What PR agencies will and won’t do—and how to hire one

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My public relations journey began several years ago. I was beginning a career as a life coach and needed to get my name—my brand—out there. I knew I wanted to be featured on HuffPost, but I had no idea how to do it. So I started doing some research, landed an amazing contact, and wound up pitching Arianna Huffington herself.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and pressed the send button. Soon, I got a reply. I was shocked—Arianna liked my idea and welcomed me to join the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. And so it began.

Once my post was published—and I did my part by sharing it with my social networks—things began to change. People started viewing me as an authority. Interview requests started rolling in from magazines and podcasts. Most of all, my business grew.

More pitches to more media outlets resulted in more features and more business. Before long, I decided to start my own PR agency and help other woman-owned businesses grow their reputation and brand awareness, while they focus on what they do best—growing their business.

Throughout this experience, I’ve learned that PR agencies are often misunderstood. So I’ll walk you through what public relations agencies do and don’t do, how to know if you need one, and if you do, how to hire one.

What public relations agencies do

Public relations is about shaping the public’s perception of your business and managing its reputation. The most common and impactful way to do this is through media relations, also known as earned media or publicity.

Here’s what a PR agency will do to garner publicity for your business.

1. A lot of research

The key to a good public relations plan is identifying the media outlets that reach your target market. PR agencies will interview you about your business and goals so everyone is on the same page. Then they’ll research the media outlets, journalists, and podcast hosts that reach your audience or have covered brands like yours in the past. Journalists don’t like getting pitched for topics they don’t cover. Knowing the media that covers your industry allows your agency to maximize your investment with targeted campaigns.

2. Create a strategic plan

Once their research is complete, your PR agency will create a strategic plan to support your business goals. It will include PR goals, pitch angles (creative ways to present your story to media outlets), and an editorial calendar of special dates, like product launches (internal) or seasonal occasions (external). Most agencies will also include tactics, details about how they will execute the plan.

3. Execute the plan

Once you approve the strategic plan, your PR agency will put it into motion. Depending on the size and scope, this may include:

  • Assembling press kits. Press kits tell your company’s story and include key pieces of information like event dates, products, logos, photos, and bios of key leaders. They may also include product samples and press releases.

  • Crafting unique pitches. Your agency will craft unique pitches that catch the attention of specific groups of journalists, podcasters, and media outlets that reach your target market. The more intriguing and less general the pitch, the better the chances a media outlet will be interested in featuring your brand.

  • Outreach. Once the pitches are compiled, your agency will begin contacting journalists and outlets, either by email, social media, or directly.

  • Engaging influencers. PR agencies can be used to source and manage influencers who generate visibility for your brand, including negotiating contracts.

And that’s not all

As Jen Berson from Jeneration PR puts it: “PR isn’t exactly a standalone powerhouse. Marketing, branding, and PR all work together for that total package!”

That said, many PR agencies provide a multitude of services beyond outreach and visibility, and can support you with the following:

  • Social media management

  • SEO and social media

  • Event management

  • Crisis management

  • Branding

  • Award nominations

All together, PR agencies are getting you in front of the people who are more inclined to buy your products or services.

What PR agencies don’t do

I’ve talked about a lot of things that PR agencies do for their clients. But what won’t they do?

1. PR agencies don’t guarantee media features

A reputable PR agency will not guarantee your brand will be featured by media organizations. According to Ashli Urquhart, owner of AUPR, “No publicist can guarantee a placement because it’s simply out of our control. Even with the strongest media contacts, it’s ultimately up to an editorial team as to whether or not your brand will be featured.”

It may not be what you want to hear, but it’s the truth. Even if my client has an interview with a journalist and everything looks like it’s a go, we don’t count it as a feature until it’s actually published.

My relationship with journalists and publications is the foundation of my business. Trying to influence what gets published undermines that relationship. Sometimes we have to let things ride and be super clear for the next feature.

2. PR agencies don’t focus on sales

Although public relations is a part of marketing, PR agencies are not responsible for sales. It’s our responsibility to increase your brand awareness and highlight you as an expert in your industry. So while we can tell you how many readers or listeners there are for a publication or podcast, our KPIs (key performance indicators) will not include how many sales you made from our work.

3. PR agencies don’t share their media contact list

A media contact list is an agency’s proprietary work. Good ones are built on personal relationships. Mine has been carefully and painstakingly curated over time, and specifically for the industries I work in and the types of press my clients want to reach.

My one exception is when I’ve been hired to create a DIY press plan. Then, and only then, will I provide a small list for my client to pitch themselves. Some agencies will not give any contacts for any reason.

How to hire a PR agency for your business

Before you begin reaching out to potential agencies, make sure they specialize in your industry. If you know the services you need, make sure they have those capabilities. And determine your budget ahead of time, even if it’s a range. This preparation will save you time during the hiring process.

Hiring a PR agency is like hiring an employee. They’ll be a key part of your team, so competency, comfort, and fit are important. Here are a few questions you should ask—and expect to be asked—while searching for an agency.

Questions you should ask a PR agency

  • What is your business model? There are three main ways an agency will bill you: hourly, by project, or monthly. It’s difficult to predict how long a PR campaign will take to yield results. If you’re being charged hourly, you can burn through your budget quickly. If you’re being charged monthly, you know exactly what your costs will be.

  • Can you show me a campaign you’ve executed in my industry? PR professionals with broad experiences are valuable and shouldn’t be overlooked. But you may prefer an agency that has deeper experience in your industry. This is an opportunity to see how the agency handles businesses in your niche.

  • Who will we be working with? The benefit of a small agency or a solo practitioner is you’ll be interviewing exactly who you’re working with. If it’s a bigger agency, be sure to meet who will be working on your behalf before you sign on.

Questions a PR agency will ask you

  • What do you need? Good PR agencies will ask you lots of questions, beginning with the type of support you’re seeking. I’ll ask for all kinds of information about you, your business, and your goals. The more information I have, the better my angles and pitches will be.

  • What is your budget? Expect to be asked about your budget. Most PR agencies work on a monthly retainer, instead of a project or hourly rate. Knowing your goals and your budget allows us to determine what can be accomplished or, when our skillset is beyond your needs, if we should refer you to an agency that’s a better fit.

Once you hire a PR agency, focus on building a relationship with them, just as you would a member of your team. After all, their success is your success.

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