For many companies, Q4 means strategic planning and budgeting for the upcoming year. It's the perfect time to consider contracting with a public relations firm to develop and implement public relations and marketing programs for your organization. Whether big or small, for profit or not-for-profit, outside consulting services can be a valuable asset to your organization.
But not every public relations firm is a good fit for you, and you're not a good fit for every PR agency. In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre share some thoughts about how to approach the contracting process.
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: How to Hire a Public Relations Agency in Arizona.
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Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.
The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Arizona.
As we head into the final weeks of 2021, many companies are doing end-of-the-year planning, strategic planning, budgeting, thinking about the upcoming year. There's still quite a lot of action left in this year, of course, but if you're thinking ahead to what comes next, you may be thinking about the campaigns, the launches, the news that you'd like to make next year. And now is the time to consider hiring an outside PR marketing firm to support those efforts. But you're not a good fit for every PR agency, and not every firm is a good fit for you, so how do you think this through and make the best choice about what comes next and how to plan for making a big splash in 2022? Here to talk about it is Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Hi, Abbie.Abbie Fink:
That was quite the setup today. That was impressive.Adrian McIntyre:
Why, thank you. A lot of folks do this sort of thing as a matter of routine and then there are folks that maybe have never done it before and are considering for the first time. Both of those groups of executives or directors of marketing and communications would love to just get some of the insider scoop from the PR firm point of view about how to approach the hiring process. Obviously this is a conversation we could have in a very self-serving way, but that's not what we're here to do. We're here to pull back the curtain, so to speak, and give some straight talk about what you should be thinking about as a company, what the PR firms are thinking about on their side of the equation. What's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Hiring a PR agency or onboarding a new client is very much like dating, right? We have to get to know each other a little bit. We have to decide if we're compatible. Are we on the same path and same thought about certain elements of what we want to do? That doesn't happen overnight. Where we are right now, towards the end of the year, is a great time to be thinking about what the next year might be, what might be coming on board in your organization, any new products, any growth strategies, and really thinking about whether bringing on an external communications agency might be a good fit for what your plans are. It's really important to give it the due diligence in order to make that a successful match.Adrian McIntyre:
Let's start with some of the basics. What are the scenarios that a company and a nonprofit organization, a small business, might be considering that would make investigating bringing on a PR partner a very good choice? What are the specific types of things that are going on?Abbie Fink:
There's a lot of reasons that an organization might choose to bring on outside help. Probably amongst the top of that list is really internal resources, right? They've got an organization that is doing the work of the organization, but they may not have specifically an individual or a department that's dedicated to their marketing and public relations. They recognize the value of it, but they don't have an internal structure in order to have that person on their staff. Bringing in an outside firm in a lot of ways is an economical approach to it. You can take the amount of money that you're willing to spend on your marketing and you can allocate that to employees, which is certainly a smart decision for certain businesses. Along with that comes other things that you have to absorb as a business owner when you have staff. Or you can take that fee, that budget, and allocate it externally to an agency or other consultants that might be able to help you and you're getting the brain power then of a variety of individuals. Oftentimes when a client reaches out to us or reaches out to our colleagues in the industry, it's really about, "We recognize the importance of what it is that you can offer and we don't have an infrastructure to be able to do that in-house." That's one scenario. If they're a larger organization, oftentimes they may have a dedicated team, but there might be special projects, or they are looking for the outsider's perspective. A company like ours that comes to it with a more objective view and can look and analyze and create campaigns in a different way than what their internal team might be looking at. Then finally, they may be in a growth mode and just need the additional support. Either of those options is a really good reason to consider doing it, but there has to be a lot of forethought from both the organization itself, in terms of doing the research. What does it look like if you bring on an outside public relations agency? If you are the business owner and you do not have a staff, will you be available? Because that agency is going to need access to leadership in order to do what they need to do. There's a little bit of homework that needs to be done before you pick up the phone or start doing your Google search to find an agency. You really need to be sure that you're in the right place, both from a business perspective, that you're ready to take this on, that you've allocated financial resources to be able to do it, but also the time that it's going to take to be part of that process. We are very strategic in our thinking, and we plan ahead and we plan for your success, but we need you to be ready for that success and have a lot of structure already in place to be able to capitalize on what we hope and what we know will be successful outcomes.Adrian McIntyre:
