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Just like when you are choosing a new employee, the best way to select  a PR agency or consultant – in Sydney or beyond – is to look at who they have worked for, check with past employers/clients, match your needs against specialist supplier capabilities and, importantly, meet with them to make sure the ‘vibe’ of the people you will be working with is likely to suit your own personal approach. This is a human, social service that is being provided, after all. The problem with most agencies, of course, is that it is highly possible that those who you meet during the ‘pitch’ won’t actually be doing most of the work on your account.

Choosing a Sydney PR agency

In other words, it is common for more senior and experienced agency representatives to have the initial prospect interaction, but when the client is secured, more junior employees are assigned to do the bulk of the account.

An outcome of this can be that the quality of the work is lower than it should be. Of course, you get what you pay for. Client take out? Check on who and/or what level of professional will be working on your account.

And whilst having a team working on your account that is comprised of a number of different levels of professionals is good in theory, in practice the more ‘hands’ that are active in your account the more compromised the economy of scale, the more time that is spent on it and the less ROI you get.

An unfortunate downside of any multi-employee agency is employee turnover. There is little that can be done about this but younger PR professionals especially move on very quickly due to being offered more money elsewhere, even though they might not deserve the position/salary increase! This will mean reacquainting the new employee with the account, a cost the client should never pay for but it will mean a slowdown in account productivity.

I’ll tell you one thing, whilst PR sole operators like myself may not have the extensive resources of a large PR agency, when you work with a one-person operation you certainly know who is going to be doing your work!

And at the end of the day, PR is about strategy, creativity and technical skills. If a one-woman or one-man show can provide that capability, why do you need a phalanx of professionals to do the job?

Quoting and hour allocation from Sydney PR agencies

Agencies are experts in underquoting and are generally loathe to ask clients to spend more money in addition to what has been quoted. This means that clients tend to get excellent value for money. Agencies frequently don’t charge what the account is actually costing, simply to get the business in the door or keep them ‘within the doors’!

Clients can be their own worst enemies in this regard, expecting the world but then not being willing to pay for it. Of course, this isn’t actually articulated too often in case a client is offended by the truth.

Personally, I think an estimate of time/cost should be provided but, in most cases, the client should ultimately pay for the time spent on the account. That’s my Sydney-based PR approach and it works well due to mutual client-PR supplier integrity.

What are your Sydney PR needs?

One of the many challenges in choosing the right PR agency is determining what PR agency can meet your specific needs. Unfortunately, there are very few PR agencies that don’t say they are experts in every sub-set of PR that you can imagine: social media, B2B, events, sponsorship, industry-specific experience etc.

If it is media relations alone that you require, then does the agency have experience in your industry? Media relations is not rocket science in its application, however, so this may not even be that important. The media relations approach is transferable across industries.

More important is the proven creativity of agency-driven media programs and the success they have had in the past – and you need to consider whether those individuals responsible for the media program are still with the agency and, in fact, working on your account – does this matter to you? I think it might…

And as for ‘resources’, well, media lists can be bought and refined very quickly and having media contacts is a vastly overrated characteristic. Journalists are interested in the quality of the story, not by who they had a beer with at the pub last week. Focus on the content and the coverage will come, as long as you have someone who is of course adept at working with the media once they have that content in their armoury.

To use the example of social media, there are a plethora of different platforms out there. Whilst it is often difficult to know what platform(s) you will need prior your strategy/approach being defined, one agency might have excellent runs on the board using Facebook but be inexperienced in blogs or content marketing in general. And with the rapidly evolving nature of social media, this is an area I’d be particularly careful in.

Chinese walls and customised attention in PR

It is not uncommon for PR agencies to be working with clients that are competitive with each other. The immediate reaction to this from a prospective client is that this is not a good thing – and understandably so.

The issue of IP being either deliberately or inadvertently shared is a nebulous area. This might relate to actual confidential whole-of-business issues or specifically in regard to communication/stakeholder engagement issues. Ideally, the risk simply wouldn’t exist.

In reality, however, the reason the issue comes up is because obviously one agency has had success in a particular area of public relations (e.g. investor relations) and that’s why a client is interested in using them.

Agencies will set up ‘Chinese walls’ between different teams working on accounts, but despite best intentions, the integrity of these walls can be questionable. Another methodology in very big ‘umbrella’ type agencies is giving the competitor to a ‘sister’ agency so the profit stays within the group. This is a more viable outcome but it can mean the actual specialist agency suited to your needs isn’t actually working on your account.

Going back to reality again, I fail to see how the advice and insight from the specialist agency wouldn’t be sought in some circumstances, but even when applying a ‘no names, no pack drill’ and absolute best intentions type approach, I fail to see how the 100% integrity of client-separation can be maintained.

This isn’t an argument not to proceed with a particular agency which clearly has industry and specialist PR expertise, but it is a ‘slow down and think through the ramifications and options’ yellow light.

This issue wont’ come up for sole operators as there is no way to keep clients separate. For instance, I’ve worked extensively with BlueScope Steel, so whilst I am doing that there is no way I can work with OneSteel, a competitor in many regards, for instance.

Does Sydney PR need to be in Sydney?

Hello, are we familiar with email!

The answer is no, your PR agency or service provider does not need to be based in the same city as you. Sure, face-to-face meetings every month or so after the initial interaction is standard, but even this can be adapted to needs.

Technology like telephone, email, Skype etc negates the need for the PR pro to be living next door, Alice. It’s results that count, not geography.

Have you encountered any of the issues flagged in this post in regard to choosing a PR agency, or pitching for a client? What anecdotes or thoughts can you share on this discussion?

This is the first part of a two-part series. The next post will discuss, in relation to choosing a PR agency or operator, the relevance of how active and professional an agency is on social media and on the internet, measuring PR investment, the importance of honesty, the ‘challenger’ role PR plays and why pitches are a waste of space.