Five Questions to Ask When Hiring a PR Firm

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Good communications can make the difference between winning and losing. It can elevate small companies to the national stage. It can help businesses keep their noses clean in front of investors and the public. It can generate sales, leaving the competition in the dust. Clearly, it’s important, but many companies don’t have the internal resources to do it on their own.

That begs the question: How do you find a PR firm that can help you achieve your unique business goals in the most cost-effective way? Choosing a PR firm can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. There are so many firms out there: how do you know what to look for? Here are five questions that can help:

  1. What is the spectrum of services you provide? Many PR agencies do little more than media pitching, but public relations is so much more than just getting your company’s name in print. Last year, Arik Hanson wrote about the skills that the PR pro of the future should possess, and I argue that many of these skills are necessary today. When hiring PR experts, look for a full-spectrum communications agency. Seek a firm who knows digital PR, video, multimedia, graphics, social media, employee outreach, and crisis communications. A firm with well-rounded capabilities can promote your company more effectively than a simple media relations shop. Remember: the goal is to make your cash register ring. If the firms you interview don’t know how to integrate media relations into a larger communications strategy, move on to the next. And that’s a good segue into the next question you should ask…
  2. How do you evaluate results? Again, you shouldn’t seek an agency with short-sighted measurement goals. Media impressions and advertising equivalency alone do not move the needle on ROI. Those aren’t results; they’re metrics. You should only work with agencies that can tell the difference.
  3. How do you stay on top of trends? I recently blogged about the importance of being a ‘know-it-all’ (in the least annoying way, of course!). Agencies who have a clear pulse on emerging industry trends are flexible and adaptable. It’s likely that they’ll be more creative in their approach. Agencies that aren’t on the cutting-edge of new best practices or technology are more likely to stick with a traditional approach, which is becoming less-and-less effective. Your PR agency should be a team of trend-spotters. Rely on them to proactively identify ways for your company to leverage new trends. Remember you’re paying them to be on the lookout for new ideas and opportunities to benefit your organization.
  4. Can you provide a case study of one of your successful campaigns? This is your opportunity to hear how the agency defines results. It is crucial that your expectation of good results is in line with the agency’s. Also, this gives you the opportunity to see what kind of clients are on the agency’s roster. You’ll want to pay attention to whether they’ve worked with established brands, and if they have experience working with clients in your industry.
  5. Is there anything else you can help us with? To circle back to question #1, you should seek to hire a full-spectrum communications agency. You may be looking for help with media relations, but perhaps the agency can also help you produce video, develop graphics, write grants, execute events, write a crisis communication plan, or help manage your social media accounts. Your organization would surely find it more efficient to work with one partner to manage these disparate needs.

Here are a few other things to consider:

  • Seek a true communications partner, not just a vendor. When clients treat their PR agencies like vendors, it stifles results and can harm the relationship. Think of your communications consultant as an extension of your team. The team needs to know your industry and the details of your business in order to do their best, most creative work. Be willing to invest in the relationship and help them stay informed on what your company is doing.
  • Pay for strategy, not tactics. Companies who look for a PR firm to fill a tactical need are missing out. If you’re already paying a company to write press releases or create videos, why not leverage their creative, strategic thinking. We love to make you look good in front of your boss. Why not take advantage of additional brainpower to come up with strategies that support your company’s overall business goals?
  • You can’t be absent from the process. Companies hire PR firms to develop campaigns and provide strategic counsel. But firms also help ease a resource burden – to take over work that the internal team is too busy to do. Even though things might get busy, you still need to be involved. You can’t remove yourself completely from the process. Whether we need you to serve as a spokesperson, provide approval, keep us in the loop with what’s happening at your company, or to bounce an idea around, the results are always better when everyone participates.

How to Handle Crisis Communications

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If you’re at the center of a crisis when one hits, like it did April 15 when two bombs killed and maimed spectators and participants at the Boston Marathon, make this your mantra:

Communicate early. Communicate often. And communicate accurately.

Communicating early, when facts are still coming in and very little can be confirmed or validated, means at least letting stakeholders know that:

  1. You’re on it.
  2. You care.

Social media might be among the first places you let people know that your organization is working to fact find and planning to release more information as it becomes available and verified. If you’ve pre-planned your crisis communications, you will have some prepared responses to many potential crisis scenarios so that your posts are a keystroke away and do not need vetting or wordsmithing under high stress. If you have an important message that you need to get out, use social media and ask people to share your message. Many people will be glad to help.

