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October 25, 2022

How to Hire Your First PR Consultant or Agency

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There is a lot of competition for a coveted space in TechCrunch and Forbes, but sometimes a trade publication is the better route—particularly if you’re an early stage company or trying to tell a deeper technology story. So how do you determine the best outlet for your news? How do you reach the right reporter to secure coverage?

Maybe it’s time to work with a PR professional. One of the best ways to sabotage your launch or funding news is to issue a press release and call it a day. Or try to guess the media appetite for your news. The media landscape has been tricky to read for the past two years. But who do you hire? A consultant? A small agency? A big brand agency? It can be a daunting and time-intensive search if you haven’t gone down this road before.

First things first, think about your options:

  • The big connected network. A larger agency has bigger teams of people who can support various aspects of your digital marketing, advertising and PR strategy—from analyst and media relations to social media and graphic design to influencer marketing and ad buys. The added convenience of the “one-stop-shop” and access to expertise also means more overhead and usually higher prices for the people staffing your account. This is usually a better option for companies that have a big consumer story to tell across multiple platforms, or are farther along in their journey and may be thinking about going public. There are some other considerations when choosing an agency, and more specifically your account team. Although the agency may have worked with a client in the same or similar industry, that doesn’t mean the people on your account team will be that team. Also try to get a feel for agency turnover and how they will handle shifts in the account team if a key member leaves.
  • The expert team. A boutique agency may have more specialty in your industry, a more senior team with the experience to hit the ground running and get you across the finish line. Plus, billing rates may not be as high for the top talent as they would be in a big agency. However, boutique agencies still have some drawbacks. If you are looking for that “one-stop-shop,” size can be a limiting factor. Similar to a larger agency, you’ll want to understand who is assigned to your account, the rate of employee turnover as well as how they will handle changes to your team. If you are comparing a boutique agency with a consultant, you may be looking at a higher price point to support a team of people working on your business.
  • The team of one. Consultants tend to be more cost-effective than agency partners and a smart route for early-stage companies just forming their baseline PR program. A more senior consultant can offer strategy and guidance while an executer can jump in and provide tactical arms and legs until you are ready to hire an agency. But with consultants, you are limited to one person’s time and talent. As a result, it may take longer to get a program off the ground, unless they are able to bring in other consultants to complement the work they are doing. Keep in mind, with that approach comes more people that you will be responsible for managing.

Bottom Line: If you don’t have the time, budget or human capital to devote to managing an agency, then a consultant or small boutique with a strong account lead may be your best choice. If you are running a later stage venture or one that is about to take off, then a mid-size or larger agency may be a better choice—particularly if you are going to be managing broad digital efforts and want everything under one umbrella.

Here are a few more questions to ask yourself before hiring a PR partner:

  • What is my budget? For first-time founders especially, budgeting for PR—whether it’s one announcement or a longer-term engagement––can feel overwhelming. If you already know what your budget is, share it with your potential partner so they can cater the program to your needs. If you do not know your budget, ask a trusted peer in your network or advisor to get a ballpark range. You can also ask your prospective PR partner to propose a budget based on the scope of your project or overall PR needs. If you go this route, keep in mind that different interpretations of your needs could result in vastly different proposals. Be as clear and precise as possible in creating a scope of work so that your partner can put together an accurate proposal.
  • Do I need a specialty firm? Not necessarily. Find a partner who knows your business, but remember that when you are defining a new market you may need a partner who understands the industry and can connect the dots to help reporters and analysts see why they should cover you. For example, someone who understands AI or data science may be enough—they don’t necessarily need experience in your particular application of the technology. Ask who their relevant clients are—whether it’s by industry or stage of company. Get a feel for their level of experience and authenticity. And most important, make sure there is chemistry and mutual respect between you and the team working on your account.
  • What if I don’t think I’m ready for an agency? Sometimes, especially if you are not well versed in PR, it may make sense to bring on a professional who can help you with your messaging, strategy and execution—even before you hire an agency. This doesn’t make your story less desirable; in fact, most journalists care more about the pitch they receive than the agency that pitched them. Consultants can go a long way for an early-stage company that may not have a steady cadence of news. Ideally you will find someone who is willing to work with you on a project basis, or by campaign, and doesn’t require an ongoing retainer.
  • What if we’re about to go raise a new round of funding or file on an exchange? If you’re fundraising or staring down an IPO and haven’t done PR before, always check with your legal counsel to make sure you aren’t overstepping solicitation boundaries. But if you’ve been out in the media, and as long as legal approves, then a few thought leadership pieces could go a long way. New customer announcements, milestone roundups on the past year’s events and even data insights pulled from your customers’ experiences can demonstrate company momentum.
  • We have a series of new customers to announce, is now the time to bring on an agency? You may be ready to hire a boutique or mid-size firm if you’re seeing a steady flow of news on a consistent basis (even quarterly is worth consideration), your PR projects are timed closer together, and you have the budget and/or team in place to afford and manage outsourcing some of your activity. As your news funnel expands, you may need assistance getting through the approval cycles with your customers, and a seasoned PR partner can help you with that. They can also help you craft a bigger story with your announcement series, rather than launching a barrage of individual releases. Look for a strategic partner who will give you the most personalized attention, even on a smaller budget. You want someone strategic, who doesn’t just check boxes and who can see the bigger picture without you having to paint the landscape.

At some point, every company needs help with their communications program. Maybe it’s your first announcement, or maybe the rhythm of news is becoming more regular and you’re ready to invest in a PR partner for the long haul. Once you find the partner you’re looking for, you can watch your company take off.

Next installment: how to set goals and expectations with your new PR partner (coming soon)


About the author

Theresa Maloney has managed public relations campaigns through highs and lows for more than two decades, including Ebay’s infamous IPO, WebMD’s acquisition spree, the rise of eHealth during the Great Recession, and pivoting Engine Yard to address market consolidation. She founded and runs Cogenta Communications, a boutique agency that works with early-stage startups and high-growth ventures — including companies in the Norwest portfolio — on company introductions, pivots, and strategic initiatives to get noticed in a dynamic news environment. 

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