How to decide if PR is right for your business

I have attended two events in the last week that shed very different lights on public relations and what people believe PR is about and does. It made me wonder what businesses are buying when they decide to hire a PR consultant.

With colleague Helen Standing I attended a session called How to Find the Angle – PR for SEO Experts at the ThinkVisibility conference in Leeds. The focus was on the benefits of using press releases containing relevant key words to drive search engine optimisation – in other words, traffic to your website. The press releases are sent to online publications and directories with links back to your own website.

After the session a couple of other delegates came over to tell us about lacklustre PR from consultants they had employed. In both cases they hadn’t seen any results for their investment and they were left with a feeling that they had wasted their money. What their PR people had been doing was largely media relations – sending a press release out to newspapers, trade publications broadcast media.

The other event was a PR Any Questions panel at international public relations conference Euprera 2011 at Leeds Metropolitan University. The panel consisted of some very high profile PR and communication experts, including Robert Hastings, former senior public affairs official and spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, Jane Wilson, CEO of the Chartered Institute of PR (CIPR) and Professor David McKie, who teaches strategic communication and leadership at Waikato Management School, New Zealand.

The message to the audience of PR practitioners and academics was that PR and communications needs to be strategic and in the boardroom. These were not people who believe that PR equals just media relations and press coverage.

Such a gulf of opinion is confusing for anyone outside our own industry – how do you know what you should be considering if you are looking to hire a PR consultant or agent? Here are my three tips

1. Decide why you need PR

You need to be clear about why you need PR. Reasons might include one or all of the following:

  • To write and develop blogs and to advise on how to use other social media strategically eg such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to build relationships and engage with key audiences
  • To help you communicate with and influence your target audience – whether that is customers, stakeholder, other people you want to influence or your own employees
  • To help you manage your reputation or to deal with a particular crisis or challenge for example acquiring a new business, dealing with redundancies, merging a number of organisations
  • To help launch a new service, product or business
  • To promote your business or organisation as part of a wider marketing strategy – it’s absolutely not about advertising, although it might complement an advertising campaign

2. Prepare a PR brief

A clearly written document, outlining what you want from public relations with objectives and deadlines will help you to find the right PR agency or person for your business. This should include

  • A clear brief with details of the project or areas of the business where you need PR and what should be covered
  • Objectives and goals – both for your business and for the PR
  • An overview of your business or organisation – effective PR should be linked to your business goals and direction
  • Timescales and any critical deadlines or milestonesAny particular specifications eg the successful PR agency needs to show experience of working on similar projects, or with similar businesses
  • Budget – how much you expect to pay for PR and what this should cover
  • How you will measure success? This might be linked to helping you reach new markets, sell the business, increase sales or business growth.

3. How to chose the right PR consultant or agency for you

See or talk to several PR agencies or consultants. Your budget, particular needs and size of project will probably dictate the type of public relations consultancy you need – whether an independent consultant or an agency with several team members. Also, whether you are operating in a B2B market or selling a consumer product.

  • Ask for recommendations from people you know and trust or have a look at the CIPR’s website. They have annual awards and you can see winners from different regions of the UK and they also offer a matchmaking service
  • Once you have a shortlist of companies you can send them your brief and ask for written and costed proposals
  • You might want to ring them first – you can tell a lot about the business from a phone call – and then send the written brief
  • From the written brief you could have a ‘beauty parade’ of three or four shortlisted companies who present their ideas to you. This gives you chance to question them in depth
  • Ask to talk to some of their existing clients
  • Check who will be delivering your contract – will it be the senior person you met or someone more junior?
  • Don’t choose an agency simply on price or the fact that they say they will deliver pages of press cuttings. Do they seem business competent and do they understand your organisation and your sector? Most importantly, is there chemistry – good PR is about relationships.

Getting it right means that PR becomes an effective business tool – not just a ‘would be nice to have’ extra. Do you agree?

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Carol Arthur is senior account director at Northern Lights PR. A trained journalist with wide-ranging experience in business, education and consumer markets, Carol has worked in or headed up the PR departments of two colleges - the North Eastern Co-operative Society and Northumbria Tourist Board. A graduate of Common Purpose, Carol is currently regional chair of the CIPR, the industry’s professional body. She is a member of the PR degree employer advisory panel at Leeds Metropolitan University. Carol is an active supporter of local charities and the community helping with fund-raising and PR activities.