You want to grow your organization, increase sales, promote new initiatives and expand your bandwidth on the web. Perhaps you’ve come to the conclusion that your message is the master and hiring a good, strategic public relations firm is the best way to create and share your message – and to help build your brand, sales and business. Getting all that done requires finding the best firm for your budget and needs. In this article, I will help you to: figure out what “best” might mean to your organization, create your short list of potential PR partners and ultimately select that best PR firm.

Top 10 steps and considerations when searching for your ideal PR match:

1. Personal and online search. Ask your friends and colleagues for recommendations. Learning from first-hand experience helps avoid going into your selection process cold. Ask what kind of experiences they have had with their PR firms. Were the firms attentive, did they set and meet goals, did they focus on solving problems? And, the big question: would they hire their firms again?

Next, go online and Google terms like: “public relations firms (and CLOSEST BIG CITY).” You’d insert the closest metropolitan area if working with a local firm is important to you. Review the websites of at least a dozen firms on the first three pages. Things to look for: a sense that the firm speaks to your needs and culture; a very well organized and well-written site (first impressions); a good presentation of its track record, a solid array of case studies that illustrate its problem solving/thinking and results; and third-party endorsements (awards and testimonials that speak to the experience other clients have with this firm). (While no PR firm will post testimonials of clients who have had a less-than-positive experience, testimonials still can provide useful information when you begin to see similar comments about approach, service, etc.) If you know you need a firm with strengths in a particular discipline, such as crisis management, look for that. Pick your top three to five firms and call the owners or another, appropriate contact. Make note of who takes the call. Are you handled simply like a new-business lead? Are you “sold to”? If so, ask to speak to an account manager, as the new business person may never speak with you again after the firm wins your business. Or, do you immediately speak to someone who wants to know about your needs and is willing to immediately share a few initial ideas? Is the firm willing to provide names and numbers of past and current clients? Does the other person do most of the talking or most of the listening, focused on learning what you’re about and need?

2. Pick up on passion. It is important to choose a firm whose people view media and PR as not just their job, but also their passion. You want a PR firm to sincerely care about its work … and your business. Determine if it is passionate when it describes its philosophy, its past successes, and its interest in your business and your unique offerings. You don’t want to feel like “just another client” whose PR firm is “going through the motions.” While there aren’t specific criteria, necessarily, that define passion, you certainly know when you’re speaking to someone who doesn’t have it.

3. Collaboration is key. Ensure your prospective PR firm believes in authentic collaboration with its clients, not just scheduling meetings and providing activity reports. Ask how the agency collaborates. Does the firm regularly schedule meetings or calls, request to receive newsletters (e.g., internal for employees, and external for clients, others) and other communications tools, desire to learn about your company’s broader goals and culture, have a strong willingness to attend your industry conferences, etc.? Ensure the firm and its people are committed to investing in and becoming partners (in a sense) in your business / success. If not, then look elsewhere.

4. Examine track record. How successful has this firm been at helping grow its clients’ businesses? Does it understand the challenges that its clients have faced, set goals and successfully meet them? Request examples. Interview past clients and ask these exact questions. Here are a few additional questions you could ask past clients: How responsible/dependable is the firm? Did their billing correspond to the results garnered? Are they proactively anticipating your needs and coming up with recommendations? Why would you recommend this firm? What big mistake did the firm make and how did it recover?

5. Only deal with top dogs – no puppies. If you’ll have junior-level people working on your account, how closely do their experienced seniors (some of whom are under 25) review their work? You never want a junior-level associate approving your final product. Determine the allocation of labor and ask how tasks are divided and assigned. Sometimes use of less senior-level people helps to stretch your budget, depending on the tasks these folks are assigned to complete. You’re hiring brainpower. Make sure you get your money’s worth.

6. Size really does matter. You don’t want to be a small fish in a big pond, or even too big of a fish in a small pond. Large agencies will likely charge clients a minimum of $10,000 to $15,000 per month to cover basic PR needs (e.g., drafting and distributing news releases, calling reporters and bloggers on your behalf, monitoring social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn groups). You can usually find great talent at these big-name firms. But, it is sometimes difficult to get a lot of personal attention from the top brass instead of the lower-level folks who will likely be assigned to do 80 percent of the work on your account. Depending on your budget, you may receive more value from a smaller firm. Many boutique firms are run by knowledgeable PR veterans who chose to branch out on their own. Some of these folks were very senior-level talents with top firms before beginning their own shops. Often, these smaller firms can provide a great service (and greater flexibility) at a more affordable price than the large agencies.

7. Be a good judge of generalists. Do you want a firm that specializes in your specific business sector? If you’re a healthcare provider, do you want an agency that only deals in healthcare PR? Or would you rather hire a firm that is familiar with a variety of industries? Firms with experience in many fields often have a wide range of experience, expansive media contacts and many tools at their disposal. Think of it as you would a tool box: you want a firm that can use a use a wrench, screw driver, saw and hammer, not just a hammer. Collective experience solving a wide variety of problems for many different organizations can be invaluable. However, if you’re a restaurant or bureau of tourism and want straight-up publicity, you probably want a firm that focuses on restaurant or tourism clients. A highly specialized firm like this knows and regularly works with the exact media contacts you want to tap. Just make sure you’re not in line to get noticed along with the firm’s other clients (that may be potential competitors of yours). It’s ideal if you occupy a unique category in the firm’s client roster.

8. Search for strategic problem solvers. You want powerful brains on your side that can gather, analyze, understand, and quickly and effectively process information about your business, market and competitors. Every firm should be willing to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) before you even hire them. Any firm should request enough background information to understand your organization and its challenges. Then, it can have a decent context to help you solve your problems, not just get you media coverage.

9. Qualify skill sets. Analyze the skills of those who will be working on your account. They should be strong writers – without question – as writing is the foundation of PR. They should also have a solid grasp of news media, branding, messaging, marketing, community relations, internal communications, social media and web-based solutions. When it comes to media relations: do these folks know how to develop a compelling story and effectively share it with the most relevant media? Ask how they might pitch your business with what they know at that moment.

10. Don’t overvalue the proposal. While most PR firm searches often result in requesting the top qualifying firms to complete and submit proposals, the results can be misleading. Some firms will invest in developing a strong proposal, but fall short when it comes to actually performing for you. Others may provide a fairly basic proposal, but that’s not a reflection of the brainpower they will apply once you’re a client. Look for the firms to provide some fresh thinking, a good presentation of their unique differentiators and solid explanation of how they would approach working with you. If you’ve done your homework using the qualifiers shared in #s 1-9 above, you should already have a solid idea who your top one or two choices are. Bottom line: don’t get hung up on proposals.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly, jason@shermancm.com

Best of luck!