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Since there are PR degree programs at many educational institutions, and few barriers to entering the business, anyone can throw up a shingle and claim to be in PR. When it comes to choosing the right PR fit, you must know the landscape. Here are the types of firms you will encounter.
The Lone Wolf
The lone wolf PR professional is a senior PR professional who has extensive experience at firms and decides to break out on their own. Lone wolves sell their services and execute the work themselves.
Having a senior PR professional on your account can be very powerful. The drawback with larger PR firms is that junior people are often executing the work. The senior people sell the relationship and oversee the juniors. Sometimes this works great and sometimes it doesn’t. With a lone wolf, you don’t have that problem. The only person doing the work is the senior person.
You should be on the lookout for two problems with the lone wolf (which also apply to all PR firms):
- Over-commitment. Sometimes a lone wolf needs to say yes to lots of clients and then gets overwhelmed by the workload. The lone wolf can either bring on junior people, or their senior peers to help. The good news is that lone wolves are usually better at managing these people than larger firms.
- Fit. One thing you are paying for with any PR firm is the value of their established relationships. Anyone who has tried to get attention from the press knows it is an uphill slog. Reporters and editors at major publications are flooded with messages from PR firms . Relationships with the press are built over time, usually by always providing something of value that helps the reporter do their job. You need to assess is how well the lone wolf’s relationships fit with the types of publications you want to target.
The Boutique PR Firm
Typically boutique firm’s have a small handful of experienced, senior partners who are operating as a small agency. This means you will have senior people paying attention, but will likely have day-to-day contact with people who are more junior. Sometimes a boutique can be run as a collection of lone wolves, in which case you will have more senior access.
Boutique firms hold two main advantages over the lone wolf:
- The boutique model can scale better than the lone wolf model. If you have a growing amount of PR work or want to do a lot of outreach in a short time, a boutique can usually focus resources and get more done.
- Boutiques also usually employ individual specialists, depending on their engagement model. It is common for a boutique to have some sort of content creation capability, to support events, and to have ways to monitor and promote on social media. Lone wolves do this stuff as well, but usually aren’t employing specialists.
The Full Service PR Firm
A full service PR firm extends your organizational capabilities in a scalable way, using a defined process, and staffed by people specifically trained to execute that process.
A full service PR firm has a core of partners, directors, and disciplines as well as a process for serving your needs. Client relationships may be managed by mid or senior-level people who may be assisted by juniors. The senior people manage the process and contribute as needed to add special skills.
A full service PR firm usually has service offerings that go beyond smaller firms’ capabilities:
- Investor relations
- Corporate communications
- Content marketing
- Integrated marketing campaigns
- International support and activities
Initiating the Relationship
Most companies start out with a lone wolf or boutique and move up to a full-service firm as they grow, a process that may take many years. It is not uncommon for a company to cycle through several firms of each type.
The key trigger for hiring a PR firm is usually a positioning exercise, product or company launch. About six months or so before the launch, the head of marketing starts to look for a firm to support the launch.
The first question to ask is why you want to work with a firm. If you have the money, it is entirely possible to hire someone in house to do the same things that a lone wolf or PR firms will do for you.
But at some point, the head of marketing looks for an outside firm because they want a higher level of skill and access to the PR firm’s relationships.
The challenge then is to find a firm with the right fit. Here are some ways to help figure out the fit:
- Ask for recent placements of articles in publications you want to get in.
- Ask for the approach the lone wolf will take to introducing your company to their network.
- Ask for client references, or do back door reference checks in your shared networks!
- Assign an exercise or assignment to get a better sense of their thinking and approach
- Spend time together. Chemistry is key. Do you trust the people you would be working with?
- Meet the team who will be working on your business. Understand team roles.
- PR firms are also looking at you for a fit – does your CEO value PR ?
- Share your business goals, so that PR can help fuel that goal.
Setting Reasonable Expectations
An important part of vetting a PR firm is to create a mutual understanding with reasonable expectations. Remember that the marketing foundation is a crucial part of measuring the success of PR. If you have a website that directs visitors to the right story, engages them, and creates a relationship by offering content, you can measure PR success via increased attention and traffic.
It is best to have specific goals for your PR efforts. Everyone wants to get coverage in leading publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. There is really not a sure-fire way to get such coverage. Anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth.
In general, the goal should match your company’s assets. If your company has a famous founder, investor, or client, you can expect coverage in the top publications right away. Few companies have such assets. That’s why you need a firm who can distill your product offering, and marketing content to create resonant, business stories that will get picked up by the press.
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