Certainly there is a sense among some folks -- who might not understand how the sausage gets made, so to speak -- that hiring a PR agency is like hiring a genie who can grant infinite wishes. And that simply because you're paying them, they can make the magic happen, they can turn the tap on, and they can get the attention of your ideal customer through the media, through digital advertising campaigns, through content, through all the different mechanisms. That's just simply not true. There are things that you need to know beyond just, does the potential client have the budget and the time available, to help you make a decision whether this is magic you can make happen. Talk me through that side of the thinking.Abbie Fink:
Sure. That's a really good question. I think that's probably the most difficult part of our initial conversations when we get calls from prospective clients, is they are super excited about something that's happening. In their world, it is the absolute best and most amazing thing. There's no doubt, it's true. It really is, from within the context of their organization. But as an outside consultant and recognizing what else is out there, we have to think about that amazing project and how does that fit what else might be happening? If you call me on a Wednesday with a project on a Friday, I'm good at what I do, but I can't make things happen that fast, right? We need the benefit of the conversation and the strategy that goes behind it. We, as communications professionals, rely on others to do what we need to do. I need to have a reporter that is interested in that story. That reporter needs to do the interview. That interview needs to be turned into a story, which goes to an editor, which eventually makes its way to the newspaper. That doesn't happen, unless it's breaking news, that quickly. The business owner or the marketing director or the individual within an organization that's being tasked with this effort, really needs to step back in time and say, "If we want to launch on January one, we probably need to be thinking about this communications effort six months, eight months, maybe even a year before we're ready to go." Now, can we respond quickly? Absolutely. We do that when we have a crisis situation or something that's bigger than this. We can do that. But to get the most out of that relationship, the best scenario for both of us is that we agree to have the time to be able to, as you say, make that magic happen.Adrian McIntyre:
When we talked about this during our conversation a while back, about crisis management, crisis communications, the takeaway was, nobody wants to have a crisis. Even though you are capable of responding on short notice to urgent matters, that's not ideal. You would never want to be there. You certainly don't want a product launch or a new office opening or a new line of business that you're announcing, or ... You don't want those things to be rushed. You want to do it right.Abbie Fink:
And you have to think about all the other things that are going on in the marketplace that impact what it is that you're doing. We're coming up now on the holiday season, right? Businesses are going to be either closed because they're a business that doesn't need to operate on the holiday. There is a ton of businesses fighting for those very limited space in our television newscasts, or in our newspapers for those kinds of stories. So there's a lot of moving parts that go into creating the news that you are bringing us on and to do. Out of respect for the process we advise, no matter where the phone call comes in, or if it's coming in through an inquiry on our website or our social media channels, that we ask these important questions before we go down the path. Do we want to do the work? More than likely we do. Can we? Most definitely. Is it the right fit? Is it the right time? Have you, as the business, really given that thought, again, not only for how much it's going to cost ... Because there is a fee involved with the work that is done in this way. But do you have the time or someone on your team have the time to be able to dedicate to it? It may be that it's just not right now. It's not that it's wrong for us to work on it or that it's wrong that you're even planning to do these things. It just might need a little bit more massaging before we're ready for it to come out. Usually, when we can have these conversations, the ability to take one step back from the client side and listen to that reasoning and think about it ... And sure it, the outcome still might be, well, we're launching on Friday, whether you're helping us or not. Great. Good luck. Congratulations. I'll be happy to see that in the newspaper and wish you well, we just might not be the right fit for that to happen. More often than not, when they're coming to us for counsel, and that's one of the first things we can counsel them on, is really the strategic approach, it does allow them to pause a minute and think about maybe another week or another 10 days, or maybe if we ... Is it necessary this month or would another six weeks from now really change anything internally that it might be more beneficial to wait and do that? It's a give and take. It's a conversation that has to happen. They're not always easy to have. Again, the owner of that business or the executive director of the nonprofit has a very clear vision of what they want. Sometimes that doesn't align with what advice they might be getting. No harm, no foul. You go off and you do what you need to do and we wish you well. It just might not be the right fit. I think what's important for all of us in the counseling environment, those my colleagues in the agency world, one of the things that we talk about quite regularly is not every client is a good fit for us, but conversely not every agency is going to be a good fit for the client either. There's nothing wrong with having those kind conversations. I think my goal is always, if our agency isn't the right firm for you, I want to make sure you get to the right agency and that you have a good understanding of the role that a PR professional can do for your business. If it's not me, then I want you to be in the hands of someone that can do a really good job. If we all think this way and we all make those kind of recommendations, then the right fits happen and the right structure of the agency fits with that particular client structure. Look, there's plenty of work to be done. There are lots and lots of great agencies, and there are lots and lots of great clients, and they will find each other when we all agree that this onboarding discussions, these early conversations happen to put the right people together to see success, because we want to be successful. We want to be right for you, and so it requires a lot of that conversation.Adrian McIntyre:
I have some specific questions to ask you about how potential clients should shop around and what they should look for, but before we get there, something crossed my mind. I want to bring it up before I forget. Let's say that I'm not the owner or the executive of a business, but I am the staff member tasked with marketing and communications. That's my job, whether I'm the director of marketing, whether that's just the assignment I have, maybe I'm part-time receptionist, part-time social media person and I've been told, "Hey, figure out how to help us get the word out about X, Y, or Z." Let's take the case, I'm in an internal comms role. I now want to make the case to my leaders that I think we should bring in outside support for something. It occurs to me that that might be a somewhat difficult case to make because the response might be, "Well, wait a minute, aren't you the one who should do this? I mean, isn't that your job title?" Let's talk for just a minute about those folks in internal communications and marketing functions, how they can best think about partnering with outside firms and collaborating together to really bring in a win for the company.Abbie Fink:
That's exactly the approach. It's a partnership, right? An internal communications professional is 100% dedicated and focused on their business. They're in the business on a daily basis, and that is their responsibility with specific tasks in mind that they are supposed to accomplish. But there are often times where new products, new business offerings might come along that are going to really spread their talents even more across the organization. An approach that an internal communications professional takes when they go into their boss or in the budget meeting when they're talking about this is really focusing on the benefits of the outside objective viewpoint on the projects that we're talking about. That the expense involved in bringing them on will net out these return on that investment, right? Ideally that would be something that we would be able to talk about if they were doing their research in advance, is what would we bring to the table that was different than what they had in-house? How that relationship can blossom and evolve and bring to the table a new view, a new way of looking at things, again, that objective approach. We've talked before about how public relations needs to be considered an investment in your business. Yes, there is ... And it's an expense and it falls on the line item and you have to account for it, but it is an investment in your success. Bringing in others to help you be successful seems to be ... should be, a logical way to make that argument, right? That we are there to support. We are there to enhance. We are there to provide a different approach and really be part of your team, work alongside with your team for the betterment of that organization. We do it in such a way that we're coming from the outside in so we can look at it just a little bit differently than maybe what your internal team might look like. Pushback could be, "Well, we can't. We hire somebody for that." Well, certainly, of course you can. Yes, you could take that and you could bring in another staff person, but are you bringing in then enough of a resource or would it make more sense to have this outside consultant that brings, in our case, five or six other individuals to the table, that can look at it and work with you and enhance your team, grow your team with an investment this way, versus bringing in an internal person? I would say it's probably an even 50/50 between clients that we have, where there is someone in-house that we are working with and supporting as part of their team and there's other places where we are it for that organization. We report directly into a CEO or an executive director and we are the marketing and communications department. Both scenarios work for us and both scenarios are successful for those particular clients.Adrian McIntyre:
Fabulous. Now, I'm the internal comms director, marketing director, and I've gotten the alignment and the approval to shop around and to look at who might be available, might be the best fit. How do you recommend people approach this? Because simply going to Google, doesn't tell you the whole story, although there's a lot that should be done in terms of basic research. But every single day people are typing top PR firms Phoenix, or whatever, into the search bar, and then just beginning from the websites or the reviews or whatever, and trying to work their way in. Ultimately there are some critical questions that the person tasked with finding the right agency needs to be asking that may not be addressed in the copy on their PR firm's website or in the reviews. I mean, it might be, but they might not be. What should they be thinking? What should they be looking for? It's going to differ from person to person, but what are the categories of things that they should have on their checklist to be looking for?Abbie Fink:
First and foremost, if you have the ability to get some referrals, that might be your best form of research, right? Is reach out to others in your community that you know are potentially working with a public relations agency, or if you've seen a campaign or a project and find out who did that work. I would say probably close to 90% of our new business comes through a referral of some kind. Either by relationships that we've developed or a client that knows somebody that's looking and such. If you can get referrals, that's going to be probably your best opportunity. There's a few ways that we learn about new business. It comes through a referral or it comes from a request for proposal. We might get document from an organization that's looking for these following services. Where did they get that list in the first place? Well, they probably did do a Google search for top five PR firms in Phoenix and found the person to call and do that. But really what they should be ... Once they get those names, and that's obviously a place to start, definitely check the website, see what the service offerings are. Is what they offer what you're looking for? Be clear about what you're looking for. No one's expecting a client to have the textbook knowledge of, what is public relations and what is digital communications or what is advertising? But know a little bit about what you are looking for.Adrian McIntyre:
And if they've been listening to this podcast, they're going to be very well-educated.Abbie Fink:
Correct. They would know for sure. Think about what you want, what you're looking for. Does agency offer that? What is the makeup of the firm? Is it a big firm? Is it a small firm? Do they have multiple offices? Do they have an involvement in their community, involvement in their professional associations? What can you glean from what you see on their website? Take a look at their social media pages, right? You can learn a lot about the culture of an organization by what they're sharing on social. Does it look like those individuals that work for that firm would be a good fit with your company? Do you see things in the way that they are in the community and that they interact with their employees and with their colleagues? Is this something that you want to do? Then pick up the phone and make a phone call. Now, when I get the phone call that says, "We're interested in hiring a PR firm, how much does it cost?" Well, I can't answer that question for you. There's too many things I need to know before I can tell you how much it's going to cost. Your better question is to talk about scope of work, "I am looking for a PR agency that can help us do X. We're launching in May. We have this goal in mind." Now, I'm still not going to be able to tell you a specific cost, but I can feel a little bit more confident in the information I'm sharing that it makes sense to what you're looking for. The better question, and we always ask it back, is, well, what is your budget? What have you allocated? I'm not going to hold you hard and fast to what you tell me, but if you have a thousand dollar budget and a $50,000 plan, it's never going to align. It's not that I can't do the work for what you are telling me your budget is, but I want to make sure that we're realistic as we go into it. Know what your scope of work is, know what your expectations are, do what you can to share what the budget might be, or at least a budget range. Give us an idea of what it is that you're willing to invest and ask me some culture questions about my organization and my involvement and those things that are important to you as a company. If all of those things make some sense, then we can continue to have those kinds of conversations. Normally that might be a meet and greet. Meet up for coffee, do an online Zoom conversation. Let's see if we're a good fit just in conversation, then we can start getting into the specifics of what we're doing. One of the things that we ... What we have to offer, anyone in the communications industry has to offer, is our creativity and our brain power and that intellectual property, that stuff that you can't hold onto. I can't hand you my PR, right? It's my brain that you're tapping into. When we reply and give you a proposal, to use those words, it's more about capabilities than specifics. It is almost impossible in those first couple of phone calls to be able to tell you exactly what you need based on one phone call. We need a little bit more time, right? To get to know you and to really understand your goals and what you're anticipating the return on this investment to be, and then we can develop a strategy for you. Bring us on board, let us take the time that we need to get to know you, understand you, do the onboarding process. Then you will get a strategy and an implementation plan that makes sense and delivers on the goals that you're asking for.Adrian McIntyre:
One of the things I think folks outside of the industry ... and I'm outside the industry, but I'm exposed to a lot of PR professionals through my work and throughout the years. One of the things I think folks don't realize is PR pros love to get results and they want to win. The way they're going to win is by having you, the client, win. Your stories are what they're going to pitch. They inherently love to pitch. They love the successful pitch. They love the yes feeling of getting a client the right kind of exposure at the right time. When they're asking you these questions, and to a certain extent, you might think of it as a sales conversation. These are pre-qualifying questions, but that's not ultimately what's going on. Yes, they want to find out if you can afford their minimums and so on, but that's table stakes. As Abbie said, you'll guide them to the right fit for them if it's not you. I mean, you could take the top 20 firms listed in the book of lists for your city and just call every single one of them. Every one of them is going to be asking you these questions and not every one of them is going to be the right fit. We'll talk a little bit more about that in just a second. What you got to understand is that they actually are hungry to do this work and they want to get results, so they want to know, are you bringing to the party the right kind of problems for them to solve? Because they love solving problems. Are you bringing the right kind of stories for them to pitch? Because they love pitching stories. Are you bringing the right kind of causes that they care about? Because they care about causes and things of that nature. Understanding that this really is a human-to-human conversation and that when your interests align, you'll both win, is the right approach I think to engaging with these conversations. Don't worry about getting sold to. Nobody can reach into your pocket and take your money. Have the conversation and find out if they're a good fit and they'll be just as happy to tell you if they're not.Abbie Fink:
