HIRING YOUR NEW PR FIRM
What To Do Before, During and After Issuing Your RFP
At some point, most B2B technology companies grow to the extent where their leaders consider hiring a public relations agency. That’s a smart move for a growing business, given the inherent business value delivered by smart and timely public relations. However, finding, vetting and hiring the PR firm that’s right for your company can be confusing, if not downright confounding if you don’t have a process.
If you’re about to hire your first PR agency—or if you’ve outgrown or outpaced your existing one—there are several factors to consider. Before you ever issue a Request for Proposal (RFP), determine if your company is ready to work with a PR firm. If so, what questions should you ask candidate agencies? When you find one that meets your criteria, what can you expect as your two companies begin to work together?
In this eBook, we’ll examine some before, during and after the RFP questions, so you can prepare your company, find the right PR agency and then get the relationship off to a great start.
See you soon!
Your company’s grown to the point where you need someone to handle your public relations. Before you even think about looking for agencies and issuing an RFP, make sure your company is fully prepared.
Here are four things you have to have in place to make the onboarding and kickoff process easier—and to allow the PR agency to hit the ground running.
Don’t expect your future PR firm to identify your core value proposition. An agency partner can absolutely help you create, refine and tailor messages for different audiences, but your company should have some level of understanding of this well before you engage an agency.
Also, don’t expect an agency to be the deciding factor for resolving internal disagreement on what that value prop is. While strategic agencies can be a wonderful asset to help bridge party lines, it’s unfair to make them do the heavy lifting on something that should happen internally. Plus, you’d be wasting your money by having the agency play politics, instead of using the time (and money) to counsel you and secure results.
What makes you an ideal client is your ability to demonstrate leadership before partnering with an agency, getting all your internal stakeholders on the same page.
Is your company ready to work with a PR Agency?
BEFORE the RFP
Identify and agree on your company’s core value proposition
This is one of the hardest things for companies to do, especially when today’s airwaves are crowded and the stakes of thought leadership are high.
It might seem like enough to have a solid product roadmap to evangelize and plenty of interesting company news to share, but before engaging a third-party agency, think beyond these expected forms of communications. You want sustainable media coverage that reaches key influencers who can steer buying decisions. That means having a strong sense of your company’s unique opinions and perspectives before you ever think of issuing an RFP.
Start early. Six months or so before you issue an RFP, assemble a small team to identify thought leadership topics where you can lead the market discourse. Quietly discuss these topics with a fewcustomers, partners and industry analysts. It’s best to keep a close circle of trusted mentors, so you don’t create these opinions in a vacuum.
Later, your new PR agency can help you polish these topics and identify new ones. But having first had these conversations internally, you’ll avoid starting with a blank page.
Think beyond product roadmaps and company news
Are you ready?
To prepare your company to work with a PR agency:
1. Know your company’s core
2. Think beyond product roadmaps and company news
3. Put an accountability framework in place before you hire an agency
4. Look to industry analysts for outside
Often a company decides to issue an RFP to hire an agency, but they don’t give equal thought to establishing in-house leadership for after the agency is hired. This is a common challenge PR firms face with new clients.
There must be accountability on both sides if the program is to succeed. The client and agency must establish common goals and accept responsibility for meeting them. Without clear leadership on the client side, the partnership will unravel before it gets started. This often leads to the concept of an “agency scapegoat.” Essentially, if anything goes wrong, the agency is the one to take the fall. In fact, the real problem is often a lack of ownership and leadership on the client’s part.
You don’t want to put someone with only a couple years of experience in charge of the agency search and relationship. This sends the wrong message to the agency. If the in-house leader lacks experience, the agency becomes frustrated by a lack of consistent direction. This also gives the appearance that the company doesn’t view a successful relationship with the agency as imperative.
Instead, assign an in-house leader at a director, VP or CMO level, someone who can carry some accountability for the success of the program. Recruit the best candidate to run your in-house team, and by the time you issue that RFP, things will go much more smoothly. The agencies jockeying for your business will be far more excited to work with you, because they know you’ve thought this process through, inside and out.
Put an accountability framework in place before you hire an agency
To be effective in any marketing or PR program, you need advocates. You also need outside opinions to avoid navel gazing—that state where the only opinion that matters is your own.
Many companies make the mistake of waiting until everything is fully baked and packaged with a bow before enlisting help from industry analysts. This is a bad idea and defeats one of the main purposes of engaging with this group of influencers.
