If you are a SME and have had no prior experience with agencies, making a decision on who to entrust with your public relations is tough. There are a variety of factors to consider – do you choose a public relations (PR) agency that focuses on a key niche area, or one that is more generalized and has more varied press contacts? Do you opt for an agency that charges a fix retainer fee, or one that charges exclusively by results? Finally, how can you carry out due diligence on an PR company to ensure they can achieve the goals you set out? All these questions are answered below in PR Pioneer’s Ultimate Guide for SMEs on Choosing a PR Agency:
A Guide to Choosing a PR Agency. What Type of PR Agency to Appoint?
Do I appoint a PR agency that specializes in one particular area, or one that covers general PR? Among the spectrum of public relations (PR) agencies, there exist two main types from which you can choose:
- General PR agencies: these claim to cover (almost) all areas when it comes to gaining media publicity.
- Specialist and Niche PR agencies: these are agencies who specialize in certain areas – for example, a lifestyle PR agency may cover fashion & beauty, travel and music. Or they may have a niche expertise in one particular area, such as interior design or vegan food.
Deciding on what is the best fit for your company depends on a variety of factors. We have put together some pros and cons on appointing general vs specialist/niche PR agencies to help you make your decision.
Specialist/Niche PR Agency Pros:
- These agencies clearly have an expertise in one particular area and know the industry well. Not only do they have the right journalist contacts, but they can be an important sounding board to advise you on other areas of your business. For example, you may have plans to introduce a new product – getting advice from your PR agency may be invaluable as they may have a good idea how journalists would review such a product. It is likely therefore that your customers would react the same way. Of course, its not part of their remit to provide advice on areas outside of PR, however, the relationship you build with them over time means that, more often than not, they become de-facto business advisers, whether that is around marketing, pricing or even paid media.
- Another advantage, and perhaps the most important, is that niche communications agencies tend to have the strongest relationships with leading journalists in that particular field. This will be as a result of years of relationships they have built up. They will often secure very targeted media coverage in the top publications.
- In terms of SEO value, backlinks on websites which are very relevant to your brand will often prove to be the most valuable. e.g. a link for a brand selling paint on a DIY website may prove far more valuable according to Google than if it appeared on a general news website, even if has a higher readership.
Specialist PR Agency Cons:
- As we mentioned in the above pros section, specialist PR agencies often have the best press contacts in your specific area and can achieve excellent placements, however, their reach may be limited. Companies working with niche agencies do tend to report back they get repeat coverage in the same press titles or on the same websites. A non-niche agency might have contacts in a much wider variety of publications which could really maximize your potential audience. Specialist online marketing agencies do tend to secure coverage for their clients in the publications that they have strong relationships with. This is great when launching a brand for the first time, but then becomes less impactful in the second, third and so on campaigns. Let’s take the example of a beauty PR agency which is launching an anti-ageing skincare brand. In the first campaign, they perform superbly and arrange placements of the product in the likes of Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Bustle But on the second campaign, they achieve similar press coverage in the same publications. It is still really good coverage, but you would want to grow your customer base and being exposed to the same readers each time begins to lose its value.
- SEO value is often as important as brand awareness for many brands. As above, the link value (otherwise known as ‘link juice’) of being in similar titles repeatedly depreciates over time. The link’s value is less if you already have one pointing at your website from the same domain. In SEO terms, it is far more useful to have links from a big variety of high authority domains.
- Price! Obviously the amount a specialist PR agency charges is a big factor when you are considering which one to appoint. Specialist PR agencies tend to be (but not always) more expensive than more generalized PR companies. Think of the difference between different types of doctors – those that specialize in one niche area, e.g. orthopedic surgeons, tend to get paid the most whereas general family doctors earn considerably less.
- A specialist PR agency will do as it says on the tin when it comes to press coverage in online media, print publications and social media influencers. However, it is unlikely they will find new, creative areas for you to explore in the same way that a more broad-based approach agency would do. Generalist PR’s will often inadvertently find a new market or audience for you. For instance, when promoting a jewelry brand, they may discover that a foreign media market is actually a very strong area to explore.
