Thursday, April 22, 2010

You Have Chosen...Wisely

We're taking a little bit of a different approach for this entry.  Generally we love to tell you things you should do to improve your public relations or social media campaign.  RPR enjoys offering tips and building lists designed to make your efforts more successful.

Today, however, we're going in the other direction.  This isn't to say that you won't learn something.  Many times you can learn from failure.  Unfortunately, any kind of failure for a small business or non-profit can be devastating.

This is why we're here to show you the failures of others, so you don't have to, you know, actually experience the failure yourself.  Kind of like the way Germany should have looked back at Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia.  Learn from the mistakes of others, my mother always would say.

Don't Do This:

Anyway, today we're looking at some of the common mistakes organizations make when hiring a public relations firm, or making a PR push.  A lot of these mistakes and misconceptions are understandable.  But, as always, we here at RPR are willing to walk you through the land mines of PR and social media so you come out the other side, smarter, wiser and unscathed.

The idea for this entry came from an article I read at Entrepreneur.com.  I'm going to give you the overview, but as always, you can click on the link for the full article.  Here is the opening paragraph from the article, as I think it sets up the list quite nicely:

"Brand awareness, thought leadership, increased executive visibility, crisis communications preparedness . . . the laundry list of reasons companies should hire PR representation goes on and on, and a capable agency should provide all this and more. The decision to hire an agency should not be taken lightly and there are some common are pitfalls that should be avoided to ensure success. From unscrupulous agencies to recognizing your own misguided preconceptions; here are seven reasons you should not hire a PR agency."

In essence, the article isn't saying to NOT hire a pr agency.  It's simply pointing out that sometimes the reasoning behind hiring a specific agency can be misguided.  In other words, the author says these are stupid reasons to hire an agency, I call them mistakes and misconceptions:

1.  You want to be on Oprah
2.  You want to spend less time on PR
3.  The agency is willing to take equity in lieu of cash
4.   It's the cheapest agency you could find
5.  The agency gets paid on a per placement basis
6.  The agency is guaranteeing a minimum number of placements
7.  You want media placement within 30 days.

Now on the surface, these might not seem like bad reasons to hire a specific agency.  But each and every one of those reasons can be a pit of despair for the small business or non-profit that uses these guidelines to determine which agency they are going to hire for their PR and social media needs.

Expectations, Patience, Cash:

Okay, it doesn't have the same ring as "Money, Guns and Lawyers," but expectations, patience and cash almost always will play a major role in determining which agency a small business or non-profit decides to sign with.

Usually, it's a matter of too little patience, too little cash and too high of expectations.  These three things combined can lead a small business and non-profit to make mistakes when choosing an agency to handle their communications.  Certainly your budget and timeline should play into the decision, and you should have expectations, but don't let these things be the entire deciding factor in your decisions.

Let's take a look at each of these things briefly and figure out ways to overcome these common mistakes.

1.  The Oprah factor -  Listen, we understand you have expectations, dreams and goals.  It's okay to want to be on Oprah someday.  Just like I'd like to be as rich as Gates someday, or live in the Playboy mansion.  I'm not saying it will never happen, but let's rethink our goals for a second.  You don't just show up at a PR firm and say, "I'd like to be on Oprah" and assume you'll be chatting with the Queen of daytime TV within a month.  A good PR firm will be honest with you.  They won't tell you to scrap your dream, but they'll temper your excitement with honesty and present you with some more realistic goals.  A very good agency will sit down and try to come up with a roadmap to someday, maybe, get on Oprah's show.  At the same time, they'll be realistic and let you know that the odds against that are astronomical.

Advice:  Look for the agency that won't ridicule your dream, but at the same time is realistic and honest and will help you set a series of goals that MIGHT, if the stars align, get you on the show, but in the meantime provides you with a solid PR and social media effort.

2.  Spending less time on PR - The Entrepreneur article accurately points out that a good agency will actually make you spend more time on your PR and social media eforts.  If they do their job right, you'll be spending time doing interviews and interacting online through your social media efforts, blogs and such.  Here's what you DON'T want in an agency.  You don't want them to be constantly nagging you with every little aspect of your campaign.  It's not about you spending less time on your efforts, it's about spending more quality time. A quality agency will look at your schedule, and, once a plan is in place, will establish a schedule to meet with you and have some autonomy to make decisions. This way you're  not being bothered by every little detail, but making final decisions once the agency has done most of the gruntwork.

Advice:  Look for an agency that won't promise you less time on your PR and social media efforts.  Instead, look for an agency that will promise you the time spent on your efforts will be quality, not wasted time.  You want your agency to help you maximize your efforts.  Set up a schedule of regular meetings and make the meetings and conversations as efficient as possible.  In other words, efficiency is better than less time spent.

