Questions Top PR Firms Ask Their Clients

At the first meeting with your new PR firm, you may find yourself answering a lot of questions.  In the following post, our guest blogger, Lucy Siegel of Bridge Global Strategies, says there are five crucial questions you should be asked – and why they are important.

PR firms offering the highest quality of service ask their clients a lot of questions.  That’s the only way they can understand the best approaches to meeting their clients’ PR goals.

This blog post will focus on some of the questions a PR firm should be asking a client.  First, though, I want to emphasize that no questions should be off limits on either side.  We ask our clients a ton of questions in order to do our jobs as well as possible, and we expect and encourage clients to ask us anything they want to know.

1. What’s the background and history of your company, your founders and your CEO?  Some clients don’t understand why this question is relevant, especially when the assignment involves public relations for a product and not corporate PR for a company.

“Just focus on the product; you don’t need to be concerned with the company’s background,” some clients will say.  But PR involves piecing together a compelling story about a product or service that will resonate with the company’s various audiences (potential customers, communities, employees, suppliers, etc.).  Sometimes the story about the company can enhance the product story.

2. What are your goals for PR?  This question should always be asked by agencies and is crucial for starting any PR program.  Your goals may be simply to raise visibility as a precursor to brand building and sales.  Or you may be looking for a way to increase sales leads directly, to position the company in a new market, or address negative impressions of your company or product.  Getting media coverage, increasing the number of likes and followers, increasing the number of shares of company blog posts and articles, etc., are not goals for PR; they’re a means toward reaching the goal.

3. What do you picture as an ideal outcome of the work we’ll do?  Your answers to this question reveal a lot to your agency.  Sometimes company executives have unrealistic expectations about what PR can accomplish.  It may be highly unlikely that the PR team can get your product written about by the Wall Street Journal or any other top-tier media.  This is an issue that should be discussed at the beginning of a client-agency relationship because it’s very important for you to have realistic expectations about what to expect.  Unfortunately, some agencies deliberately mislead potential clients about their ability to deliver that type of outcome.

There may also be a disconnect between the outcomes you’re looking for and the goals you’ve expressed, which a good agency will point out and discuss with you.

4. Who, what, when, where, why and how?  These are the basics to any story, and the elements that public relations depends on.  They’re the questions journalists and bloggers will ask the PR agency staff working on your account and the focus of content marketing, social media and search engine optimization.  For example, here’s a vital “what” question:

  • What makes your product or your company different from your competitors’ products? If you’re looking for media coverage from your PR team, this is a crucial question.  The media is geared to gathering and reporting news.  If there’s nothing much to differentiate your product or company from others, it will probably be very difficult to get interest from the media in covering your story.  Other methods of PR may be more effective in those circumstances than media relations.

Just as parents think their own child is special, companies are often too close to their own stories to be objective.  Sometimes what the company feels is unique is really not a big enough difference from the competition to qualify as a true differentiation from a news viewpoint.  Trust the feedback your PR agency gives you.  The agency is able to be a lot more objective than your company’s staff, who are living and breathing your business day in and day out.

If a PR agency knows there isn’t a lot to differentiate you from the competition, the agency team can focus on creating news.  This can be done in many ways, including establishing new and different corporate initiatives within your community or for your employees, developing new data through a company-sponsored survey, or developing a news-making company-sponsored event.

For more on the definition of news (something that’s hard for many people to grasp), you may be interested in the this post I wrote some time ago, which directly addresses what the media consider to be newsworthy and what they don’t.

To better understand the challenges of getting media coverage in today’s media environment, you may also be interested in this blog post:

Clients must be forthcoming and honest in answering these basic questions, even if some of the answers don’t put the company in the best light.  If the agency doesn’t know the truth, all of the truth, it puts the agency’s PR team in a very bad position to work effectively.  Journalists will probe for answers and do research on their own.   If they’re given dishonest answers to their questions, they’ll think less of the company the agency is representing, as well as the PR agency people.

Sometimes internal corporate staff feel that it’s better for the PR agency not to know negative information so they won’t be able to spread it around.  But knowing honest answers doesn’t mean the agency PR team will provide that negative information to the media unless the client and agency have agreed that’s the best approach.  Some questions don’t have to be answered directly.  When a company just provides a rosy picture of the company and/or products, and leaves the PR team in the dark about the actual situation, it’s a recipe for PR failure.  One reason why:  the best approach for answering difficult questions from the media is to plan ahead for those difficult questions to come up and how to answer them.  PR professionals are well-prepared to help with those questions and answers, but can’t be helpful unless they know the whole truth, both negatives and positives.

5. What’s your budget?  This is a question that every PR firm should ask before preparing a proposal for you, and one that you should answer honestly.  Many potential clients tell us, “we don’t know what the budget is – we want you to tell us what we need to spend.”  What’s wrong with that picture?  The size of the budget will determine how fast your goals can be reached, and a PR program can be tailored to cover different levels of work.  An agency is put in a difficult position when that question goes unanswered.  If the agency makes an assumption that the budget is more than what the company can actually afford, it’s a waste of the agency’s time.  If the agency guesses on the low side, the proposal may not include as much PR activity as the client needs to meet PR goals.  Frequently we’re told, “Just give us a few different budget levels to choose from.”  That entails a lot of work with no compensation, all of which is in vain if the company decides on another agency or chooses not to move ahead with PR at all.  While developing proposals is part of the cost of doing business, asking for multiple proposals for the same project isn’t fair to PR agencies.

