Industry Update
Opinion Article 8 June 2017

How to Hire the Right PR Agency in Five Easy Steps

By Babs Harrison, Managing director of Phoenix based Babs Harrison and Partners

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Hiring a public relations agency is for most travel clients fraught. That's the word. The stakes are high: reputation and money are in play. That's why you want to nail this decision. There are real bottom-line impacts of this decision. There's the fee paid the agency but, more importantly, there's the new revenue the right agency will drive your way - and there are the lost opportunities that come with hiring the wrong agency.

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I've been on both sides of this decision, have literally seen many dozens of agency pitch sessions, and in that process I have learned a thing or two about how to make the right decision.

It comes down to five simple steps.

  • Know who will work on your account.

This is crucial. Many agencies have a rainmaker - some have whole business development teams - and much as a client may like the people pitching their business, in some cases that may be the only time you see them.

Always ask: who will work on my account and, roughly, how will responsibilities be allocated, that is, who will do what?

Smart agency principals have thought about how the work will get done before they come to the pitch meeting. What you are asking for is for them to share their thinking, knowing that - very possibly - there will be adjustments in staffing over time.

While you are at this, stress to the agency the importance of including the staff who will do the bulk of the work in the pitch meeting. You can't make the smart choice if you don't know the team and the players.

Sometimes an agency will truthfully say that if they win the account they will need to staff up. Are you comfortable with the unknowns? The answer is yours.

  • Does the agency get your goals, that is, what accomplishments are expected?

Spell them out in the RFP, then grill the agency to make sure they understand what's wanted. Ask a lot of questions. Keep probing. You have to be on the same page for this relationship to work.

  • Ask the agency to present a mini case history of what they accomplished for a similar client.

Don't expect a fleshed-out plan for what the agency wants to do for you - most still need to gather many more facts about you before they can generate a real plan - but what an agency ought to be able to talk about at length are strategies, tactics and successes that have been achieved with a similar client. If you are a spa, ask for a spa story. A resort needs to hear a resort story.

Past successes breed future successes.

Ask tough questions: What most disappointed you in the work you did for client XYZ? What did you think you would achieve but didn't and why?

A good agency will already have done that self-reflection. The questions shouldn't throw them.

  • Ask the agency to name a dozen influencers who matter in your space - and insist on specificity.

Where the pedal hits the medal in today's PR is in the agency's ability to engage with influencers - who may be Instagram stars, Snapchat successes, bloggers, and of course traditional media players.

Push for a range of influencers - working in everything from digital media to print - and that's important because impactful campaigns today have to hit many channels.

If you haven't heard of an influencer mentioned by the agency, don't dismiss it. The name may be one you need to know. Look it up and award bonus points to an agency that surprises you with influencers you had not heard of.

  • What would you do in the first 30 days of the account?

This is critical. Some agencies win an account and it's as though they take the next month off to celebrate.

You want an agency that - with considerable excitement and knowhow - hits the ground running.

Ask for a specific and detailed account launch plan. Good agencies already have something of a playbook for how they get started on a new account. Usually this involves client meetings (research), developing influencer contact lists and strategies, and putting an action plan in writing, for review asap by the client.

Get the agency to spell out how it will start its work for you. Demand details.

That's five very simple steps. Follow them and very probably you will quickly sift among the agency candidates and make the right hire. You will almost certainly get exactly what you want from your agency too.

Babs Harrison

Babs Harrison is managing director of Phoenix based Babs Harrison and Partners, a boutique public relations/marketing consultancy for select luxury resorts, hotels, and spas. Harrison has 25 years of experience in hospitality and has worked with leading brands in the US and internationally .

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