I was in a meeting the other day with the chief executive officer and the chief marketing officer of an organization that is right on the tipping point of success.
They've done a lot of the right things: Their sales team has the right connections, they're gaining industry recognition, and they have the right people both setting the strategy and executing on it.
But when we asked what they do differently than their competitors, the silence was deafening.
So we tried the question another way, "What makes you excellent?"
Again, no answer.
That's not entirely true. They did try to answer it, but they couldn't come to a consensus.
Much to the surprise of my team, I cut the meeting short. I closed my notebook (yes, I still carry a notebook), pushed back my chair, and said, "Gentlemen, you're not ready for us yet."
Sure, a communications firm can help an organization figure out their messaging and positioning, but if they don't have the slightest inkling of what it is before they spend money on PR, it's pretty likely the firm isn't going to succeed.
Are You Ready to Hire a PR Firm?
So how do you know if you're ready to hire a PR firm?
- Know what PR is in today's digital age. Yes, a good majority of PR firms will still pitch themselves to you as a media relations house. They'll call themselves a PR firm, but all they'll do for you is pitch stories on your behalf. I am telling you right now, if you hire a firm that only does media relations, you will think it's a huge waste of time and money about six months from now. I hear it all the time. "Oh they were great at getting stories about us, but it didn't really do anything. It was a waste of money." Seeing your name in print is great for your ego, but it does not make the cash register ring. If the firms you interview don't talk about how to integrate media relations into a larger communications (or marketing) program, you will feel like you've wasted your money.
- Be ready to share your business goals. And this means even in the introductory meetings. Have them sign a non-disclosure agreement, if that makes you feel better, but don't hide your goals. We once had a prospect tell us their search engine optimization had decreased significantly and they didn't know why. When we asked for access to their analytics, they didn't want to give it to us. We can't help you if we don't know what you're trying to achieve.
- Have realistic expectations. If the PR firm is worth its salt, you will spend some money on it and you can expect a return on your investment anywhere from two to five times what you pay them. BUT it won't happen overnight. It won't even happen in 90 days. It will take at least six months for you to begin seeing a return. That said, most will be able to give you metrics to track from day one that show whether or not you're on the right path. Ask for those.
- Ask yourself if you have the time to spend with the firm. Communications does not happen in a vacuum and your involvement is pretty necessary. If you - or someone on your team - does not have at least an hour every day to spend on PR, you're not ready to hire a firm. Without your help and your involvement, the PR firm will only get so far. They don't know your business as well as you do and, as it turns out, customers, prospects, journalists, and influencers would rather talk to you than some middle man. Your PR firm can create those conversations for you, but you have to have them.
- Be willing to take some risk. Technology has completely changed the way a PR professional does his or her job. Using the web - and socia media, in particular - means you're going to build your brand and gain awareness much more quickly than in the past. It also means you'll be under some scrutiny. Make sure your PR firm has experience with crises on the web and be willing to let them get you out there. The more uncomfortable it is for you, the more likely it is to work.
- Be uncomfortable. There is nothing worse than a prospect saying they want out-of-the-box thinking, and then asking for really boring, non-sexy strategies. If the PR firm doesn't make you a little uncomfortable when you meet with them the first few times, nothing you do together will be extraordinary. It's the discomfort that gets us to stretch beyond what we think we can do. Let them guide you down that path.
Of course, if you aren't ready for a PR firm, there are lots of other options you have. You can hire someone internally, you can do some of the PR yourself, or you can hire a freelancer or soloproneur.
Knowing when you're ready to hire a PR firm is the first step in your success.
A version of this first appeared in my weekly AllBusiness Experts column.