General PR Agency Pros:
- General PR agencies are usually more flexible and can work in lots of different areas. While they may not have the ultra-close journalist relationships that specialized agencies tend to have, their major advantage is the sheer breadth of press coverage they can achieve for your company. Press release distribution services such as PR Fire are not limited by a few relationships with media in certain publications, and can hit and achieve more pieces of press coverage, in a wider field.
- As mentioned in the cons for working with specialist agencies, on the flipside, backlinks achieved on a wide variety of online resources will always serve you better in terms of SEO and organic Google rankings than if they were to appear repeatedly on a small number of websites.
- Again, price is a big factor and general PR agencies tend to charge lower monthly retainer fees or charge exclusively by results than more specialist agencies. Particularly if you are a startup, this is a major advantage.
General PR Agency Cons:
- Quantity of coverage achieved in a PR campaign is definitely an important metric. But so is quality! The old adage of ‘quantity over quality’ is no less true in PR than any other industry. Often general PR agencies will achieve varied coverage in multiple publications, but not necessarily in magazines and newspapers that directly reach your target audience, and therefore lead to sales.
- And as mentioned above, backlinks on ultra relevant websites tend to help with your SEO and Google rankings than backlinks on more generalized websites such as the New York Post.
Choosing a specialist PR agency vs a general one mostly comes down to your product or service and how you want to position it. If you are looking for mass sales and marketing, a general PR agency may help further your reach. However, if you work in an area that requires in depth knowledge of the product and want to target a very specific audience, you may find a specialist in your field will be a better choice.
If your brand is very reliant on online sales it would also be a good idea to talk to a SEO specialist before you decide who to go ahead with so they can guide you in terms of what kind of online presence you should be looking for to gather the most pace on the Google rankings.
Deciding Between a PR Agency That Charges a Retainer vs By Results
On the face of it, if you are presented with a choice between a public relations agency which charges a retainer fee (usually on a monthly basis) versus a performance based agency who only charge by the results they achieve for you, 99% you would choose the latter! However, when we delve deeper, the advantages and disadvantages are not so clear cut… Below we look at them in more detail…
PR Agencies Who Work On a Purely Results Basis
A Guide to Choosing a PR Agency. You do have to shop around online to find PR agencies who work on a performance basis, as there are not that many of them! Most charge set retainer fees, however, this form of remuneration is growing in popularity and these agencies are easier to find than say five years ago. In short, performance PR agencies do what it says on the tin – they only charge for press coverage they achieve, and therefore there is no minimum fee to pay. If you have a brand that you want to be communicated to press, it sounds like a no brainer to go for a performance agency, as you are paying exactly what they achieve for you. In the majority of cases, these agencies tend to have full confidence in themselves that they will pull in the coverage, however, there are potential pitfalls to be aware of before signing up:
- Make sure you have a clear definition written into the contract of what constitutes ‘press coverage’. A PR agency without the best intentions may define press coverage as some poor quality blogs which you will be disappointed to pay for, particularly as you could a) arrange that coverage yourself and b) they might just damage your brand. When it comes to online coverage, it is probably a good idea to come to an agreement that you will only pay for online coverage with a domain authority of 30 and above – this serves the purpose of eliminating most blogs and poor quality websites. If it’s for print, then ask to set a minimum publication readership that you would be willing to pay to be in i.e. unless you have a business in a very localized area, it is doubtful you would want coverage in a tiny publication with a readership of 500 people.
- You should also be clear in which types of publications you will be charged. For example, if you own a men’s streetwear brand, it’s unlikely a feature in Garden & Gun magazine (despite it being a good publication), would be beneficial to you. Both for sales and SEO reasons, you should only be paying for press coverage that is beneficial to your brand, not coverage just for the sake of it.
