One of our more frustrating experiences occurs when we speak with potential clients and meet resistance because of their previous bad experiences with one of our competitors. It’s an open secret among professional marketers that PR agencies often engender feelings ranging from dislike to outright disdain. The criticisms are consistent and often legitimate. Recently, I met with a number of marketers in Washington DC, and heard the usual list of practices that make them wary of hiring a PR firm, most notably: bait-and-switches on accounts, junior account reps who don’t understand the law and gaps in communication between the agency and the client’s marketing team.
Not every agency is guilty of these sins; it goes without saying that we don’t condone these practices. In fact, we have a few suggestions for avoiding these traps when hiring a PR firm.
The most common gripe about PR firms is that they will introduce the agency’s top guns—a founder or CEO—to earn the business, and then the client never sees or hears from that person again until they tell the firm they are dissatisfied. Miraculously, at the point of unhappiness, the client will begin to see a lot of that person again, for a little while anyway.
Solution: Before your firm interviews PR agencies, think about the kind of relationship you want. Are you looking for a boutique PR firm that will very likely afford you access to the top people on an ongoing basis, or do you prefer a large agency where your day-to-day contact is probably at a lower level? Once you make that decision and identify a pool of candidates to interview, start by demanding clarity about who will be available to you, and how often. And then hold the PR agency to account.
Problem: Unsophisticated staff
The unhelpful cousin to the bait and-switch is the next biggest complaint: junior account representatives who don’t fully understand challenging legal issues. In many respects, this problem is worse because it’s so overt. PR firms have relatively few meaningful interactions with the attorneys themselves due to inherent time limitations, so all it takes is one ill-advised, uninformed question to cast doubt on the entire relationship. And that makes the in-house marketing team look very bad, which can be a death knell for an agency.
Solution: PR agencies, like all service businesses, contend with the tension between providing superior service and making a profit by leveraging their staff. At the same time, the client doesn’t, and shouldn’t, care about their agency’s profit; they simply want the work done the way they want. The key for a law firm is to convey expectations at the outset, and for the PR firm to make sure the budget reflects those expectations. Hiring a large, several-hundred-person PR firm often means paying for a different experience than hiring a boutique agency, and those expectations need to be laid out in the beginning of an engagement.
Problem: Poor reporting
Another criticism from clients is that they often don’t know what an agency is doing for them on a weekly or monthly basis. There’s no reason for this to ever happen, because there is a built-in incentive for PR firms to keep their clients not just apprised of their work, but overly apprised.
Solution: This one’s easy — reports should be created daily to accompany outreach on announcements (new partners, office openings); weekly for status on progress related to pitching an issue in the news; monthly for an overall assessment of activity on the firm’s behalf (pitches that worked, the stuff that didn’t pan out); and annually for a complete picture of how an agency spent its time and what constituted success.
Additionally, a PR firm should send a report pretty much whenever a client asks for one. Although time-consuming, reports are a PR firm’s best friend, and every marketing department should not only require them, but they should be specific about the information contained within them, and the frequency with which they are produced.