3.  The pricing issue -  This actually covers two areas on the list: 1) the agency will take equity in lieu of cash, and 2) The agency is the cheapest you can find.  We understand that you need to work within a budget.  You understand that sometimes PR and social media services aren't cheap.  But trying to get things done at the lowest price possible generally ends up poorly for small businesses and non-profits.  You pay for quality.  But that doesn't mean you have to break your budget for quality PR and social media campaigns.  In equity cases, the article correctly notes that agencies will always place cash paying customers at the top of their priority list.  You take a risk in going this route.  At the same time, the more money a customer pays, the higher they go on the list as well.

Advice:  Don't just look for the cheapest option when looking for an agency.  Most agencies charge you for services you don't need.  Take a look at what you want to accomplish with your PR and social media efforts.  Then figure out what you can do yourself and do well.  Maybe there are 20 items that are necessary to execute for your efforts to be successful.  But maybe you can only do 8 of those things well and within your time constraints.  Look for an agency that won't need to handle the entire campaign, but fill in the holes that you really need help with.  That keeps your costs lower and assures you of quality work in those areas you might be weak in.  Plus, if you ever get in a bind, you'll have an agency there to help back you up.

4.  Media placement guarantees - Again, we tackle two issues here.  1) The agency is paid on a per placement basis, 2) The agency guarantees a specific number of placements.  The articl points out that any agency making gaurantees is probably not the agency you want to be with.  Sure, they may end up placing you in 5 outlets, but are those outlets really the ones that will help grow your business?  Maybe, but not likely.  This is another instance of quality over quantity.  If an agency is being paid on a per-placement basis, once again you'll probaby be shuttled down the priority list as they focus on clients who are paying cash up front fro their work.

Advice:  If an agency guarantees you media placements, run away, fast.  Here are the facts:

•  Public relations and social media are inexact sciences.  There are techniques, but sometimes you just get unlucky.  No matter how good a story may be, extenuating circumstances may preclude your story from getting picked up.  No one can change that fact.

•  getting five hits in outlets that have nothing to do with your product or service, or doesn't reach your audience does nothing for your organization.  Your'e throwing away good money and time in this case.

•  There simply are no guarantees in PR and social media.  Even the best campaigns sometimes fall flat.  That's no reason to get frustrated.  Look at the quality of the work the agency did and make a decision based on that.  If they did a great job, but you didn't get hits, they'll feel as crappy about it as you do, honest.  But those efforts can be built upon as you move forward.

Look for an agency that does good work and let's you know up front that regardless of how good a campaign is put together and executed, your results may not be what you hoped.  This is an agency that is honest from the start and an agency you want to do business with.

5.  Fast Media Placement - Again, this is a matter of quality over quantity.  Like the above example, an agency might be able to place you within 30 days, but it likely won't be in the outlets that will really help you.  It takes time to create a PR and social media strategy.  Then, once the strategy is set, it takes time to get up and running.  Give them time to set up your various social media platforms, do the research on your organization, look for stories, create video elements, establish your message and conversations strategies and the collateral that goes with them.  There are things like press kits, bio's, photos, timing issues and targeting that needs to be done before a campaign can begin to really take effect.  This is why I've always tried to work with a three month minimum.  It can take a month to get the campaign organized and coherent enough to make a serious pitch.  The first month of the campaign will help establish some facts that will help in tweaking messages and content and confirm the direction the campaign is going.  The third month will tell you if the campaign is working.  By that time, you should have hits and start to see an uptick in responses and, hopefully, business.

Advice:  Look for an agency that has a long term plan.  If they tell you they can get your campaign hits within 30 days, be wary.  Maybe they can, but make sure that the hits are in the outlets that YOU have targeted, not just some random media placements.  You want an agency that takes its time to do things right, but doesn't drag their feet.  Testimonials and references will help in this arena.  Talk to some previous clients and get a sense of how the agency works.  This will tell you whether or not they can really get you viable placements within 30 days.  The biggest word of advice, though, is to have patience and work smart.

Personality Matters:

Ultimately you also have to find an agency you're comfortable with.  Some agencies have a culture that is vastly different from the culture within your organization.  If your organization runs a little looser and is a little more happy-go-lucky, then an agency that is tight laced might not mesh with you.

When you hire an agency, you're establishing a close relationship.  It's like dating.  You don't marry the first girl, or guy, that comes along, you play the field until you find the right one.  In the same vein, don't sign up with the first agency you come across.  Make sure your personalities mesh.  Make sure you both have the same ideas when it comes to important things like strategy, timing, placements, content and cooperation.

You have to feel comfortable with them, and they with you.  So look for an agency that understands your issues and who you really want to work with.  If you do that, you'll both find success.  And isn't that the whole point to this in the first place?

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