There are good reasons to hire a public relations agency – the need for PR experience that you may not have, when a special project comes up, or after you downsize and  require outside marketing assistance to take up the slack.  Sometimes, however, hiring a public relations firm can seem like “a box of chocolates where you never know what you’re gonna get.”  With all due respect to Mr. Gump, there are ways to keep you out of the forest when scouting for PR support.

Know when to engage a PR agency: Public relations to build a reputation, attract potential clients or customers, or stimulate referrals works best over a period of time, so make sure to plan for it early enough in your annual budget process.  However, for a crisis that is about to hit your company (usually in the form of a pending lawsuit), call in a crisis management PR firm at the earliest possible time – being well prepared for a crisis is the best way to survive bad press, employee panic and a downturn in business.

Know what you are hiring – an organization or a single practitioner: There are many qualified single practitioners out there, but be sure to ask what they have as back up when they are not available, and how you can be assured that another client’s work will not make them unavailable when you have a deadline.  The advantage of an agency is that there is organizational depth – other professionals who can step up to the plate if a project needs immediate help.

Hire experience: But not any experience.  Hire an agency that knows how to reach your market with a good strategy and a past history of successful programs for other clients. The experience doesn’t have to be in your industry, but it should be relevant.  In a world where “who you know” can help reach a goal faster, a political and business network is an added bonus.

Toadies need not apply: A key value in an outside professional is their objectivity.  If your PR firm doesn’t challenge you with straight talk you may not want to hear, or provide demanding but valuable recommendations once in awhile, you’re being short-changed on an important advantage of turning to outside expertise.

Numbers matter: Sometimes cheap is, well, just cheap.  An agency with years of experience and a staff of veteran professionals will certainly cost more than someone with just a few years of experience.  If it’s judgment and direction you want, you will find that such an agency may be the better choice.  On the other hand, if you just need help sending out press releases, the beginner may be the choice for you.

Take the mystery out: Not only should you have regular contact with your PR firm, you should be getting a report of how much time they have spent on your account.  Every professional maintains a log of time spent and what he or she is doing to achieve results. You should get a monthly report on how they managed their time.

Have reasonable expectations: Good public relations isn’t going to cure bad management decisions, but good PR expertise is an investment that should pay off many times over.  Make sure that you and your agency both understand what the goals are and agree on how to achieve them.
Public relations professionals should be more than “ideas” people; they should be serious professionals who can provide timely, effective strategies that add to your success.  And nothing, not even a box of chocolates, tastes sweeter than success.