Here's What I Learned from Working with 50+ PR Firms
PR & Marketing

Here's What I Learned from Working with 50+ PR Firms

Marked Point Founder Jenn Hirsch works with a lot of PR firms. She's seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Here's how you can spot them too.

Jennifer Hirsch is the founder of Marked Point, a storytelling firm working with new companies to build engaging brands that inspire. If she's ever unreachable, you can find her in the ocean, trying (and often failing) to surf. It's one of the best lessons for entrepreneurs.

Recently, I asked five PR professionals for their top referrals for a U.S.-based non-profit focused on women’s leadership. Of the 30 odd firms recommended, only two met my criteria to handle the proposed project — I eliminated most after only a cursory look at their websites. And therein lies the biggest challenge of startup PR: Finding the right firm and strategy to tell your story. At Marked Point, this is a huge part of my work with clients.

Most PR firms have a very standard protocol. They take the information you give them, combine it with data from other clients and run it through a type of algorithm to figure out how to bring your story to new audiences. Each PR firm has a unique algorithm that will determine the marketing channels it recommends for your company. Based on the firms' connections, experience and approach, the strategies they come up with can be vastly different. And of course, your results may vary widely.

So entrepreneurs, choose wisely. Not all PR firms are equal. In this article, we’ll cover how to select them, how to prepare for them, and how to tell that they're not working. Because without PR (whether you're doing it on your own or with a firm), no one will know about you... and building an audience is everything. Successful PR is getting the right people to pay attention to you at the right time. Knock-it-out-of-the-park PR is landing customers, money and partnerships too. Here's how to get the latter.

What to Look for in the Right PR Firm

I’ve personally selected or hired roughly 15 PR firms and/or reps over the past 3 years. I’ve collaborated with triple that number. In doing so, I've identified the qualities you need to focus on to ensure success when hiring firms:

  • They're right-sized for where you are today as an organization. Are you a 7-person team with seed funding? Pick a freelance PR consultant or smaller firm to help you build awareness. Not only is it cost effective, but they can typically size their efforts for where you are. You don't need a marquee name to make a splash.
  • The firm not only knows your industry, they're deeply passionate about it. Trying to get a PR firm to do unfamiliar things is a little like throwing someone into a sport they've never played before and expecting them to win.
  • Ability to get specific types of press. Don’t go to a New York media agency for tech press, don’t go to a Tech PR firm for science press. Whatever channel matters most to you whether it be TV, print, press, blogs, etc., hire for that expertise. The right firm should be able to show you a proven track record.
  • Locality is right. If your product or service is regional, make sure your PR firm is as well. When working with a Chicago-based client, my company advocated for a local team to place them on TV shows, blogs and local outlets. It paid off. 90% of traffic came from areas they could actually serve.
  • It's a personality fit. You're going to work closely with these people — ideally for a while if all goes well. Make sure you like them. This can't be understated. Even if a firm does good work and has all kinds of accolades, if you're going to butt heads with them all the time or dread phone calls, you could do better.

Know What Success Looks Like First

As a startup founder, or a marketing leader at a company, it's up to you to determine where you want your audience to pay the most attention, and who that audience is in the first place. The right answer is never everybody. When Marked Point was hiring the PR firm for the women’s leadership non-profit before their annual conference, we knew we needed to reach the following audiences:

  • Women attendees at the conference
  • Non-profits and non-profit donors
  • Men and women focused on civic engagement and gender activism

Right away, this told us a lot. We knew that hiring a tech-focused PR firm wouldn't give us any advantages. They'd reach out to the wrong publications that would get us in front of the wrong eyeballs. The annual conference was taking place in Baltimore, so we couldn't concentrate coverage in the Bay Area either. Past experience shows that tech professionals rarely donate to civic engagements outside of California, and we have our own gender parity issues to grapple with here already.

Despite all of these negatives, more than 50% of the recommendations for firms I fielded were for tech-oriented PR agencies. Knowing our goals and having a very distinct sense of who we needed to impact with the non-profit's messaging empowered us to eliminate all of these suggestions from the list right off the bat.

It's a critical lesson to learn:

PR firms usually give you back what they already know — not what you asked for.

They have an algorithm and it only works one way. You can't afford to waste time trying to change it just to work with a specific brand-name firm, or because your advisors or investors told you to.

Narrow Your Decision

If you've done your homework and you still don't know which firm or contractor to pick, there are a few things you can and should do as soon as possible (since most of them take time):

Ask for references. Get the firms you're considering to provide you with the names of clients they've worked with in the past. Then ask those references for secondary references who they referred the PR firm too. I’ve found this is the best way to understand where a firm or individual shines as well as where they struggle. The more degrees you get away from the names the firm provided, the more likely you'll get an honest assessment of the work they did.