When it is a good fit, going back to what you said at the very beginning, the magic does happen, right? When your agency and your organization are aligned, it is a perfect dance. You are absolutely right. We love when we can be successful on your behalf. That is our sole purpose, is to help other organizations do what they need to do and be successful. When it works, it is exactly what you needed to have happen, and we get that same excitement about what we are supposed to be doing on your behalf. The win-win for all of us is really when both sides of that equation understand where the stories are, the responsibilities that both of us have to each other to make sure that they're successful, and that both sides have the right access and the right information to do what we need to do. Those again are some of those things that have to come out in that conversation. I want to know that your CEO is going to be available, but you also want to know if you're talking to Abbie in the new business process, is Abbie going to be around after you've signed the contract? Because part of what you've bought into is me and my approach or anyone else on my team that's been part of that conversation. What happens once you're here? Will you still have this team that you've now decided to invest in? Will we still have the right people on your end to talk to? Now, sure, things change and people move, and there's all sorts of reasons why that might evolve. But really starting off that relationship with this open and honest dialogue and that you share with us and we're going to ask to difficult questions. We want to really know where and what you're up to. You need to ask those questions of us as well, and understand our approach and understand how we're going to go about doing what we're going to be doing and why we need the time to do what we're saying that we need to do. Again, when all of that works, it really truly is a successful relationship, and one that can last a long time. Coming to this idea, and as you're thinking about it from, is it the right time? Should I be thinking about bringing on a firm? How are we going to manage this? What kind of allocations, both financially as well as time? All of those are great questions and should be asked of the agency that you're talking about as well. Find out how much time they're going to expect you to give to the process. Can you do it? Can you be a good client? If you're not, or you're not ready, that's an important distinction to make, and both parties walk away and say, "Maybe we'll get back together and discuss this again in the future." Or, we'll refer if it's not a good fit. But the time invested before you make the decision to bring on a firm and do your own internal analysis, and then as you ask, what do we look for? What kinds of questions should we be doing? Where should we be seeking out firms to talk to, ask the right questions? Most agencies will have questions they want you to answer. You should have similar questions about, how do we approach similar projects? Do we have experience in the industry? Sometimes that's important. Other times it may not be. If you're bringing us on to do digital communications, what's our expertise? What tools do we use? If you're bringing us on to do media relations, what is some of your best successes? We're always happy to talk about those things. Learn about us in the same way that we're going to learn about you, and again, approach it like you would any relationship and ask some of those probing questions. We're going to do the same. When we get to that point of next steps, which is, should we consider putting together a capabilities presentation? Can we make a formal presentation to your board of directors? Then we're all ready to move it forward and hit the ground running with a strong strategic plan.Adrian McIntyre:
It seems to me, as we conclude here, that on the one hand, it could be helpful for potential clients to understand some of the basics, like what gets accomplished with a media relations campaign versus a contributed content campaign, versus any of these other things. It's less important that the potential client understand the tools, and more important that they understand their own goals. The top two questions I would suggest everybody have a really good answer to is specifically, what is it that we want to have happen? What's our business goals? And how will we know if those goals have been achieved? In other words, how will we measure success? If you come into this conversation clear ... at least a little clear on what it is you want to make happen and how you'll know if you've achieved it, you'll be able to work together with your outside consulting partners to help you get there.Abbie Fink:
Exactly. We're going to ask you those questions as well, right? We're going to ask you, "What is your measure of success? How will you know that what we've done for you has accomplished what you set out to do?" Because that's ultimately where we want to be, is putting you where you need to be, in front of the people you need to be in front of so that your business goals can be achieved as a result of the work that we're doing on your behalf. We welcome those kinds of conversations and would much rather spend the time upfront and have those kind of dialogues with potential clients, and would welcome them to have those with others so that they're getting a good feel for what's available. So that when we do come together at that point where we're ready to, again, move to a proposal stage or move on to an actual contract, all of that has been discussed. We all go into it with our eyes wide open. We understand what we've got in front of us. They know how we're going to approach it, the way that we're going to do it. We've come together and said, "Yes. We are in agreement. This is a good working relationship. We approve of your approach and we want to move that forward." We then take it and run with it because everybody then is on the same page and is going after the same goals. Ours, to enhance your business reputation, and you, internally, to continue to do the good work that we get the opportunity to talk about. When all that works, it's a perfect marriage.