Working with a great PR agency can boost your brand, impact your bottom line and broaden the capability of your marketing function. Choosing the wrong agency can result in wasted time, money and overall frustration.

Given the investment you make in getting to know your agency, educating them on your products and services, not to mention the time it takes to change agencies, it’s easier to choose the right one from the start.

What can a PR agency deliver in 2018? Media relations and tailored communication programs remain at the core of what most PR agencies provide. Increasingly, content development, social media management, and influencer engagement have extended the service offering to make your messages more visible in the digital world. All of these communication arms need to work seamlessly together within the overall PR strategy, so you need to have confidence that the chosen agency is experienced in this progressive and integrated landscape.

Remember, the agency that looks amazing during the pitch process may not be the one that generates strong results year after year.

Here are a few things to think about when selecting an agency.

Articulate your needs

Eight simple questions can help you to determine what you need in an agency:

1. What do we want to achieve through PR?
2. How will PR integrate with our other marketing activities?
3. What does PR success look like and how will we measure it?
4. What kind of budget do we have available for PR?
5. Who will be in charge of managing the PR agency from within our company? How much time will they have to manage and work with the agency?
6. Who will be our spokesperson/spokespeople?
7. What stories do we have to tell and who is our target audience?
8. What are our competitors doing?

Outline your requirements and short list agencies

Ask around for agencies that are recommended by others in your industry. Check with the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) to find agencies that are part of the Registered Consultancy Group (RCG) that specialise in your industry or particular communication needs.

Use the answers to the questions above to put together a comprehensive Request for Proposal (RFP). Then send it to your shortlisted agencies.

Be prepared to take the time to speak with agency representatives in the lead-up to the pitch process. Ask to meet the proposed account team, rather than the agency’s ‘pitch’ team. This helps you get to know the team and results in a more informed decision. Look for a highly-engaged and proactive team; the more engaged the agency seems during this process, the more likely they will be to remain engaged throughout the working relationship.

Look for real results

There are a number of obvious clues that an agency is likely to be right for you. These include basic rapport, whether they demonstrate an understanding of the media and your industry, and how much experience the team has.

The difference between a mediocre agency and a high-performing one can be difficult to spot in the first few interactions. Look out for:

  • Proven idea generation methodology. It’s easy to come up with one or two good ideas for a proposal. How does the agency continue to come up with useful ideas year after year? What ideas have they executed for clients and what results have clients seen from those ideas? Ask the agency how it comes up with ideas on an ongoing basis, rather than just giving you one or two examples.
  • A pragmatic approach. PR can be exciting with lots of opportunities to do clever stunts or work with celebrities. That can work in the consumer space but may be beyond your budget or unlikely to resonate with your target audience if you operate in the B2B space. Look for an agency that can build genuine momentum with your prospective customers, since this is the only way to affect your bottom line.
  • A proactive approach. An agency that sits back and waits to be briefed is unlikely to be able to generate strong results and will simply add to your workload. Look for an agency with a track record of coming to clients with ideas and suggestions based on their intimate knowledge of the media and hot topics.
  • Transparent reporting and billing. Some PR agencies insist on a monthly retainer, which can mean they get paid regardless of how much work they do. Look for an agency that works on a time-and-materials basis to fully utilise your budget and make it accountable. The agency should provide regular reports that clearly show how your budget was spent and what results were achieved, to demonstrate ROI.
  • Proven results. A good agency should be able to point to any number of examples of strong results they’ve generated for their clients. Measuring share of voice or other metrics is a useful way to see how well the PR campaign is working. However, beware of agencies that attach a specific dollar figure to the value of each piece of media coverage. These are called Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs) and the PRIA Code of Ethics recommends against using them since they paint a misleading picture and can be easily exaggerated.
  • Smart systems. A well-established agency should have systems in place that help automate processes, which frees up the consultants’ time, letting them concentrate on building media relationships and idea generation to feed social and content campaigns.
  • A great reputation. Ask around. Find out what your industry colleagues think of the prospective agency. Ask the agency to provide client (and former client) references. Great reputations are hard to develop because it takes time and an ongoing commitment to excellence. If your prospective agency has a great reputation, you should engage them before your competitors do.
    If you make sure you know exactly what you need before you look for an agency, and demand proof that the prospective agency can deliver, then you are more likely to end up with the right agency. Don’t be dazzled by fancy proposals or a few shiny new ideas. Talk to the agency team to get a real sense of whether you can trust them to deliver. A successful agency relationship will serve you well for many years.