It’s important to show people as early as possible that you are the best and most reliable source of information about your crisis and that you care. Do not assume that they realize you’re as upset, saddened, shocked or dismayed as they are. Tell them so. And if your attorneys tell you not to comment at all, just keep in mind that their primary goal is winning in the courtroom or negotiating table. They might win there, but if you don’t communicate early and empathetically, you lose in the court of public opinion and that may cost you more dearly than any court-mandated settlement. (Just sayin’. If the lawyers start driving the communications strategy, it’s game over. Think of BP in the Gulf of Mexico or Toyota with its faulty brakes.)

If people were harmed, you care deeply and are empathetic. If people have been inconvenienced, you’re sympathetic and are working furiously to ensure that everything is returned to business as usual.

The lawyers want to be sure that you’re not excessively admitting to responsibility for their inconvenience or injuries. This is valid, but it is a terrible and irreparable mistake to withhold any response and, as a result, project an image of callousness. You cannot be too compassionate. And compassion does not mean taking responsibility.

Think about this: What if the CEO of Carnival Cruises had gotten himself airlifted to the ship adrift and suffered alongside his customers? I would feel entirely differently about the problems Carnival and its passengers have suffered through if I knew its executives shared in the discomfort. And the headline would not be: “Boss of Carnival Adds Insult to Misery By Going to Basketball Game as 4,000 Suffer Aboard ‘Stinking Stricken Ship’…”.

Communicating often is essential because media coverage can be around the clock. If it’s an evolving situation, plan to hold media briefings every few hours. Listen closely on social media so you can correct misinformation that is getting passed around as it happens. Use your social media channels to release details in between media briefings. Establish a hashtag for your crisis communications on Twitter so that people can more closely follow the ‘official’ information source.

The frequency of your communications are a way of showing that you care about your stakeholders and are serving their needs and not just your own. Today, people make judgments based on your organization’s behavior and not just a carefully crafted message labored over by your attorneys, senior executives and others.

Inaccurate information can un-do all of your tremendous communications. To increase the likelihood that accurate information is presented on a timely basis, your crisis plan should have designated spokespeople, chains of command and reporting structures so that people in the field, on the scene or troubleshooting the issue know the protocol for providing updates. They should have the names and contact information of the crisis team, there should be a clear method of capturing and reporting out the information to the crisis team, and everyone in the field should know not to speak to but instead properly redirect the media and to limit internal speculation.

Stress degrades decision making, so successful communications in a crisis are typically based on a pre-existing communication plan that reasonably anticipates various crisis situations and develops responses so that they’re at the ready when a crisis hits.

Whether you have a plan or are planning on the fly, just repeat after me: communicate early, communicate often and communicate accurately.

Hospitality Marketing: Going Mobile in the Digital Age

Hotel management consultant Robert A. Rauch of R.A. Rauch & Associates recently hosted his second annual Hotel Forecast and Digital Marketing Conference with additional presentation by e-marketer Adam Brownstein. Brownstein is co-founder of buuteeq, a firm that provides a digital marketing system for hotels. Both presentations offered great food for thought for hospitality marketers.

In his opening, Rauch boldly stated that the information age is over and that we have entered a “digital tsunami age.” He explained that the hospitality landscape is evolving quickly as customers increasingly turn to online and mobile platforms for all forms of communication, sharing, planning and booking. But, now more than ever, the digital landscape is also driving all aspects of customer service and engagement, before, during and after a trip.

Brownstein later noted that while mobile traffic makes up 15 percent of current hotel website traffic volumes, smartphone activity has tripled in the last year alone. Approximately 30 percent of website traffic and 65 percent of same-day hotel reservations now come via mobile phones. He also noted that 57 percent of mobile users will not recommend a hotel with a bad mobile site.

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What makes a good mobile site? In a nutshell, it should automatically deliver a tailored experience. A few ways to accomplish this include:

  • Resizing and compressing images and enlarging text
  • Displaying contact information prominently
  • Linking seamlessly to maps
  • Not using outdated flash technology
  • Using a mobile optimized booking engine
  • Running mobile-only promotions to target on-the-go travelers with last-minute deals

But having a mobile site is only one piece of the puzzle. Both Rauch and Brownstein agreed that in today’s instantaneous speed of ingesting information, a hotel’s main site and mobile site also should:

  • Not skimp on high-quality photos! Photos sell a hotel even before marketing copy, with nearly 73 percent of users clicking on photos of rooms after visiting the homepage.
  • Keep things simple. As soon as a guest decides a site requires too much focus, effort, or time to find what they need, they will likely move on with without booking a room.

