Choosing and Using PR Agencies

13 years, 2 months ago

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In an edited extract from their succinct book Choosing and Using PR Agencies, Tom Wells and Mark Crompton offer useful advice on the preliminary and secondary vetting process.



Let’s assume that you have a long-list of agencies which you feel can meet your general requirements in terms of size, skills and specialities.

Your next task is to cull your long-list, first removing those with current or potential conflicts, and second highlighting those who seem most suitable and interesting.

The best approach to this process is through a ‘Request for Information’, or RFI. This may also be known as an ‘Invitation to Tender’ (ITT) or a ‘Pre-Qualification Questionnaire’ (PQQ): they’re all more or less the same thing.

An RFI should be sent to all agencies on your long-list at the same time, and should be designed to elicit directly comparable responses to a small number of key questions.

Important questions

The table below gives some examples of the questions you might include: note that the first two questions should be included in every RFI.

Of course, other than the first two questions, which are mandatory, these are suggestions only. You can use them as a framework to help you check the suitability of long-listed agencies, and to begin to understand their character.

Secondary vetting

We assume at this point that you now have a list of agencies which meet your general requirements, as well as some fairly specific requirements; which have confirmed they have no conflicts with your business; and which have signed a formal confidentiality undertaking.

In the next stage, you need to meet each of these agencies to decide which are suitable for a more detailed selection process.

It is essential to meet each of your long-listed agencies at their own offices. Clients often feel it will save them time and hassle if the agencies come to the client’s office: this may be true, but the economies are false. Few things are quite as informative as your visit to a prospective agency – provided you use the time well.

When arranging the meeting, explain that you would like to meet a typical account management team, such as those who might work on your business; that you would like a brief presentation about the agency – no more than 10 minutes; and that you will then give them a little more information about your company and your needs, followed by a mutual discussion of ideas and approaches. Allow around one hour for the meeting.

You should aim to arrive at least ten or 15 minutes early. Explain to the receptionist that you are a little ahead of time, and ask him or her not to announce your arrival until you have had time to make a couple of phone calls. Of course, a good receptionist will discreetly announce your arrival anyway, but do not be hurried into the meeting room: take your time.

Look and listen

Use this time to observe. Look at your surroundings: don’t be surprised to find a certain amount of chaos and clutter, but do look for signs of dirt (stained carpets, dusty surfaces) or lack of maintenance (chipped paint, cracked windows); and at the general level of presentation.

If there is a book of press cuttings in the reception area, have a look at it: has it been kept up to date? Are the cuttings recent and interesting? Listen also to the receptionist as he or she answers the phone and deals with callers: are they busy, courteous and professional?

When you begin the meeting, you must of course listen carefully to what the team presenting to you has to say. However, you must also observe them closely.

Do they actually seem to be a team, or do they seem to be a group pulled together specifically for this presentation? How do they interact with each other? Does there seem to be a strong hierarchy, with junior members deferring to the senior members, or does their relationship seem to be flatter? Do the team members seem to respect each other and to listen to what each other has to say?

You should have a number of questions prepared: these can in part be based on the agency’s responses to the RFI. When asking questions, do not be interrogatory or aggressive, but do be firm in ensuring you get real answers to the questions you actually asked

Target your questions

It is particularly useful to put one or two questions on strategic issues – whether related to client activity or the agency’s approach to its business development – to the more junior members of the team, and questions on day-to-day account management or media relations to more senior members of them team. You can best do this by putting specific questions to specific individuals.

Since no two agencies are ever the same, you should not expect every meeting to follow the same path and you should not try to make it do so: the aim of this meeting is to explore the agency in depth, and we are offering suggestions not instructions.

It is therefore useful to have a list of factors you want to cover, which you can also use to compare all the agencies objectively and equitably. This might be similar to the next table – which includes some examples of typical comments

The criteria you use must be those appropriate to you and your business needs – but you must use a consistent set of criteria, and be consistent with your ‘scoring’ and comments, with all the agencies.

You should write up your comments in brief during the meeting, and take at least 10 minutes after the meeting to write them in more detail: it is essential that you note them down while they are still fresh in your mind, and before you meet another agency. Comments written about one agency after you have seen another will start to get confused.

After meeting all the agencies on your long list, it is very likely that you will have a clear idea about the most appropriate agencies for your short list. The short list should have no more than three or four agencies. If you can’t seem to get it down to four, try harder: at some point you will have to get it down to one.

Look for consistency

As a ‘reality check’, look for consistency between the final three or four agencies on factors such as size, specialities and the type of clients they have. They should be broadly similar: if they are too diverse, this may be an indication that you are not yet sure of exactly what you are looking for, or that you have not been sufficiently objective and firm in the way you have applied your criteria.

After these meetings, you should of course contact each of the agencies: thank them for their time and input, and give them a clear idea of when they might expect to hear from you about your next steps.

When you have decided on your short-list, you should inform the unsuccessful agencies as soon as possible, as a matter of professional courtesy.


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The Author

Tom Wells

Tom Wells established management and procurement consultancy Gyroscope in 2003. He was previously worldwide vice president for publicity at Electrolux Group.

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Mark Crompton

Mark Crompton is a freelance business writer and teacher of English to speakers of other languages. He has worked in both in-house and agency PR roles.

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