The questions I recommend asking include: Which team members did you work with? What did they help you achieve? What were the strengths of the team you worked with? What were you surprised by? Do you have any tips for effective collaboration?

Bring in other members of your organization to meet with them in speed dating rounds. Have the top leaders/marketers at your company take five minutes where they ask the PR firm's key representatives what it’s like to work with them. Ideally it should be all the members of your team who have to interact with PR (e.g. the C-suite, your marketing team, even your analytics team if they have to prep content that will be relevant to PR efforts).

I usually run this process with people starting with what they are most concerned about, whether it be time, attention, story etc. I run a 15 to 30 minute meeting ahead of time to surface everyone's questions, and say everyone gets to focus on 3 things. It doesn't matter if people ask duplicate questions. It makes sure the firm can stay consistent. Afterwards, I run a 30 minute debrief to go over the top questions people asked, the pros and cons of working with the firm, and then everyone votes.

Go with your gut. I know it’s cliché, but it always works. Ask each of the above team members to share what their gut says and why too. If things went positively, people generally leave the meeting feeling confident, energized and focused, like they could hand things over and the firm would be on top of it immediately. If people walk out of the meeting feeling disinterested and apathetic, that's a good sign it's not a right fit. You can tell if a firm is having a glib or superficial interaction with you. They don't ask enough questions or take an active interest. Watch out for these red flags.

Collaborating with Your PR Firm

Metrics. As the one hiring the firm, you're going to have to define which metrics matter most to you. Come up with a plan ahead of time for how you're going to measure them. Each of the firms I've worked with had a different internal reporting system, and not one was comprehensive enough for our needs.

Magic happens when you collaborate on defining success and sharing metrics of success.

That way you and your PR team can understand what each piece of content does for you. You replicate successes and kill failures — just as you would in any other aspect of your startup.

Project plans. These are the necessity of invention because they keep everyone accountable. In my experience with startups, PR objectives change every 3 months, much to the chagrin of the average PR firm. Let your PR partner know that things are likely to be a moving target ahead of time and build flexibility into your project plan. The best way to neutralize frustration around this is to make them a partner in planning. If they feel like you're planning and they're simply executing, they'll lose enthusiasm and be less tolerant of detours along the way.

Lean heavily on your PR firm's area of expertise. Different firms have different strengths that will be clear in how they advertise and who they already work with — once you find out what they are, work closely with them in this area. For example, one high-powered PR firm I worked with knew absolutely everyone in the tech world and had a great reputation. Their rep worked closely with our client to launch her presence at the LeWeb conference in Paris. The introductions the firm was able to make were so strong that this founder was able to speak at several other major conferences afterward.

Another firm I worked with focused exclusively on consumer products in the health and wellness space. They had the most comprehensive list of events and contacts with every major experiential marketing firm. We were able to get small tie-ins to exclusive events through this connection that helped build the company's brand, ultimately resulting in its successful acquisition.

Set the Stage for a Great Relationship

Feed the beast. I got this advice from the first CMO I ever worked with. You have to continuously give your PR team new content, announcements, angles, pitches, etc. You are the only one who knows what’s going on inside your business and where you need it to go. Imagine your PR team or firm as the fire breathing dragon who lives in your basement to heat your pipes. Cold water sucks… give them content so they can do their jobs.

But it's not enough to just leave it at that. You have to keep a close eye on what they're doing so that you know what kind of stories and information to feed them:

  • Define your key metrics and measure them like crazy. What does successful PR look like and mean to you?
  • Revisit your plans every 3 months and make sure your PR team can be flexible with you on this.
  • Keep strict deadlines and recurring project meetings. Don't cancel meetings. Keep the relationship high touch.
  • Build in time to brainstorm, but be judicious about it. You can spend a lot of time coming up with blue sky ideas, but you should only put energy into this if your company needs to get creative to hit its numbers.

Once you've made your presence in he market known, you'll probably start getting inbound pitches from PR firms interested in adding you to their client roster. There's a lot you can learn from these exchanges. A while ago, I worked with a well-respected Silicon Valley PR agency focused on consumer technology, and I was blown away by how they pitched themselves to work with us. It felt like they held my client's hand the entire way, and I could tell that they valued forging a strong relationship too.