The reason many companies don’t like to reveal their budgets is the fear that they will be taken advantage of.  It’s a common corporate assumption that the agencies bidding on PR work will spend the maximum, whether it’s necessary or not.  However, in asking about budget, most agencies simply want to have information that will help them decide the type and scope of PR program that will work best given your budget.

Some of the questions PR firms ask clients and potential clients can only be answered by top management.  That’s one reason why PR professionals (internal and external) need access to clients’ top management executives.

Every company wants a top PR firm, one that can deliver results.  However, PR Professionals need a lot of information to be successful.

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Lucy Siegel is president and CEO of Bridge Global Strategies, based in New York City.

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Defining Public Relations: Part One

PuzzleHiring a PR firm for your business can be a daunting process, especially if it’s the first time you have ever done so.  For one thing, you may be somewhat confused about what a PR firm does – and frankly, who could blame you?  Portrayals of PR practitioners on television or in the movies can be all over the map; schmoozers, hustlers, party planners and influence peddlers are all mixed in with the occasional true representation.    For the small business owner, it’s difficult to determine exactly what a PR firm does and how it can help their business.

It’s really up to PR people to define what they do and not assume everyone knows already.  Today, we begin a series about public relations and its various practices.  Some PR firms may do most or all of the practice areas we will cover; others may specialize in a few specialty areas.

But before we get into what public relations is, it might be a good idea to provide a short list of what it is NOT.

Five misconceptions about PR:

  1. PR is not just about writing and sending news releases.  Think of a news release as the bread and butter that accompanies the meal.  It’s not the whole meal or even the main course.  Every business or nonprofit organization needs to begin any public relations program with a strategic plan – one that incorporates their overall goal, short-term objectives, target audiences, strategy, tactics and how success will be measured.  A news release is one of many tactics that may be used in carrying out the plan.
  2. PR is not “free advertising.”  First of all, public relations and advertising messages are entirely different.  You can overtly promote your organization in an ad, while to obtain “earned” media coverage, your story must make a worthwhile contribution to the editorial content of that media outlet.  That can mean time spent doing background research, designing story angles and pitching ideas.  Second, public relations work is not free; whether you are using in-house staff or an outside firm, you will pay for the time and talent that it takes to get recognition for your business.
  3. PR is not “one size fits all.”  Every business or nonprofit organization is unique in some way, and no one PR plan will be right for each one.   That’s why when you call a PR firm and ask what they can do for you, you may instead get a series of questions in return or a request to meet and talk with you in person.  That’s because the answer to your question depends on all of the factors that will go into your company’s strategic PR plan (see #1, above).
  4. PR cannot cover up your company’s wrongdoing.  Hiring a PR firm to put a positive spin on bad acts by your company is pretty much useless.  The truth has a way of coming out, and in today’s media climate it can be devastating to your business, as online and social media can reach millions of people before you can do anything about it.  The best way – perhaps the only way – to counter negative media coverage is to apologize immediately for any wrongdoing and begin a long-term program to repair the damage to your reputation.  And that PR program has to be based on good acts, or it won’t succeed.
  5. Good PR will rarely bring overnight success.  Public relations is mainly about building a positive long-term reputation.  Yes, you may hire a PR firm to publicize an event, but for lasting impact, you will need a sustained effort over some period of time.

Next in the series:  Planning for success.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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Will Social Media Enhance Perception of PR?

In a recent article in Fortune Tech, Gregory Galant, CEO of MuckRack, writes about the lack of respect for public relations as a business function, especially as compared to advertising.  There’s no program celebrating PR practitioners to compare with the popular AMC TV series Mad Men, he notes.

After providing several reasons why he thinks this is the case, Galant predicts a big change with the rising importance of social media, which “play to the strengths of public relations rather than advertising.”

Here’s why, according to Galant:

  • Effects of PR can now be measured to a greater extent than ever before in history
  • Social media can drive more human communications.
  • You can now scale PR to influencers and by promoting articles.
  • Public relations now has meaningful data to influence big decisions.

You can read the full article here.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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Does Your Company Need a Social Media War Room?

Social media war rooms are in the news right now.  In fact, they recently were a featured part of a story by Ned Hibberd of Houston’s FOX 26 TV News. The story, which was prompted by Hibberd’s own experience as a consumer, quoted Lisa Dimond, principal of DoubleDimond Public Relations.

It isn’t surprising that this topic is gaining more attention.  While social media channels are great for creating interest, hearing from and targeting consumers, they can create havoc with your company brand.  All it takes is one embarrassing video posted on YouTube or one thoughtless comment on Twitter and, with the speed of light, you are dealing with a PR crisis.

Most companies – especially those who sell products or services to the public – are taking this possibility very seriously.  It’s dangerous not to do so, considering such recent social media missteps as the tweet by a KitchenAid employee during the presidential debate.  The tweet was quickly disavowed by the company, which helped tamp down on the negative publicity they were receiving.