Start this process early. Analysts want to have a hand in shaping messaging. By getting them on your side early and often, you’ll have a built-in advocate when it’s time to break the news. This is worth every penny you’ll pay for it.
If you can’t pay an analyst, you’ll survive. But remember this: When the market you serve becomes more competitive, engaging with an analyst will become imperative.
Look to industry analysts for outside opinions
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You’ve got the internal checks in place to allow your relationship with a PR firm to succeed. Great! Now you’re ready to create and issue an RFP that lets you evaluate, or vet, the candidate agencies.
But what do you ask them?
To attract only the best agencies, here are nine things you should and shouldn’t do in your RFP.
Include things like
a situation analysis
overall business goals
known obstacles to meeting those goals
It shouldn’t take an hour for the agency to read your RFP. If the RFP borders on novella length, edit it down to a more consumable size. Aim for two pages—maximum.
Do be complete but concise describing what you want in an agency.
The top DO’S and DON’TS of issuing an RFP
DURING the RFP
Don’t assume you can contact an agency mere weeks before a major event, press announcement or product launch. Like PR itself, responding to an RFP takes time, if you want answers that truly represent the agency’s competencies.
Give yourself at least three months before any big event or announcement to start talking to agencies about potential help. Agencies need to allow time to plan, negotiate, prioritize and staff the project or account.
Do plan ahead.
Many PR agencies only like retainer models. That’s to be expected. Having a recurring revenue stream is much better for hiring, training investments and doing financial forecasting. But project-based work can be beneficial if you want to try an agency before you commit to a year-long contract.
The trial period—the duration of the project—is good for agencies too. It helps them identify clients that are a good fit, and weed out those that aren’t—before getting into a long-term contract with them.
Don't be afraid to “try before you buy.”
You want them to understand your needs and situations. If they want additional phone calls or emails answered to better understand your needs, give them that time.
The more they understand your wants and desires, the more on-target their proposals and ideas will be. And remember your behavior will inform the agency what kind of client you’ll be. Hint: Like you, they are looking for people who are responsive, open, accountable and helpful.
Do give agencies as much time for discovery as they ask for.
Personal referrals are always welcome if they vouch for an agency’s actual competence and ability to do the job. But don’t be afraid to give an agency a shot at the business, just because you haven’t heard of them before.
The wisest move is likely to include large, established players alongside a couple of smaller boutiques. You’d be surprised at the wide range of strategies and ideas you’ll get with this approach.
Do use personal referrals when selecting the agencies you’ll consider, but include a few unknowns, too.
It’s best not to have too many opinions involved in the RFP selection process. Too many cooks in the kitchen, as the saying goes, can indeed spoil the broth.
The agency should exist, first and foremost, to support your marketing and executive leadership. Product management, sales leadership, and even human resources might need access to the agency from time to time if you’re entrenched in discrete projects like customer research, buyer personas or lead generation campaigns. But these groups don’t necessarily need to be part of the selection process.
Assign a senior leader to make the final call, with perhaps two or three other key marketing or executive leaders weighing in on the final selection.
Do avoid decision by committee.
Any agency good at what they do has a choice in accepting new clients. It’s easy to think a small agency might be “desperate” for any client. In reality, they probably aren’t. Besides, why would you want to work with someone who is desperate?
It’s much better to approach the RFP process as one that’s mutually beneficial and prosperous, with longevity and potential for future growth.
Do remember that you are being interviewed as well.
Don’t ask inappropriate questions, either. Sometimes RFPs start to feel like a bad, one-sided blind date; This happens when an RFP asks for an exhausting breakdown of every detail of the agency’s business—revenue, client hires and fires, and more—whether relevant or not.
First, for private companies such information is confidential. And second, there’s really no reason why you need minute details to find and vet a good agency.
Instead, during the discovery process, ask about recruiting strategies, training opportunities, churn and culture. Explain your concerns about using a large agency versus a small agency. You can ask these questions on the phone or in a high-level way in the RFP. But avoid a list of questions that will immediately turn the agency off. Otherwise, you’ll cripple your RFP process, as many agencies will opt out when they see such irrelevant or private questions.
Don't ask 100 different questions that could take days to answer.
You’ve gone through the RFP process. You’ve selected your PR agency. And you’ve drawn up the contract terms and signed the papers. Now it’s time to kick off this new relationship.
