When it’s time to search for a (new) PR agency, corporate communications teams often build a lengthy request for proposal (RFP) detailing their requirements (e.g. current communications challenges, opportunities for the brand, resources needed). However, while an RFP can cover the details, it cannot answer one simple question: Will we like each other?
The unique aspect of the communications function is its need to act and respond quickly to the unknown at any given hour of the day (e.g. a crisis or a reporter on deadline). Timing is critical and we know we can’t afford to miss any opportunity to protect and enhance the brand’s image.
So, as the agency search begins, communications must evaluate each agency team to determine if their working style complements its own. When the communications team is maxed out, can the agency help fill those gaps? Be sure to question whether the agency has the senior leadership available to support major communications challenges (e.g. potential acquisitions, crises). Lastly, as you determine their qualifications and experience, determine whether the agency is ready and willing to assist with any given communications challenge. Here are some questions to ask the agency in the RFP and during in-person agency review meetings:
- Account team. “Who will be our account team?” Make sure each agency pitch includes their suggested account team structure. Meet the junior, mid-level and senior representatives who will be involved with your account. Question and understand the role each will play on the team and identify the peers on your team. For instance, who is the day-to-day contact at the agency and within your organization? Make the peer-to-peer introductions to determine how the teams will align.
- Working styles. Initiating a cadence of meetings to cover both tactical and creative discussions will help establish regular check-ins between the teams. Outside of those meetings, determine the preferred communication channels between the client team and agency team. How do you envision working together? Do you value phone calls over emails? When items are urgent, how do you respond? How does the team typically respond when a client has a crisis? To help address this, the RFP can request the agency to share a case study (or example) of how they helped a client through a difficult situation.
- Off-hours. For companies that typically have a lot of PR support needs outside of business hours, ask about the agency’s ability to support. Does every team member have a laptop and company-issued phone? Which team members are the best to contact? Can an account team distribution list be created so the broader team can be easily contacted when needed?
- Related experience. When looking for a PR agency, evaluate how much experience the proposed agency team has within your industry or market. Do they have established relationships with third-party influencers within your industry?
Following each agency pitch, the team should regroup to review the pros and cons of each firm. For any outstanding areas, you may wish to discuss via a phone call with the agency lead person. This allows for a healthy discussion about any areas you wish to see strengthened or improved. At the same time, the agency lead contact should feel comfortable asking additional questions that may help resolve the issue. Like dating, there will be issues and it is how we relate and address the challenges that determines how each side values the relationship. Here are some questions to ask your team after each agency pitch:
- Concerns. Do you have any concerns about the proposed agency team?
- Trustworthy. Would we feel comfortable with any member of this team supporting our company’s initiatives in our absence?
- Skills. Are there any skills we believe are missing from this team? Are they active on social media? Are they comfortable with phone outreach?
Searching for a PR agency is similar to looking for people to add to your own team. These are your new partners. They are the folks you are ready to go to battle with you both inside and outside the organization. And because your agency signs a NDA, it also is your confidante as you manage confidential items you can’t even discuss with your co-workers. To help with the evaluation, SiriusDecisions has a Public Relations Agency Scorecard Tool that provides a structured approach to evaluating agencies.
I’d love to hear from you: What is one tip you would give a communications peer about finding a new agency? What is something you wish you’d considered during your last agency selection process?