More advice for hoteliers included making sure their brand is on social media, and providing guests the opportunity to book through every applicable platform, such as the hotel’s Facebook page. Rauch also recommended that hotels integrate their TripAdvisor feed on their website. His reasoning? TripAdvisor is a great driver of bookings but also a leak. When potential guests are forced to leave a hotel’s site to read reviews of the property, they end up also reading the competitions’. Lastly, while TripAdvisor is still the leading trusted source of travel reviews, Rauch said to keep an eye on Google. The relentless competitor has made strong forays in hospitality and therefore hotels should at the very least have a presence on Google+ and Google Places.

The lessons imparted by Rauch and Brownstein can be applied to just about any business. Is yours effectively capturing today’s digital generation?

Four PR Trends

trendsLooking at past trends in an evolving industry can be a poor predictor of future trends—whether you’re talking about the stock market or the PR field.

Witness Facebook (a 9-year-old), Twitter (a 7-year-old), Instagram and Tout (both 2 year olds). These are among only a few of the game changers that disrupted the publishing industry. Each is a relative toddler by traditional business standards, and not that many years before their existence I don’t recall anyone predicting them. But their global impact on the human condition is already established.

The trend impacting the PR industry, therefore, is not which new social tool will take off, but that game changers are now the norm. Expect and anticipate them.

Here are four things (among many) I see near through long term impacting PR.

The Story Stays

We like a good yarn. Stories have been told throughout human history and they’re not going away anytime soon. So while the delivery method may continue to break speed records in the unprecedented data age we’re now in, if there isn’t a compelling story to whatever the communication is, it won’t leave the station.

In creating your communications, think about your story. How compelling is it or could it be, and why should others care? And if you don’t have one, then either create one or rethink your communication strategy for most effective resource use.

Multimedia Explosion

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We are a sensorial species, and with the written word there’s a terrible lack of engagement of the senses. True, imagination can help make up for that. However, the way I imagine Utopia and you do can be very different, meaning there’s a significant control loss of the intended message. But what if I could not only tell you a story, but also engage you in it by your five senses? Instant communication around the planet is now possible with video covering sight and sound that will only increase. But I think it’s only a matter of time before technology allows for an online cook ‘book’ to not only convey with what and how something’s made, but also how it should look, feel and even smell and taste.

Additive Manufacturing

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…aka 3-D Printing will change everything, and this means for PR too.  I think 3-D printing is trul yRoddenberry’s Star Trek replicator come to life like the cell phone, and why I see it profoundly impacting PR is that currently the world’s societies are built largely around traditionally manufactured goods and related services – shoes manufactured in China are consumed in the USA; medical implants created in New York are used in Canada; an airplane is created and assembled from many different places; etc. Things today are still made for us and we don’t make things for ourselves. PR supports all of this ‘traditional’ world commerce that in the next decade will dramatically change with the advent of 3-D printing for the masses. Like intangibles such as information value decreasing with increased accessibility, so will the value of physical goods change. As it does, PR will change as well, becoming less about conveying a compelling call to action to buy consumer products, say, and more about strategically helping communicate things like B2B opportunities, services expertise, key events, experience opportunities, and political and societal agendas.

Local & Smaller

It’s well established doctrine for good communication to know thy audience, and reach them where they are. With billions of us now having our heads buried in our smartphones more than we’d like to admit, guess where audiences are? Sure, we’re still driving down the freeway ready to notice a billboard, pouring over that quaint thing called a newspaper at Starbucks occasionally, and watching commercials whip by as we watch our favorite DVR’d show.  But increasingly we’re more interested in our immediate environs – our local neighborhood – than otherwise. So as opposed to a broad shotgun approach, PR will increasingly need a precise rifle approach tailored to local geography and interests. And in doing so rely less on large real estate like a full magazine, in-depth television reporting or a regional newspaper spread, but instead plan for consumption to be increasingly on a screen just four or five inches wide—that if it’s showing a picture of a rose, soon enough will probably smell just as sweet.

Public Relations is More Than Order Taking

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Recently at a luncheon for hospitality sales and marketing professionals I heard the phrase, “I don’t care if you’re an order taker, be the best order taker you can be.” I suppose the phrase makes sense for a restaurant server, for example, since what typically sets the best servers apart is their ability to upsell: As you’ve each selected the same glass of wine, how about sharing a bottle? But could the same phrase also be applied to a PR professional? I certainly hope not.

At (W)right On we take ‘project orders’ from our clients all the time. In any given month we fulfill a myriad of requests from writing a press release or designing a brochure, to producing a video or strategizing an email marketing campaign. But it’s not our goal to simply be great order takers. As PR consultants, our goal is to help our clients achieve their communications goals while helping them to see a bigger picture. And that means steering them to the right strategies to reach their goals.

