Last week I read this blog The Problem With Public Relations on the Small Business section of nytimes.com. Written by Bruce Buschel, the owner of Southfork Kitchen, the blog chronicles his frustrating journey with finding the right P.R. firm to create a big splash for the grand opening of his new restaurant in Bridgehampton, NY. He writes:
“It would be crazy to categorize all public relations people as crazy, so let’s just say that P.R. people drive me crazy. All of them. As a client, as an interviewer of clients, as an avoider of clients they are selling too hard, and now as a client again. What I have finally come to understand is that P.R. people are paid to twist reality into pretzels and convince you that they are fine croissants. At some point, they actually believe their own concoctions.”
Buschel’s plight sounded eerily similar to a recent conversation I had with a new client as I was preparing a strategic P.R. plan for his business. I was hired to replace a previous P.R. firm who, in the client’s words “were good at invoicing and counting hours but that’s about it.” They made big promises but didn’t deliver, he said and his biggest frustration was “they didn’t understand my business.”
Just like any other profession, the P.R. industry has many phenomenal rock stars who are hard-working achievers, and then there are those who talk like a rock star but don’t perform like one. P.R. people are good at bragging about themselves and their credentials, but as Bruce Buschel will tell you, sometimes the $#*! they say to get your business turns out to be exactly that: complete bull. Credentials are one thing; results are another.
So what’s a small business owner to do? You know your business needs to generate exposure and media attention – how can you find the right person (or firm) to get results?
Here are some suggestions to help you select the right P.R. representation:
Watch and read the news
Small business owners usually look for P.R. help because they want media exposure for their company, product or services. If that’s the case for you, the first thing you need to do is look for coverage of other companies in the local news. Take the time to be an active news consumer for a while: read online stories or watch TV reports as much as you can – every station puts video up online, which makes it easy to search news archives. If you see a company who gets consistent news coverage, contact them and ask who does their P.R. At the same time, look for your competitors (or similar organizations) in the news and note the reporters who cover them; knowing what coverage is already out there will help you when vetting prospective P.R. representation. If a reporter has recently done something similar to your story, then your P.R. person will need to be media savvy and identify new angles to pitch and get you coverage.
Spend time on their Web site
Can you judge a book by its cover? Yes you can. In the P.R. world, our ‘cover’ is our digital presence. Start with the website; dig deep to learn about past clients, previous successes and their service philosophy. Is information on the site current and frequently updated? Is the site effective at communicating who they are and what they do? If not, why should you trust them to effectively communicate about your business? Is the site riddled with glaring grammatical errors or sloppy design? Those are red flags that they lack attention to detail.
Most P.R. people list existing clients online – use search engines to look for recent media coverage of those clients; with a little research you can determine if they are generating results (HINT: on Google, click “NEWS” tab to filter the results so you only see news stories). Google the prospective P.R. person by name and see what comes up. If social media is one of the areas where your business needs help, look to see if they have a strong presence on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn; why would you hire somebody that doesn’t have a strong social media footprint of their own?
Ask in-depth questions
Prepare for the initial consultation with a list of comprehensive questions, and ask for specifics. Any reputable P.R. person will provide client references, just as you would if you were applying for a job. Ask questions that you can verify when you talk to those references, such as:
- What would clients say about working with you?
- What results did you generate for them?
- How did those P.R. results support business objectives?
- How did you help that client capitalize on P.R. successes?
Ask for specific examples and have them explain the strategy behind previous P.R. campaigns. An expert P.R. professional does more than get you on TV – they connect the dots between communication strategy and business goals. Don’t ask about their media rolodex with the typical “what reporters do you know?” Any experienced P.R. person can say they know a lot reporters, but how many reporters respect their work? A better question is “can you name some reporters who would say you are a good P.R. person?” If they can’t give you an answer, don’t hire them.
I can understand why P.R. people drive Bruce Buschel crazy after his experiences opening Southfork Kitchen. To him I would say not all P.R. people are created equal. Next time I’m in the Hamptons, Bruce, I’ll stop by to sample some of that Paumonak wine.