not help you achieve your goals.

If this sounds oddly pessimistic coming from someone in an agency, bear with me. I’m here to share some considerations, observations, and best practices gleaned from over three decades split between agency and corporate marketing gigs. Avoiding the mistakes of others can save you time and money, and result in a productive, positive working relationship with your agency.

Know what you want to accomplish.

Do you need straight-up media relations? Industry analyst engagement? Help with messaging and positioning? Social media strategy and support? Editorial and content development? Speaking opportunities? Is there the potential for crisis management? Will your executives require media training?

Having a grasp of your near- and longer-term objectives can help you narrow the field. Most agencies will claim to provide a full menu of such services, but the quality and scope of the offerings can vary wildly. Be skeptical and do your due diligence.

PR Agency? Full-Time Employee? Freelancer?

There are pros and cons to each of these approaches, and your organization’s budget, timeline, and internal processes will dictate the best approach.

Agencies can be expensive, depending on the retainer structure or the billable rates of your account team, but can actually be more cost-effective than the alternatives. They also bring a wealth of expansive and deep marketing expertise, along with a solid bench. They are often very good at helping determine what you need (see above), are responsive and reliable, and 100% dedicated to your agenda. Agencies also provide access to a host of services––from art/creative direction and design, to web development, digital marketing, and social media strategy and support.

Full-time employees are great because they are invested in your success and are in it for the long haul. But they often require substantial budget outlays, and can take months to identify, recruit, sign, and onboard. Once they are thoroughly steeped in your offerings, they can be outstanding brand ambassadors and stewards, and can also work on other marketing initiatives as needed. But once they leave, you’re back to square one.

Freelancers can be nimble hires––they often have excellent credentials, can start right away, and hit the ground running. But they typically operate with minimal resources, have no back-up, and must dedicate hours to other clients. They also can be brutally hard to integrate into existing systems (HR/accounting, project management, content management). They also are prone to terminating their arrangements abruptly (which can also work in your favor if you only need a limited engagement).

One size does not fit all.

Yes, big agencies have big resources, but don’t let claims of a national footprint, local presence, global reach, or head count sell you on an ill-matched relationship. Think expertise, applied experience in your market, and skillsets that dovetail with your agenda. Access to creative resources is a plus. Know how many hours are available to your account each week or month.

Who’s on the team? 

This consideration also hinges on knowing what you want to accomplish. If you’re looking for a clip shop to get you mentioned in every low-value round-up article, then seniority matters little. But if you’ll need responsive counsel with expertise in and contacts spanning your market, look for senior-level account team members. Ask the tough questions: What’s the average tenure of your account team? Where have they worked? What companies have they represented? What results have they generated? How many former journalists are on staff? How many accounts do they manage at once?

Mind the old switch-a-roo.  

Let’s assume you’re down to a few final candidates and are evaluating pitches. For these meetings, most agencies will send out the big guns––often including the person with his/her name on the door. But will you ever see or hear from these folks again? Many times, agencies get a bad rap by orchestrating a senior executive dog-and-pony show, only to later hand the account over to junior staffers (or even interns) who, while eager, often require more direction and a longer ramp-up period. Get firm commitments on your team’s composition, and don’t hesitate to challenge if you aren’t sold on the match. You want them to operate as an extension of your team.

Beware of scope creep.

Will the agencies you are considering be able to accommodate your needs as your marketing strategy evolves? If your program may eventually require social media support, make sure the agency of record has the capabilities––and not just an intern with a huge stable of Instagram followers, but applied expertise in cultivating an online presence with a custom mix of organic and paid content. Ditto for the media training and crisis communications mentioned earlier. Otherwise, you’ll be saddled with the chore of evaluating and enlisting additional vendors.

In the end, it’s entirely up to you, and highly dependent on your organization’s budget, processes, and requirements. And remember, the old adage, “Fast, cheap, or good? You can only pick two” applies here as well. If you want something fast and good, it won’t be cheap; if you want it cheap and good, it won’t be fast; and if you want cheap and fast, it won’t be good. Choose wisely.

Grant Evans

Grant Evans brings more than 30 years of diversified technology content marketing, public relations, and editorial management to his role at Amendola Communications. He is a results-focused brand journalist and content marketing professional with broad experience developing, executing, and measuring strategic marketing and corporate communications programs for companies in the healthcare IT, enterprise software/services, life sciences, and venture capital/private equity markets. Most recently, he served as senior editor of content operations and marketing communications with Change Healthcare (formerly McKesson Health Solutions), where he developed news releases, paid and organic social media, advertising copy, white papers, case studies, static and interactive web content, bylined articles, podcasts, video scripts, enterprise-wide research programs, and the corporate blog in support of the company’s solutions for providers and payers. Before joining McKesson, he served for more than a decade as vice president of Garfield Group Public Relations, a technology-focused communications agency where he led editorial/content development services, serving as chief strategist and copywriter of contributed articles, white papers, newsletters, news releases, media pitches, corporate blogs, web copy, awards submissions, and annual reports. He has held senior marketing and media/analyst relations roles with Unisys Corp. and AT&T Network Systems. He began his career as a trade journalist, first as a news editor covering the IBM S/3X and RS6000 markets for MIDRANGE Systems, and then as managing editor for HP Professional, the leading monthly serving the Hewlett Packard commercial computing market. Grant earned his bachelor’s degree in English, with a minor in Journalism, from Hartwick College. In his spare time, he is an avid SCUBA diver and wreck explorer.