Although corporations are not known for moving quickly, social media demands immediacy.  You have to communicate in real time – engaging with consumers and responding quickly to online comments and complaints.  In fact, with the appropriate response, you can turn a complaint into a positive experience for your customers.

And that’s where war rooms come in.  Many large corporations have in-house war rooms within their marketing or public relations department to monitor the use of their name across social media.

Do you need a war room?  Unless you are a big company sporting a well-known brand name, it’s probably not cost-effective.

But reputation monitoring is essential for all businesses.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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Nonprofit Organizations and Social Media

Nonprofit OrganizationsNonprofit organizations are lagging in the use of social media for outreach to their constituents, according to a recent survey by software and service company Sage, covered in an article in this week’s PR News.

Almost two-thirds of respondents in the study said they don’t use any digital tools to manage social media programs. Not surprisingly, more than half of the respondents weren’t happy with their social media efforts.

Since social media marketing would seem to be made for nonprofit organizations and their communications programs, this is an unfortunate situation.  But from my point of view as someone who has handled public relations for many nonprofit organizations – large and small – there is no mystery as to why this is happening.

While there are many large nonprofit organizations, there are also many more than have limited budgets and operate with a small, multi-tasking administrative staff whose work lives are stretched pretty thin.  Very few charities have an in-house public relations person – let alone a communications staff.

Outsourcing these activities is the answer for these organizations, but they often opt for pro bono work by an outside agency, where necessity dictates their taking a back seat to paying clients.

To be effective, social media marketing takes strategic planning, time and dedication.

It can be a vicious circle:  nonprofit organizations who don’t communicate with their publics on a regular basis miss out on fundraising opportunities, and lack of fundraising opportunities keeps them from adequately funding their communications programs.

Nonprofit organizations that eventually become financially stable have one thing in common: they have leaders who think big and look to the future.  they invest in a public relations program – and in today’s world, that program includes social media.

Post by Margot Dimond

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Is that all we can expect? Or did we choose the wrong PR firm?

As the owner of a professional services firm, I decided late last year that we needed to do a better job of promoting our services.  I know other firms similar to ours that receive quite a bit of attention in the media, and they seem to be expanding at a faster pace than we are, so it definitely seemed like the thing to do.  We interviewed several firms – small, medium and large – and chose the largest firm because it seemed to have the most to offer.  They touted their contacts at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and gave us every indication that we would be featured in those national newspapers.  Unfortunately, after six months our total media coverage has been a small feature in a local business publication.  We are very disappointed and have decided to end our public relations program entirely.  Is this a common occurrence?  Why did this happen?

In answer to your direct question:  This is not a common occurrence, but it does happen all too often.  Unfortunately, it usually happens to business owners who have never before used any type of public relations service.  If your knowledge of public relations and what it can accomplish comes from what you see on television or in the movies, you may think that PR people can pick up the phone and news people will come running.  If only it were that easy!

It is rare that a small firm or a startup gets covered in major national newspapers, and for a public relations firm to dangle that idea in front of you was very misleading.  If, in fact, they promised you editorial coverage, they are in violation of the requirement to “accurately define what public relations activities can accomplish,” as listed in the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, the professional membership organization for PR professionals.

Rather than giving up on having a public relations program, why not think about what you really want to gain from it?  You seem to want to expand your business.  By that, do you mean simply to have more clients?  Or do you have a specific type of client that you would like to work with?  Once you have determined the type of client you want to reach, you will need to have your PR firm work with you to design the right kinds of messages and media outlets to effectively reach them.  At that point, you should expect to see some kind of Action Plan with tactics, activities and timetables.

Your public relations program – whether undertaken internally or by an outside firm – should be viewed as an ongoing enterprise.  It’s all about reputation building and reputation maintenance, and that takes time.

Should you hire an outside firm, or go the DIY route?  Here are a some guidelines.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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PR Defined – Again

PR DefinedIn response to the ever-changing nature of communication – and  after much discussion and input from its members and the members of other communication organizations – the Public Relations Society of America has an updated definition of public relations:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t a definition the average PR practitioner can use when talking to a potential client.

The irony of “messaging” professionals being unable to come up with their own singular message isn’t lost on most PR practitioners.  In 1982, the last time PRSA updated its definition, we got:  “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”  At the time, I remember one of my fellow PRSA members complaining that he just wanted something to tell people at cocktail parties.

The difficulty with defining public relations is that its practice has many facets.  During the course of one week, we may be handling a publicity campaign; doing media training; scheduling speaking engagements; writing brochures, newsletters or website content; implementing a social media program; or handling a crisis.  What we do depends on 1) the type of client we represent (or organization we work for); 2) the goal of the PR program; 3) who we are trying to reach, etc.  Our “to do” list changes from day to day, and for the most part, the very unpredictability of public relations is what draws certain people to the profession.

Here’s the thing:  When people ask us what we do and we say public relations, the initial reaction is often a puzzled look, followed by “but what do you do, exactly?”  And the answer to that question will be different for each PR person.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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