PUBLIC RELATIONS: Pointing the way to PR - When choosing a public relations agency, the first thing is to do is decide exactly what you want it for, writes Robin Cobb

Chris Alder was flung in at the deep end. A week before he took up his new job as director of corporate communications with business software company SAP, he was told its public relations agency had decided to move on.

Chris Alder was flung in at the deep end. A week before he took up

his new job as director of corporate communications with business

software company SAP, he was told its public relations agency had

decided to move on.

’I had to start casting around for a PR agency for an employer I wasn’t

yet working for,’ he says. ’The first step is to ask yourself what you

want an agency to do for you. This may seem obvious but you would be

amazed how many people don’t ask themselves that.’

For companies contemplating taking on a PR agency for the first time,

there may be a prior question: Do I need an agency? ’Free publicity’ is

a fallacy; PR is not cheap. It involves costs and management time on top

of agency fees. It should not be an impulse purchase, but one that will

meet corporate objectives.

In SAP’s case there was a clear role for PR services. But before Alder

began the search, he went through a list of questions:

Was the agency to be ’my arms and legs’ and take on the responsibilities

of an in-house press office? Alder’s answer was ’Yes’.

Would it be required to write press releases and generate media



Should the agency provide high-level strategic counselling and



Should it be a young, bright and brash agency or one which would help

project a more statesmanlike corporate personality? The latter.

Would the activity have the support of top management? Yes.

There were two final, vital questions: How much work would be


What was the budget?

Next, it was a matter of preparing a brief and going through directories

and other sources to put together and approach an initial list of about

ten agencies that were potentially qualified. Further research and

evaluation whittled this down to four.

’By the time you get to the pitch stage, there should be little doubt

that the short-listed agencies can do the job,’ Alder says. ’At this

point it becomes 90% human relationships; whether you can work

comfortably with these people.’

This is a near-textbook example of how to select a PR agency. But Alder

had the benefit, through background and industry contacts, of knowing

the PR agency scene. For companies without such experience, it can be a

daunting task to find the best fit from among some 1500 agencies in the


The industry is highly fragmented. In size, agencies range from those

with a staff of one or two to multinational groups employing thousands

across the world. Most have particular areas of experience and

expertise, and some specialise in such sectors as finance, technology

and lobbying.

There are a number of starting points. The PR universe can be reviewed

through the directories Contact (0171 413 4086) and Hollis UK Press and

Public Relations Annual (0181 977 7711).

There are the professional bodies, the Public Relations Consultants

Association (0171 233 6026) and the Institute of Public Relations (0171

253 5151).

The former represents some 160 agencies, while the latter has individual

memberships of nearly 6000 PR professionals .

The PRCA yearbook profiles each member agency and its PReview database

service offers to match agencies against criteria supplied by client


The IPR also offers both general advice and its computerised Matchmaker


Also useful are word-of-mouth recommendations from counterparts in other

companies and media contacts. It is still a prime way for clients to

seek out agencies.

Conventionally, the final decision is made after short-listed agencies

have given a pitch. According to James Thelluson, chairman of the Cohn &

Wolfe agency, some new clients now eschew the set-piece presentation in

favour of a series of less formal meetings and discussions, both at the

company and the agency.

Keith Marsden, head of marketing in Coopers & Lybrand’s corporate

finance division, agrees: ’In a pitch situation, agencies are asked to

jump through hoops on the basis of poor information.’ His search for an

agency started with a list of a dozen, which he subsequently reduced to


’I had as many as 40 meetings with these, at our offices and at theirs,’

he says. ’You have to decide who has the culture and values you


Personal services

Personal compatibility is often the deciding factor once other criteria

have been satisfied. According to Ken Clayton, managing director of

Michael Rines Communications: ’There has to be mutual respect between

client and the agency team. Business is tough enough without having to

work with people you don’t like. So prospective clients should always

stipulate that in the pitch they should meet the people they will be

working with.’

A recent appointment was that of Jane Howard PR by Carphone Warehouse,

found through the PRCA. ’It was the first time I have had to look for a

new agency,’ says Ruth Greenwood, Carphone’s marketing manager. ’We are

a small company that has grown quickly, and it was important that we

were matched with a similar agency. With Jane Howard we have strategic

input on a day-to-day level.’

Howard comments: ’One of the considerations for the client is a big

agency versus a small one. With a large agency there is the security of

a known name and add-ons such as a European network. With smaller ones

you get the agency’s top people, with hands-on director


A final word of caution from Alder: ’Beware of agencies that want to hit

the ground running with lots of activity. The agency should want to

spend time with your management, reading itself into your business, and

finding out exactly what it is you want them to do.’


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