First, they sent us an introductory email with specifics on:

  • Press outlets and journalists they liked
  • How they thought we could do better
  • A proposed timeline and team to support us

When we wanted to set up a meeting, they responded quickly, found a time, and made sure that both the proposed team and a senior member of the firm were in attendance. On top of that, it was clear they came prepped and ready:

  • Each team member demonstrated passion and knowledge about the industry we were working in.
  • They answered tough questions that helped us fill in knowledge that we lacked.
  • They helped brainstorm a couple of new tactics for us to try that were on point.

While it didn’t work out with them at the time, I’ve since referred several other clients to them, I was so impressed by their setup and preparation. It foreshadowed awesome delivery.

On the flip side, I've gotten so many bad inbound pitches from PR firms interested in working with clients that it's hard to tell them apart. As a startup founder or marketer, you should always say no when a PR relationship kicks off like this:

  • They send a cold email to the CEO on LinkedIn without any specific reason to get in touch.
  • Once they find the person responsible for hiring, they send a generic pitch listing services and why they believe in PR and their strategy, not in your brand or company.
  • No specific reference is made to your market or industry and how they can help.
  • When pressed for specifics on execution or contacts, they just don’t have them.
  • The kick off meeting takes more than 3 emails to schedule; someone is late or missing who should be there; or they get uncomfortable when you ask hard questions.

I wouldn't wish this type of interaction on anyone. Once, I saw a PR firm take this wrong-headed approach to one of my clients, and then followed it up by sending a junior person to conduct the pitch meeting. Halfway through the meeting she said she really wanted to work with us because she hated her other clients — then she burst into tears. I'd like to tell you this was shocking, but it really wasn't. Watch out for firms that make their employees depressed. It doesn't bode well for their skills as an organization.

Key ground rules for PR pitch meetings:

  • Do not take the meeting if the firm does not have expertise in your industry or market AND they don't adequately show interest or passion for what you do.
  • If you do take a call or meeting, ask the toughest questions you can think of. Prepare ahead of time if needed with your own due diligence on the firm and bring burning questions from your company. What are the biggest challenges you're facing? What snafus might arise in the future? How would they navigate these situations? The best questions are the ones that are incredibly specific to your venture. Make it impossible for them to issue a blanket statement. When working with a company that did blood draws in healthtech, I often would pose FDA and other industry-related questions because a lot of firms had no grasp on the complexity of the industry.
  • Take in a case study showing where you are in the life of your business. Ask them: How would you have us launch in a new market? What 5 questions would you answer ahead of launch? How would you define the success of the launch?
  • Listen to how they support their positions and to the tone they use in their responses. Think if that’s how you want your company represented to the public and the press, and whether their voice is close to your own.

Measurement is Critical

Great PR is an art — it’s designed to make people feel and think something specific about you and your business. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too is impact in the eye of the invoice payer. While press mentions and TV spots matter, below are other ways I recommend evaluating your PR firm's success.

Measure inbound traffic and sales from broadcast press. In one engagement, a local PR firm got one of our clients great local press including morning news segments, evening news shows and local cable guest spots. While web traffic spiked during this time, orders stayed flat. If you were to bucket the good, the bad and the ugly about this engagement, it would look like this:

  • Good: We got attention from the right audience which built over time and portrayed the CEO in a positive light.
  • Bad: We invested a lot of time, especially from the CEO, without an immediate pay-off.
  • Ugly: We saw no increase in sales.

The Verdict: We asked the firm to cut back on local TV spots in favor of getting coverage by local bloggers. This ended up having higher conversion rates at a discounted price.

Monitor mentions from your customers about press. Your object is to get people to care — and who’s more important than your customers? One of the best aspects of consulting for was developing the early community of “Power Lifters” who often found Quora mentions and shared articles before our team picked them up. They then added their own enthusiasm to the mix and evangelized for the app. That’s winning.

Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships. Great press reaches people who haven’t heard about you and helps shape their opinion of what you're doing. People and companies who want to be part of your story will find you. 90% of the crowdfunding campaigns Marked Point works on result in significant partnerships in their industry or field, whether it's manufacturing a toy, finding a distributor for a health bar, or convincing partner organizations to spread the word about a product.

Working with a PR Firm Will Always Be a Bit Annoying...

You'll need to do the legwork to justify the cost of working with them. While there are more and more tools that can help you measure the impact and conversions driven by PR, they are often prohibitively expensive and time consuming for a lean startup team. That said, you don't have to use fancy apps of analytics to tell if a strategy is working. Basic, inexpensive tools can show you correlation and causation between PR wins and wins for your company. But you still need to have the time and people to run these assessments. Before you agree to work with a firm, make sure you have enough resources in place to measure the outcome of the relationship — review these results every three months to stay on track.