Here are a few tips for handling the first 100 days with your new PR agency.
One the best things you can do to start the relationship off right is to treat your account team with respect. That is, treat all agency staff—senior, junior and extended—with the same level of respect you’d give any new employee at your company.
• Respond to their emails quickly.
• Lend appropriate time to meetings and calls.
• Send pertinent content so they can get up to
The success of the new partnership depends on the leadership you show and the amount of quality time you give them.
Treat the agency team like your own badged employees
The first 100 days with your new PR firm
AFTER the RFP
A good PR agency will have an efficient process they use for strategy and onboarding. Be responsive to that process, but know it should be flexible enough to fit your unique needs.
You know your company and people best. Listen to what the agency proposes, but be ready to offer suggestions for adjustments. For example, perhaps the agency prefers creating messaging via one-on-one interviews. If you feel it’s more productive and inclusive to moderate a face-to-face workshop with the stakeholders, tell them that. That way they can craft the best solution for your needs.
Also, understand that the onboarding process takes time. Many companies hire agencies and expect them to start running with tactics on Day One. That’s not a great working model, since your two companies need time to get to know each other.
It takes time to craft a sustainable PR strategy and timeline. Allow the agency to do that work in the first three months. It will make the program more successful in the long term and avoid a lot of false starts.
Work closely with the agency on the onboarding process
Yes, listen. In the first 100 days of onboarding, your new agency is a little like a toddler. They are sponges, reading everything about you and your competition and asking tons of insightful questions. They’re digesting your current marketing platform, sitting in on analyst and press briefings, and spending hours perusing your website.
Listen to their observations about what’s performing well in your marketing and what is not. Remember, the agency staff haven’t “drunk the Kool-Aid” yet, which gives them a fresh and totally unique perspective. Such unbiased, outside opinions are extremely valuable to you during this phase. Listen first, then act on their recommendations.
It’s your team. The language you choose to use matters.
Always remember your agency is an extension of your own team. More than that, they are valued partners. Respect them. Get to know them as people. They’ll end up working harder for you than you could ever imagine.
Don’t refer to them as “the vendor,” or treat them like a dumping ground, where you send all emails and requests that you don’t want to address. Treat
them like the individuals and team members that they are.
Let your guard down occasionally
Having a weekly team status call with your agency—with a defined agenda—is a great practice. But don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call your account lead for a more ad hoc discussion. These talks give you a chance to develop a deeper and more strategic relationship. Let your account lead see you sweat a little. Tell them your worst fears. Let them see you as a real person, to understand better how they might provide “air cover” so you can be successful.
Have these interactions with the account lead one-on-one, instead of with the whole agency team. This allows the two of you to devise strategies to overcome roadblocks, without weighing down or demotivating the other team members. This strategy goes a long way in cutting through the clutter, to getting the results you want—and to making you and your agency team look like rock stars.
A company hires an agency based on its ability to think and strategize, right? But all too often, once the contract is signed, all the agency’s counsel goes flying out the window. When a client ignores or negates the PR process, the relationship is doomed.
Here’s an example from Idea Grove’s Michelle Doss.
During the dotcom boom, Doss had a tech startup client with a particularly impatient CEO. This CEO ordered Doss to immediately book a week of press meetings in New York and San Francisco. He insisted all the interviews be with high-profile news outlets—The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company and Red Herring, among others. The CEO ranted at Doss: “It’s simple. You have to want to do it. You just have to sit down, take your list out, call them and schedule the meetings. That’s all there is to it.”
This was an impossible task, given all the publications and locations involved. PR is not that simple.
Media relations requires extensive research on each person and publication, to learn their preferences, interests and writing style. It takes time to develop, refine and deliver a customized pitch for each one. Then it requires following up with calls and emails, refining the pitch and trying again.
PR is a process, often more complex than selling a product, because it’s selling an idea. Don’t assume you understand everything that’s involved in the PR process. Your agency teams are the experts. Trust them to guide you through it in the way it needs to be done.
Finally… Respect the PR process.
PR is a process, often more complex than selling a product, because it’s selling an idea.
Don’t assume you understand everything that’s involved in the PR process. Your agency teams are experts. Trust them to guide you through it in the way it needs to be done.
It’s understandable. Hiring a vendor that will be as close to you as your PR agency isn’t easy, and you probably have a few more questions. We’re here to answer them.
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