- Likewise, you should also make sure that you will only pay media coverage in countries in which you operate! While a feature in France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, would be impressive, it would not be useful if you sold no products there!
- Perhaps the most important question to ask is – what happens if a campaign goes viral? It may be a great deal if you are paying by results, but if a campaign is super successful, you could potentially be presented with a very large (and unaffordable) invoice at the end of the campaign. It is a good idea to negotiate a ‘cap’ with the PR company in case a campaign goes wild.
PR Agencies Who Charge a Retainer Fee
The majority of PR firms work on a retainer basis, though the amounts that they charge fluctuate wildly. Most charge on a monthly basis and below are some pros and cons.
Pros of a retainer fee agency
- You could potentially get far more ‘bang for your buck’ working with an agency that charges by retainer. While a performance-based agency (above) charges you exactly what they achieve, a retainer fee agency could get you more coverage. For example, if a results-based agency charges you $500 per piece of coverage, and they arrange placements in 5 publications, you would owe $2,500. However, if you signed up with a more mainstream agency on a retainer of $2,000 per month for a 3 month contract, your invoice amount would be $6,000 – considerably more than the results-based agency. But if this PR company organized 15 pieces of press coverage, the average amount you pay is $400. So you would be getting more coverage at a discount.
- Another advantage is that, prior to signing a contract, you can make clear what your expectations are in terms of amount of press coverage. While technically you could be charged a set amount and not get any press coverage, if you set some expectations at the beginning, it gives the agency a target to reach, even if it is not enforceable contractually.
- Lastly, agencies that work on a retainer basis want your repeat business. They are therefore incentivized to do the best job possible, and this may involve ‘going the extra mile’ for you. For example, if they achieve coverage for your business in online or print, they may encourage the publication to also push it through their social media channels, adding more value.
Cons of a retainer fee agency
- An obvious disadvantage of a set-fee approach is that the PR agency does not achieve any or any meaningful coverage. While they may make all the promises in the world in person, most of these agencies’ legal teams are savvy enough to include clauses in their contracts that enables them to charge you whatever the outcome.
- Another con, and similar to that of results-based charges above is that the PR agency may achieve plenty of coverage, which they will justify to you as a successful campaign and job done, it can be the case that said coverage is in the wrong type of publications and has no meaningful impact on your brand.
There are advantages and disadvantages between both remuneration approaches when it comes to choosing a PR agency. However, armed with this guide, and provided you ask the right questions and ensure that you have read the fine print in the contracts presented to you, and that you have done your research with their previous clients, then your decision is mostly based on risk/reward. You run the risk of not getting as much press coverage as you would have hoped on a retainer basis. On the other hand, you also have the potential of gaining far more coverage than you would have had working on a results basis.
How Long a Contract Should I Sign Up For With a PR Agency?
A lot of this depends on the type of campaign you want running, and so is particular to your situation. For example, a building project can take years and the construction company behind it will require the long term services of a PR agency to liaise with local newspaper publications with updates on the project. On the other hand, a company launching a specific one-off event will only require PR representation for a short period of time in the run up to it.
However, as a rule of thumb, almost all terms can be negotiated with a PR agency, and it is up to you and them to find common ground and agree to a set period. It is within the PR firm’s interests to tie you into a long-term contract (such as a year), but this can almost always be reduced.
On the flipside, it can be counterproductive to negotiate too hard for a shorter contract length. PR is not an instant results business and requires time and effort to reap the benefits of it. For example, a fashion brand may appoint a PR agency with a remit to gain coverage in monthly print publications such as Glamour and Elle. However, given the nature of print, these magazines work on a 3 month time lag – that is – the publication only hits the shelves a good 3 months after the fashion teams have worked on their pages. So it would make little sense to sign up for a 1-2 month contract in this example. A six month contract would make fare more sense to be able to reap the most benefits.
If you have any questions about appointing a PR agency, or you would like any agency recommendations, please contact the PR Pioneer team here.