Industry Update
Opinion Article26 October 2017

Five Questions to Ask Your Next PR Agency

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

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Many hoteliers and resort managers over-complicate the search for a new PR agency just as too many become confused when they ponder the question, is our current agency the right one.

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Really, it comes down to how well any agency answers just five questions. That's right: five.

Of course it's useful to hear about past case histories - for instances where an agency mounted an initiative for a similar client - and I'm not diminishing their relevance. There's a lot more an agency can share that might be helpful in choosing which is the best fit.

But what the choice comes down to is the quality of the answers to just five direct questions.

How easy is that?

Any incumbent agency ought to be able to ace this test even if it's a pop quiz. An agency bidding the business ought to be able to do very, very well, too. That's because the questions drill down into exactly what this property is and what its aspirations are - and any agency that doesn't grasp those points is the wrong agency.

What are these magic questions?


  • What is our business objective? Is it to be the best hotel on Central Park South? The most profitable? The must-stay hip place? Exactly what is the business goal of management - and the only way to know it is to research what management has said about the property. Every hotel has an objective - every single one. Sometimes it's simple: to meet the owner's profit expectation of 11%. Sometimes it's more textured - to be the in place for millennials in Brooklyn. What matters is knowing the objective because no PR campaign can stay on target if it doesn't know the target.
  1. What does TripAdvisor say about us? It is shocking how often agencies, including incumbents, are blissfully unaware of a property's stature on TripAdvisor, even when every influencer on the planet looks to TripAdvisor to figure out what could be credibly said about a property. No one wants to rave about a hotel that is rated 165th in Phoenix. Nobody. Go ahead, ask your agency in a phone call: what does TripAdvisor say about us? And if you hear the frantic typing of keys you know they are calling up Google because they are clueless.

  • What is our competitive set? Demand specifics. "High end spas" is not good enough. You want names and you also want details. Sometimes it's a competitor for meetings - but not spa. Sometimes it's for weddings but not fitness retreats. Keep asking questions. Adequate representation of a property requires a keen understanding of the competitive environment it faces. Knowing competitors, by the way, really helps an agency in knowing what company a resort wants to keep - and what it might be indifferent to. By the way, in most cases, the only way to really know a comp set is to have asked the DoSM and/or GM. That's because properties often are idiosyncratic in their comp set beliefs and the path to knowledge is to have asked. So cut slack for an agency that is bidding for the business - its ideas of comp set may be enlightening but might not align with management's. An incumbent agency ought to know exactly who the management sees as competitors.

  • What are our primary markets? It's very hard to sell Hawaii to the East Coast. It's close to impossible to sell the Caribbean to the West Coast. A savvy agency knows the markets that really matter to a property because knowing that is crucial in targeting appropriate media and influencers. Don't settle for cliche answers. Everybody is going after upscale Chinese business so when an agency says China ask them to try again. What matters here is seeing if the agency has the right targets in sight.

  • Where is our great opportunity - geographically? Again, eliminate China as an answer. It's just about everybody's greatest opportunity. What you want to hear are ideas that will help the agency make a difference in how it spreads the word about the property. A good answer, by the way, will factor in knowledge about air lift and also local economies and interests. Here there may be no exactly right answer. What you are looking for is insight into how the agency thinks.

Bonus round. If it's an in-person meeting with an agency's team, my advice is to single out what looks to be the youngest person and directly ask them, what are our business objectives? In a savvy, well-managed agency, everybody on a team - certainly anybody important enough to bring to a client confab - ought to know the basics. And do watch the faces of the senior team members as the junior tries to answer. What are you seeing about intra-agency interactions?

Asking the five questions can easily be done in a half hour.

And in that half hour you will gain crucial insight into exactly how much the agency knows about you and your journey - and if they don't know where you want to go, how can they possibly be a guide?

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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