You will still need to be the best source of content. Your PR firm can't make anything happen if you don't give them anything, so you have to invest in doing that work appropriately. This requires stark prioritization and telling the stories you know will make the biggest difference with your most important audience.

As an example, when I worked at Wildfire, I spent nearly six months preparing a data-driven research report about the social media marketplace using internal data and executive surveys. Because the report was so chock-full of relevant information, it garnered about three months of press and positioned Wildfire as a leader in the nascent field of social media marketing. Our PR firm was instrumental in setting up press meetings and interviews and keeping the momentum going, but we still had to be thinking about and creating content all the time.

There will always be downtime. Just as success at a startup ebbs and flows, so does the PR machine. You want the firm you're working with to keep things humming — if that mirrors where your business is. Sometimes you'll be cranking away on product and have nothing new to announce or launch or say, and that's fine. But this doesn't mean you should let your PR firm take a complete break, especially if they're on retainer. You want to use this time as an opportunity to have close discussions with them about what has been working, what should change for the next big press push, and how you can maintain steady visibility with your core audiences.

When to Leave Your PR Firm

Investment does not equal return. After working with a great PR firm for several months at WellnessFX, we unfortunately had to let them go. They were energetic, had great contacts and knew our space. But we needed a more grassroots strategy that required a smaller retainer from a firm. We parted ways amicably by being honest about where we were and what we needed — and highlighting the areas where we thought they really shined.

You aren’t getting the attention you need. When it comes to critical launches and timely press, your firm better be there for you. If your dedicated team consistently lets things slide and is difficult to get ahold of for weeks (or days if something is urgent), it’s time to let them know you’re looking elsewhere. I once hired a freelancer to help with a launch of a new company during a conference. We didn’t see her for two whole days. Not ok. Another classic bait-and-switch is that your initial meeting will be with a VP or senior account manager, but the firm will actually make someone very junior the point person on your account.

You’re doing all the work. Once, while I helped a friend select the right PR firm for his B2B tech business, he told me he previously paid a $15,000 per month retainer for 3 months and the only press they got was from his own posts on Quora and his personal website. No introductions were made, events suggested, or additional press opportunities generated by the firm, which didn’t even return his calls. I would demand a full refund in this case. What's shocking is how common these situations turn out to be, so keep your eyes open.

The Most Important Takeaways

The firm you choose to work with should understand that your founding team is your most powerful asset. The best stories and first impressions are made by charismatic founders who are backed by the right PR firepower. You want to make sure that your press strategy reflects their strengths. Do they represent themselves and the company the best during speaking opportunities? Writing on their blog? Over social media? On TV? In one-on-one coffee meetings with journalists? The right firm will recognize where your founders shine and will minimize their weaknesses.

Chemistry is everything. You have to like your PR team and they have to like you. That's where beauty and magic happens. When I was at Wildfire, I worked tirelessly on a UK launch with a member of our UK PR team, and we still managed to fit in a quick afternoon tea in the middle of it all. We used that as a “get to know you” and strategy session. Since then, she's risen up the ranks in the PR world and I count her as a friend and EU PR advisor for my new crop of clients at Marked Point.

Don't forget to be human. PR is often so driven by metrics, relationships and sky-high expectations that it's easy to lose sight of the people who are trying their best. It's easy to point fingers rather than get to the heart of why a campaign fell flat or why an announcement didn't get any traction. As a founder or marketing lead looking for a great PR partner, one of the most important things you can do is be yourself — represent who you are and what you need openly and honestly. You only stand to benefit.

Humans love stories. While I am opposed to anyone saying they're a storyteller if they aren't 100% devoted to telling stories, it's important that the PR firm you work with sees the value in stories, and can identify the good ones you should tell. People love characters they can relate to, even enterprise app customers. Stories serve as important social proof that your service or product works, that you make people happy or make their lives easier. Even if telling user stories isn't core to your PR strategy at the beginning, whatever firm you choose should know how to construct an engaging narrative. How can you tell if it's engaging? Well, do you think it is? Does your team? You know your company. Trust those instincts.

A Parting Thought

I am a terrible surfer — but I love it more than anything. I also love making terrible analogies about life and surfing. So I’ll leave you with this: Your startup adventure is the ocean — unpredictable, powerful, and really, really fun. Your PR firm is both your surf coach and the GoPro attached to the end of your board. As your coach, they're there to help refine your turns, teach you to get up and stay up, and make sure, overall, that you don't make an ass of yourself in front of everyone else. As your GoPro, they're also documenting a narrow view of who you are while you do what you do. Think about the angles you give them and what they'll be able to do with the footage.

Photography by Brandon Smith.