I have been the founder and CEO of a PR agency for over 15 years.
For what it’s worth, I came from the brand side — most recently as the CMO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. And I’ve managed many PR agencies among other agency partners for years. Truthfully, I never thought I’d be running a PR agency of my own. As a result of my experiences both on the (advertising) agency side and on the client side, I bring my own unique perspective to all of this.
One of the questions I get asked most often is, “How can I get the most out of my PR agency?” Whether it’s a prospective client asking how we can best work together, or it’s a friend or acquaintance asking how they can ensure they’re getting what they pay for from their PR team, the same handful of answers are true.
So, I thought it would be helpful to put together an “insider’s guide” for getting the most out of your PR agency.
1. Communicate clearly what your objectives are for PR.
The biggest mistake entrepreneurs, executives, and companies make when hiring a PR firm is not clearly defining a strategy.
Sometimes, people hire a PR agency just because they feel like they need to, or they think, “I need to have a quick push for PR because we’re raising money and want to have some mainstream media coverage to leverage in our investor deck.”
There are many good reasons to hire an agency, and the key is for the client and agency to have a clear understanding of objectives, strategies, and tactics, so there’s alignment from the very beginning around these key pieces.
I’ve heard many horror stories about unsuccessful client/agency relationships, often because the agency is “throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks and there’s no clear plan” — guess what, that piece can be avoided with a clear conversation and a written roadmap, outlining the key details of the campaign so anytime there’s a question, one document can serve as a guide and help clarify what’s happening, when, and why. And of course, this is a living, breathing document that can evolve as the strategy needs to.
Just make sure you, and your agency, are both on the same page about what your objectives are so they can best help you achieve them.
2. Is your business ready to be pitched?
Another common mistake is companies getting ahead of themselves, wanting to promote something that might not be fully baked.
It’s one of the big questions I get asked regularly: when is the right time to start PR?
One of our sweet spots at the agency is the health and wellness space, and often, we’re approached by young start-ups as they’re thinking through their launch strategies. In many cases, this is the best possible time to talk, because we love having something new to launch!
That said, if we’re going to talk about PR, it’s important that the company, the product, and the messaging are far enough along that it’s ready to be unleashed to the world. That doesn’t mean things can’t shift and evolve. It just means that we can jump in and do our work because the key product and brand thinking has been resolved and that the product is actually manufactured and ready to ship.
We certainly help with messaging development and often the work we’re doing influences the brand language and brand work. That said, a founder or head of marketing should have a clear vision before enlisting us in order to get the strongest and tightest strategy and campaign approach.
3. Is the business prepared to take advantage of press coverage?
If we’re going to promote a product, it’s super important that it’s ready to go (and I mean really ready) before we go out to the media.
A lot of times, people get ahead of themselves and prioritize getting PR ahead of actually making sure product and supply chain are sorted. Trust me, there’s no worse feeling than getting a featured article only for customers to go to your website and see, “Sold out.” Suddenly the PR agency needs to pivot or halt or slow things down, and many of the warm leads will fizzle out. (The press — and consumers for that matter don’t take a company seriously when things like this happen moments after they’ve learned about it for the first time.)
In addition to having product to sell when a PR campaign is working successfully (seems obvious, I know!), it’s always great when a client understands how they’re going to leverage coverage. For example, will there be a press section on the website? Will it be cross-promoted through social? Can you leverage it in the investor deck or for quarterly updates to the board? It’s great if a client thinks about this ahead of time and gets proactive about it.
Leaders, employees of the company, and consumers that follow the brand enjoy the hype and everyone appreciates PR in a different way, which is good for the internal team and for the agency as well.
Success breeds success.
4. Remember that PR takes time and adjust your expectations accordingly.
The time to start investing in PR is 3–6 months before a new product launches. Not 30 days before, and not 12 months in advance (i.e., when key pieces haven’t been sorted out yet).
It takes time to build a plan. It takes time to land an exclusive. Long-lead media (i.e., print magazines like Vogue, TIME, etc.) finalizes their content 3–4 months out. If you want a boost of coverage around “launch week,” this takes time and your agency needs to be out pounding the pavement to make this happen.
Launch plans are often more predictable than when we start working with a client that already has ongoing PR but isn’t getting traction. There might be a reason (i.e., not just because their former agency wasn’t doing a good job). Perhaps they need new news, new products, new content, an ambassador or partnership or any number of other things that will give the PR agency something to work with.
Everyone wants “the big business story.” Stories like this take the most time because it’s about finding the right reporter, at the right time. Or, more often than that, it’s about finding the right reporter that is interested and offers to keep it for future consideration. And guess what, that right reporter might be ready to write the story six months after that initial conversation (and lots of follow-up).
So it’s easy to say “patience is a virtue.” I know agency retainers are often a big financial commitment and you want to see the results. That said, understanding the timing and cadence and realities of how PR works will help you manage your agency partner and feel more sane along the way.
5. Continuity is key.
Some clients hire agencies when they have an immediate need or a key initiative. While this is a fine approach for some, it doesn’t allow for the agency to mine those longer-term opportunities (like the coveted business story mentioned above).
PR takes planning, yes. And it also is about capitalizing on key moments in time and leveraging the news cycle.
The more your agency understands your business, which comes over time, the more likely they’ll be able to capitalize on key moments.
With project work, you might get lucky and have a publication or a writer want to pick up your story right away. But more times than not, it’s about relationship building — your agency is helping build meaningful relationships with media on your brand’s behalf. And this takes time and you’ll see the fruits of this labor over time, not immediately.
6. Create an open and transparent relationship, and give your PR firm as much to work with as possible.
The more your agency knows and understands you and your business, the more likely it is that they’ll be successful, often in ways beyond your expectations.
Particularly if you are launching a new company or new product, that means things are going to be moving and evolving quickly. Sharing a lot up front about the inner workings of your business (and then establishing a process for ongoing communication) will help your agency tell (and show) you what has PR potential.
New product launch or not, there are things happening within your business that your agency might be able to leverage:
- New retail relationships
- New hires
- Company culture
- Content drops
- New store locations, franchise owners, etc.
- Promotional campaign
- The list goes on!
The more we as an agency are aware of, the more quickly we can identify PR-able opportunities. And the more seamless this process can be, the better for all of us!
7. Align expectations. Agree upfront about measures of success and discuss regularly.
So often clients and agencies have a different idea of what a successful PR campaign might look like.
This discussion is of paramount importance for a healthy relationship because it’s all about expectations management.
What does a winning PR campaign actually look like?
- Is it how many times your name (or company’s name) is mentioned in the press?
- Is it the quality of the publications?
- Is it the story communicated in the content?
- Is it who reads, consumes, and shares the content?
- Are you optimizing for reach or engagement?
For each client, measures of success are unique. And what’s possible given the client and its unique circumstances will also be unique. So having a healthy, open discussion about this at the outset of the relationship to make sure both parties are aligned is not only useful, it’s critical.
Open communication and a desire to work together are, like most things in business, the key to success here.
Then there’s how to get the most out of your client as a PR agency…