Should you hire a public relations expert?

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

By Mark G. Auerbach

Every smart small business owner knows the importance of both marketing and public relations. To attract business and customers, you need a smart, well-balanced, well-budgeted ongoing campaign. So, do you do it yourself, hire a full-service advertising agency that does marketing and public relations, or hire a separate public relations company?

Good public relations companies can be large or small, and like law firms or medical practices, be generalists or specialists. Some deal with clients and media internationally, nationally or locally. Some require extended retainers, while some work on a per project rate or hourly.

You know you need public relations, but you may choose, for budget reasons, to go it alone. But, any public relations effort is ongoing and time consuming. You could hire an in-house person to manage your media lists, pitch the press on your upcoming products or projects, and post your social media. Your available time and budget may suggest that you bring a PR individual or company onboard. And, for some people, it’s easy to self-promote what you’re doing. For others, it’s easier to have someone else promote you. When you talk about yourself, it’s perceived as self-promotion. When someone else talks about you, it’s perceived as information or endorsement.

Choose carefully

So, make your choice carefully. Before you solicit an individual or company to do your ongoing work, see what you can afford. You’ll be paying that individual or company for their time, but budget their expenses, too. Will they be doing direct mail (design, printing and postage)? Will they be managing your website (design, hosting, maintenance)? Will they be coordinating your social media (photos, video, music)? Will they be developing your media list? Purchasing one from a program like Cision’s PR Newswire?

Once you’ve figured out a realistic budget, then you have to find the right publicist—one who is connected with media in the region where you want visibility, one with enthusiasm and energy to get out there and spread your word. If you like the press generated by a business in your area, you can always ask who they use. If you’re buying media from print, radio, or TV, your ad representative might make recommendations. If you personally know a reporter, you could ask their advice as to whom they respect in the market, since the media deals with PR people all the time.

If you choose a large agency, you may become just a number amongst other clients. And, if they have similar kinds of clients, will you get preference or get lost in the shuffle? You’ll likely pay higher rates, because a large agency has large overhead—rent, equipment, support staff salaries and benefits, etc. A smaller agency may have lower overhead and may offer more reasonable pricing. They may farm out the photography, video, print, design to outside vendors, building a specific team for your needs, and budgeting appropriately.

An aside here. I wear two hats, one as a public relations professional and one as a reporter. When I wear my reporter’s hat, I know which publicists are easy to work with, people who can provide essential information on time with sufficient materials. I know the ones who will schedule interviews with their clients and make sure the client shows up at the appointed time, and the ones who follow-up and become a great resource. I also know the bad ones. On the beat that I cover, there’s one area full-service advertising agency with a public relations department. They turn their ads in late; they send out publicity about events late; they respond to press inquiries at their whim. As a result, I ignore anything that comes from their offices, which means they’re really doing a disservice to their clients.

I actually asked the publicist at this company for specific information about a client, and was told “Can’t you look it up on their website?”. I ran into a board member of the client, and expressed my displeasure about how I’d been treated trying to do a feature on the client. The agency ultimately got canned, but I wonder how many other press opportunities were missed along the way. All of this is by way of saying that it’s important to do your research before hiring any firm to do your public relations work.

The hiring process

You’ll want to carefully interview the PR agency or person. Ask to see work examples and a client list and references. Google one of their clients, and see what kind of news coverage they’re getting. And, make sure they’re enthusiastic about your product and service, and not just appearing to be excited, in hopes of getting the gig. If they have true passion, you’re likely to build a good relationship from the get-go.

Not all PR people and agencies are good at all campaigns. My company, for example, will not do any work on political campaigns, science and high tech projects, or business-to-business programs. We won’t collaborate with any client who has a bad record with human rights. And, we don’t do personal publicity for anyone other than authors or those in the performing arts. We also can’t take on PR projects for theatres, which might directly conflict with my work as an arts reporter. So, we don’t put ourselves in any situation, where we cannot fully endorse a client and a client’s programs. Make sure the agency you hire has similar principles.

Some public relations people are associated with the Public Relations Society of America (I’m not), which is an excellent trade organization. Some people find their PR people there. Others may find them as members of a local advertising club, media alliance, or chamber of commerce. But, my best practice in finding the right person is to look at successful PR campaigns and the people behind them, and the reporters and media sources who are promoting them.

With the right marketing and public relations support in place, you can succeed in small business.

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Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn. Mark also produces ArtsBeat in print in The Westfield News, on radio for Pioneer Valley Radio and on TV and radio on WCPC15 and 89.5fm/WSKB. His new series, On The Mark, premieres in October.

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