For example, before we ever sit at the table to create compelling copy for a brochure, we may first have to spend time gently explaining to a client why his company jargon isn’t compelling or why a brochure is not the communications vehicle in the first place. Or when a client comes to us with a “great idea” for a press release, we can’t be afraid to ask: so what? We’re in the business of communications, so it’s our job to pinpoint the “so what?” in every project we collaborate on.Is this idea newsworthy? If not, let’s come up with an idea that is! Will anyone care? If not, let’s look at why and figure out how to make it so! Is there a different marketing route we could take instead of a routine press release? Let’s brainstorm the possibilities!

When I heard that phrase, “…be the best order taker you can be,” I immediately thought of (W)right On’s Core Values and how five of them illustrate why we will never consider ourselves order takers:

We act with intention. When we know the outcomes that are being targeted and how these will help our clients reach their goals, we make the best use of client and agency resources and we can anticipate problems before they arise.

We focus on the important. We don’t confuse flash for substance. And we don’t confuse activity for productivity.

We are relentless about results. We are creative and thorough in helping clients achieve their goals. And we accept that we won’t always be successful, but when we aren’t, it won’t be because of something we didn’t think of or do!

We embrace and lead change. We accept and strive to stay ahead of changes in our industry and our clients’ industries.

We do what’s right. We always act with integrity and don’t compromise on excellence. We don’t take short-cuts that sacrifice quality or our reputation. When we make a mistake we own it and make it right.

Fact of the matter is, for us, relationships rule, and you can’t really have a relationship with a client if you’re just an order taker. Order takers are a commodity. Leaders add value. We take the time to build relationships with our clients by adhering to our Core Values and setting clear expectations and goals, having open communication channels and showing mutual respect.

How do you build relationships in your industry?

Where’s the Beef?

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Communicating Value

No one ever likes losing a customer or client, especially when they leave for the wrong reasons or never share any of their doubt or discontent about your product or service. We often mistake no news for good news, but many people actually prefer the door to the daunting prospect of sharing their discontent.

Sharing their discontent with you, that is. They have no problem sharing with all their colleagues.

This problem is more common among consumers of services than actual products. With a physical product, if something doesn’t perform as a customer expected, they can return or exchange it. Consulting services, like those we provide at (W)right On Communications, require more proactive communication with clients to increase their understanding of the work product and value of the outcomes. And whether you’re in the communications consulting field or a seller of world-class widgets, the following five communication steps can increase client satisfaction and build client loyalty.

The Plan’s the Thing

As a service provider, it is important to establish upfront a client’s needs and expectations and how you plan to meet (and hopefully exceed!) them. Agreeing on a well-defined set of goals and objectives makes evaluation of your services turnkey. Documenting this communication in a plan of action keeps everyone on the same page.

Don’t Stop Thinkin’ About Tomorrow

With a plan in place, you can grow your relationship with your client by bringing to their attention relevant current events and new ideas that could impact their business. This is a value-added service you can provide that demonstrates what you bring to their team. If your contribution becomes an action item that requires amendments to the original plan, advise your client of the financial implications upfront.

Just Do It

One of the biggest benefits you can bring to the party is the ability to get things done. Find ways to solve problems apart from relying on the client for an assist. And meeting deadlines is a must. Lingering projects for any reason lead to apathy about your value and a lack confidence in your ability.

Making Dollars Make Sense

When a client complains about the bill, it means they are not fully aware of all the benefits they are receiving from you so they don’t understand the value. It’s up to you to continually communicate the benefits of your service. That can take the form of regular progress reports with measurable metrics (you can even send this with the bill). Periodically meeting with your client to review the bills gives them a chance to ask questions and for you to describe the value-added services that are often not reflected on the bill. This also gives your client the opportunity to clarify what kind of outcomes they are expecting so that there is no miscommunication.

Three Little Words

Checking in with your client from time to time is the easiest way to diffuse percolating issues. Simply asking, “How’s it going?” can initiate a meaningful dialogue that leads to good will (maybe even an accolade or two) or course corrections in advance of a crisis situation.

In a digital world, it’s easy to think we’re having conversations because we’re communicating with one another. But there’s no substitute for being in the moment with a live, back and forth, give and take conversation with real-time facial expressions and tangible emotional engagement.

And remember – it’s cheaper to keep a client than to find a new one. Beyond lost revenue, you’ve just cost yourself the time and resources to cultivate new business.