How to choose a PR agency for a startup

At SeedInvest, we recently appointed a new public relations firm. The road to finding the right PR firm for us was long, full of research, meetings, and phone calls. Below are six lessons we learned during our PR firm search.

Be Selective

When initially researching what PR firms to put on your shortlist, choose those which appear to be high-quality and have proven track records. While you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, if a PR firm hasn’t been able to present itself in a positive light, how can you expect them to do so for your company? A clean, well designed website, with content which instills confidence in the agency, is a solid initial indicator of a firm worthy of consideration. There are several “Top Agency” and “Top PR Professionals” lists you can use to both find PR agencies and vet those you have already found. The best indicators of a strong PR firm, however, are the results that a firm has achieved for its clients. Every firm will showcase at least a handful of successful case studies on their website. A firm with many such stories and data to back them up deserves your attention. We began our search by looking for agencies that represented companies that we admire.

Cast a Wide Net

When starting to research PR firms, you may have the tendency to focus your search on firms that meet a very specific set of criteria based on your company’s profile. If you are a small early-stage company, you may be tempted to consider only boutique firms with a track record of working with startups. Likewise, if your company is in a very specific niche market, you may be tempted to only seek out firms with direct experience in your space. While you should certainly consider the firms which, at face value, appear to be a natural match for your company, also consider quality firms which may not initially seem to be the ideal match. If you’re a startup, include a mid-size agency on your short list. If you operate within a niche space, include a firm with stellar credentials but only tangential experience in your field. As you interview these various agencies, the different strategies and strengths they bring to the table will help shape what you are looking for in a PR firm. While this may reaffirm your initial preferences, you may be surprised and choose a firm you wouldn’t have otherwise included on your shortlist. In our own PR firm search, we included a firm which was larger than that which would typically represent a company of our size; we would eventually choose them to represent us.

Know Your Goals

Before you interview potential PR firms, be sure to know what goals you have for your company’s growth. A PR firm can write your press releases, secure you media placements, and land you feature pieces; yet these are means to an end, not ends in themselves. By having a comprehensive understanding of your business goals, you will better be able to judge which PR firm is best equipped to help you meet them. For example, if your goal is to attract customers from a specific vertical, certain PR firms may have unique experience or connections with media in that vertical. If your business goals include significant expansion, you may want to choose a larger agency with the capacity to scale along with your company. Hiring a PR firm with these goals in mind will lead to you choosing a firm which will be able to deliver results that specifically help your business instead of a laundry list of meaningless actions which haven’t furthered your business goals. At SeedInvest, our goal was to increase our interaction with accredited investors, a small and traditionally difficult group to target. As a result, we narrowed our list of potential PR firms by gauging which firms were best equipped to reach our target audience.

Test Potential PR Firms

Research, presentations, and client references can only hint at how a PR firm will perform once you have hired them. In the final stages of your selection process, ask the firms you are considering if you can hire them on a one-off basis to complete a specific PR task. For example, we asked our finalists to provide our CEO with media training before a television interview on CNBC. Even if you end up not hiring them for your task, how a PR firm responds to your request can be telling of future interactions and inform your decision making process.

Know Who You Will Be Working With

As you are interviewing PR firms, you will be met by a parade of high-level executives who will excel at selling their firm and themselves. However, these may not be the same people handling the day-to-day work on your account. While you should certainly be impressed by the presentations made by the senior team, it’s actually more important that you be impressed with the junior PR executives who will really be doing the bulk of the work for your company. These are the people who will be approaching the media on your behalf and their actions will reflect upon your company. Because of this, you must be confident that they will be effective and trusted brand ambassadors. Meeting for an informal coffee before making a final decision can be a good way to gauge whether these PR executives are deserving of such a great responsibility.

Trust Your Instincts

Once you have narrowed down your candidates to 2 or 3 finalists, making an objective decision on hard and fast criteria will be nearly impossible. Your finalists will have solid credentials, have given an impressive pitch, and will probably all be able to help you successfully meet your company goals. At this point, you should trust your gut and go with the firm that feels right for you. You aren’t hiring a faceless firm. You’re hiring individuals you will have to work with on a near-daily basis. When picking from a field of highly qualified candidates, personal preference and who you feel most comfortable with as a partner in your company’s growth will be the best insights to rely upon as you make your final decision. Ultimately, we chose our PR firm based on how our team felt about the individual PR executives we would be working with and who we thought was the best cultural fit for SeedInvest.

Finding a PR firm can be a daunting task. The proliferation of PR firms can make it difficult to identify which firm is right for your company. If you keep these suggestions in mind as you go through your PR firm search, you will be better positioned to find an agency which will best meet your needs and be a solid partner in your company’s success.

Nicolas Leeper is a Marketing Assistant at SeedInvest and led the selection and appointment process for our public relations agency in 2015.

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