handshakeLast week Ryan Derousseau was kind enough to publish a Q&A with me on what businesses should take into consideration when hiring a PR firm. He asked some very thoughtful questions, and I did my best to answer as thoughtfully.

Image: janetmck via Flickr, CC 2.0

Here are a couple of excerpts:

First, what can a company thinking of hiring an agency, expect in terms of service that they have been missing by running PR in-house?

One of the most important things to remember when looking for PR support is this: you are the client. That means it is both your right and prerogative to lay out what kind of support you are looking for, what kind of team you’re looking for, and what your budget is.

Be very clear about what you expect in terms of regular communication, what kinds of deliverables you’re looking for, etc. When you do this, you’re setting yourself, and the agency, up for success rather than failure. And when you do that, you get the kind of service you need.

There’s more to my answer on Ryan’s blog, but this is something I feel very strongly about. After all, why does any relationship fail? Because the parties involved no longer see eye-to-eye on what a mutually beneficial outcome is.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a romantic relationship, a sibling relationship or a business one; that, at its crux, is why BFFs become BFNMs.

So set expectations clearly from the start. And this applies just as much to clients as to agencies. Clients should be up front about everything I’ve mentioned… and agencies (or consultants) should be equally up front about their terms, how they’ll do the work, what is and isn’t in their scope of work, what their payment terms are (very important to get this in writing!), what the deliverables are, etc.

Be clear from the beginning. It’s so much easier on everyone.

Ryan also asked:

Are there any questions that they should ask in the proposal/pitching process that will be able to truly find the right agency?

Just as companies should look for agencies that are asking the right kinds of questions, they should try and find out as much about the agencies as they can. So ask questions like: how did you help other companies achieve their stated business objectives? How will you help me achieve mine? How do you measure PR campaigns? Who will my team consist of? What is their experience in the areas we need help with? What is your communication and reporting structure?

That was part of my answer. I also talked about not getting stars in your eyes over a “big agency;” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen firms turn to smaller agencies, or even consultants (yes, like me) to clean up the mess that the now out-of-favor big agency left behind, after charging them a retainer that cost an arm and a leg. But for all those zeroes, what they actually delivered was sorely disappointing.

I’m not looking to get into a David v. Goliath debate here. I’ve worked at small agencies, large agencies, and on my own, and there are pros and cons to every situation.

So bear in mind that the “right agency” is likely to be the “right agency” only for a limited span of time.

As the needs of your business change, you might find it necessary to turn elsewhere. And that’s ok.

But at least start out by looking for the right skill set, and an agency/consultant/whatever that will help you achieve real business objectives. And if they can’t give you a sense of how they would measure your program, then I’d run far, far away from them.

The last question I’ll expound on here is:

As agencies pitch them for their services, what should they be skeptical of, since agencies will promise certain things (with some agencies promising the moon)?

Almost all agencies will have a few of their marquee executives participate in the pitch phase; these are the executives they showcase on their websites and tout at conferences, etc. But when it comes down to working on the account day-to-day, chances are you won’t see them much, if at all. So that is one thing I’d be skeptical of.

Again, I’m not looking to start a David v. Goliath battle here. However, I will say this; based on my experience, this tends to happen more at larger agencies than smaller ones.

It isn’t because they are trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes; it is simply a function of how agencies typically structure their account teams and manage their billings. Senior executives usually have a new business target they need to hit; so they try to pitch as much new business as possible. However, once they win that business, they’ll soon run the account into the ground (from the agency’s point of view) if they are the ones primarily billing to it. It just isn’t a cost-effective use of their time.

I will say that I have seen a lot of senior execs spend inordinate amounts of time on client work, to the point of over-servicing the client. Sometimes this is because the senior execs are genuinely committed to the client, so feel more ownership than normal, and sometimes, quite frankly, it’s because they are control freaks and/or terrible managers who are unable to delegate or mentor effectively.

And this is a shame because, a) junior staff won’t learn if they’re not given the chance to do the work, and b) over time, this makes for an extremely unhealthy bottom line.

But I would never recommend farming off the work to junior/inexperienced staff at the expense of the client, and this is one of the primary reasons big agencies have a bad rap; because of the “smoke and mirror” show some of them undertake. So just watch out for that.

I’d love it if you read the full post over at Ryan’s place, and let me know your thoughts, either as a comment below or on the original post.

And do you have more questions about working with a PR agency? If so, please let me know, and I’ll do my best to answer them, or find someone who can!