Stick With Me, You'll Get To Hollywood: Surviving In The PR Agency Game (Part Two)

By: Bruce W. Marcus Note: This is the second half of Marcus' article on the PR Agency Game. In the first part, Marcus gave some background on the history of the PR industry and discussed how to identify the right objectives for your service firm's PR. Now, Marcus will offer key questions to ask yourself about the effectiveness of your PR firm's strategies.


In most non-professional service public relations activities, once a PR agency is oriented, it virtually works from its notes. But a law or accounting or consulting firm is dynamic. Even in the smallest firm, six publicizable things are happening every day. It sometimes may seem that there's more serendipity in newsworthy opportunities than there is planning.

How, then, does your PR agency hear about it? Is it fed through the marketing director, with assignment to the PR firm? Or does the agency minion have a presence and relationship with the people in the firm who are doing publicizable things? This relationship is crucial to the success and value of a public relations program.

  • What's the agency doing to educate you and your staff? You may know what the agency is doing, but do they explain what they need from you to do it? Do they explain clearly how it serves your total marketing effort? Do they answer you intelligently and patiently when you ask "Why?", which you should be doing regularly, anyway?
  • How does the agency keep you informed? Is there a specified format? A written report? Planned meetings? Or do they just wing it, keeping you in the dark most of the time?
  • Who does the agency have on your account? Who do you see on a day-by-day basis? Who does that person report to? What are the levels of professionalism of these people, relative to your program? How participatory, and how responsive, are the senior people in the agency?
  • How's the ratio of client service to client relations? While it's expected that your agency will give you the same kind of service your clients expect of you, sometimes the bulk of the PR fee goes to meetings and correspondence with you, all designed to make you feel important and cared for, and the smallest part of the fee goes to actually performing for you. This generates a good, warm feeling, and the notion that the agency really cares about you. But it doesn't produce much in the way of useful marketing.
  • Does your agency understand that public relations is only part of a marketing program, and not the whole program itself? Do they know what role they play in a larger marketing operation? And how do they use that knowledge? How do they participate in -- or coordinate with -- other marketing activities?
  • One of the things we've learned about public relations for professional services is that it requires skills and understanding much beyond good old-fashioned publicity. Whomever the agency assigns to your account has got to be smart enough to understand what you're really about. How does a PR person publicize a new cash flow measurement system if he or she doesn't understand cash flow to begin with? How does a public relations person publicize your capability in trust law without understanding some of its ramifications? Here, simple-minded press agentry won't do. Public relations works only when the PR firm is capable of understanding the nature of what you do professionally. This is another distinction, by the way, of professional services marketing as opposed to product or corporate marketing.
  • Does the agency help you understand how to measure its own performance? This may seem a little self-serving. But if the agency says, "Look at how many clippings I've gotten for you," then you should respond, "OK, but what do they mean in terms of practice development?" If the answer is, "Enhanced name recognition," then you've got a potential problem. On the other hand, if the answer is, "It builds a case for your expertise in specific areas, and that case can be used as a selling tool," then cherish that agency.
  • How is the agency on details? For example, you might want to check the mailing lists they're using for your press releases. You should know the categories and publications they're sending to. For example, my website receives hundreds of press releases a month, most of which are grossly inappropriate for the publication. The postage on some of these press packets, including personnel announcements we don't publish and packets for liquor companies, can run as much as a dollar or more. What the's the client's money, why worry?
  • If there's one thing a professional firm should understand, it's fees and billing. And yet, it's amazing how few professional firms understand how their PR agencies are charging them. Public relations fees are pretty standard, and there should be some reasonable relationship between hours and dollars, even where the fee is on monthly retainer. While nothing is cast in stone, a smaller firm should be able to get a creditable program for an average of $8-10,000 a month. A larger firm can pay more, but in addition to a basic, ongoing program, should expect such major activities as issues programs, national conferences with big-name participants, and national and perhaps global coverage. If you're paying for big-time stuff and getting only small-time stuff, rethink the relationship.
  • And finally, a peculiar but important criterion. Do you sense that the public relations agency is working for you -- to accomplish your goals -- or working for itself -- simply to get a fee? Don't mistrust your instincts here. They're more valuable, and accurate, than you think. 

Let's say at the outset that most public relations firms, particularly those that are well established, and whose credentials you've properly vetted, are thoroughly professional, and will give you more than your money's worth. But let's not also forget that public relations firms, as you are, are professional firms as well. That means that they're only as good as the people they put on your account, backed by a firm with high standards of performance.

You can have a great public relations firm, but a poor account executive on your account (in which case, complain to management). You can even have a great account executive, but one who doesn't quite grasp the nature of what you do, in which case, again, ask for a replacement. The fascinating thing is that law and accounting firms, themselves professional firms, can be astigmatic when assessing the services of other professional firms. There are professionals and there are clients. There are billable hours and reporting structures. There are partners and associates.

Ultimately, the best basis for judging a firm from another profession that's working for you is to judge them the way you want to be judged, in terms of service, performance, understanding the nature of the project, and so forth. One important factor. A good public relations program requires imagination, as well as the skills of the public relations practice. Your agency should bring you imaginative and innovative ideas, in addition to the routines that are part of every program. But the point is that the dynamic energy of imagination should sustain, and not run down after the first few months. In fact, the currency for a sustaining relationship should be a dynamic energy that startles you, that challenges you, that keeps ahead of you. If you've got an agency like that, cherish it, and renew their contract regularly.

Bruce W. Marcus was a consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of The Marcus Letter on Professional Services Marketing, and the author of Professional Services Marketing 3.0 (Bay Street Group, 2012), from which this article was adapted.