Picking the perfect PR partner

Hiring someone to toot your company's horn? Here's how to avoid any sour notes

One of the joys of growing your business is hiring good people to do the work you used to do, such as publicizing your company. But before you take the prestigious step of signing on your very own public relations firm, make sure you’re clear on why you need one.

“That’s one of the first things we ask a potential client,” says Lon Walls, president and CEO of Walls Communications Inc., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C., whose company represents AT&T, Shell Oil and the NAACP. “You’ll have a good idea if you first put together a solid business strategy outlining short-term and long-term goals. The clearer you are about what services you’ll need, the easier it will be to negotiate an affordable fee arrangement.”

Whatever your goals, make sure you select a firm that has the tools you need, suggests Richard George, director of public relations for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) (www.prsa.org) in New York City. This includes experience, specialized skills, solid judgment and concerned objectivity.

According to the PRSA, the key steps to selecting the right firm and getting the best service you can afford are:

  • First, identify and prioritize your corporate goals. These will become the basis for determining your public relations goals and the strategies that will meet your needs.
  • To find a firm, talk to peers, trade or professional organizations or the media. The National Black Media Coalition; 301-445-2600 or National Association of Minorities in Communications; 714-736-9600 can make recommendations.
  • Check out the firm’s credentials and capabilities. Look at its background and experience with your industry, as well as the professional qualifications of the principals and staff. Ask for client references and call them.
  • Once you’ve narrowed down your choice to one or two, ask for a written proposal or an oral presentation outlining how the firm would provide services and solve a specific business problem. Make sure the firm is responsive to your concerns and expectations. There should also be “chemistry” with the people you’ll work with.
  • Once you’ve made your decision, meet to discuss fee arrangements and initial length of contract. Payment options usually include: straight monthly flat fee (for actual hours used), project fee (based on the firm’s estimate of length of assignment) and retainer (a flat monthly fee charged whether services are used or not).
  • The firm’s hourly rate includes the cost of everyone who works on your account. Staff fees can range from $20-$50 per hour, and the account executive’s or principal’s fee can range from $150-$300 per hour. The total monthly fee might be as high as $5,000, depending on the time frame and services you use.
  • Make sure the fee agreement explains the policy on billing travel time, commissions and markups on expenses.
  • Approach the relationship as a partnership. Be as frank with your PR firm as you would be with your attorney. Keep them regularly updated and put them on mailing lists for materials that pertain to their assignment.
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