Questions All Small Businesses Should Ask When Hiring a PR Agency

Strong public relations initiatives should be part of any business’ strategic plans for growth. Small businesses, in particular, must be careful about their PR initiatives for the simple reason that they don't have many resources to spare—every effort needs to pay off in increased awareness or revenue, preferably both.

For many small businesses and start-ups, it makes sense to handle their own PR programs. They know their own products best, and hopefully they have someone on staff who has the makings of an ace communicator who can work across multiple platforms and mix traditional PR outreach with the latest digital tactics.

The trouble is PR can be the last thing on a small business owner's mind on a day-to-day basis. “The reason why we are constantly pushing for businesses to market themselves is because they stop doing it, or put it at the bottom of the list,” says Rebekah Evans, CEO of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce. This is where a qualified agency can come in handy. “It is important to have someone who can constantly be promoting your business,” says Evans.

If you are with a small business and you cannot find the resources or talent in-house to handle day-to-day communications, it may be time to hire a PR agency—one that fits your particular business needs and can execute efficient campaigns that play directly into your bottom line. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

With that in mind, PR News spoke with Susan Tellem, partner, Tellem Grody PR, an agency that has extensive experience working with small businesses for local, regional and national outreach campaigns; small business owner Mallory Lewis, a writer and performer who is the daughter of puppeteer Shari Lewis ("I'm the sister of Lamb Chop," Lewis says); and Evans of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce, about what questions small businesses owners should ask when hiring a PR agency.

  1. How much will it cost and what will be my return on investment? The bottom line is small businesses need to set with an agency not only what the cost will be, but also the ROI. “You should ask what they are going to give you, so nobody is surprised when things shift or change—which they will,” says Evans.

  2. Is your agency known for solid media relationships—do you know key reporters locally and nationally in my industry? Be specific and make sure that the person or agency you are hiring has contacts in your field, says Lewis.

  3. Can you provide a list of the media publications/sites/programs that I can reasonably expect to get coverage from? “I might be willing to pay $2,000, but not if the person says 'I think I can get you a mention in the local paper,'” says Lewis.

  4. Can you pitch me ideas on how you can help my business? “Does the account team regurgitate your ideas, or do they come up with fresh, creative strategies and tactics?” says Tellem.  

  5. Who, exactly, will be working with me on my campaigns? It’s important to have a business partner in the PR agency that can have a good, micro-level relationship with you. “Will the person who pitched the account actually work on it or will you be assigned inexperienced, junior staff?” says Tellem. Ask if there is sufficient backup expertise in your industry if your account person leaves the agency.

  6. What do I need to provide, as the business owner, to ensure that your agency can do its job well? Will you need to provide a bio, clip reel, etc.? Also, how much in advance will the agency need such materials? "Monthly magazines sometimes need media four months in advance. Newspapers don’t need as long,” says Lewis.

  7. Can you provide me with references from clients who work in my industry or in a similar industry? Check the agency's references with other clients and, especially, with the media—an often overlooked source of good information on an agency's performance, says Tellem.

  8. Do you have social media and CRM expertise? Ask if the agency been immersed in the rapid changes in social media and if it is able to provide examples of successful campaigns they have done in the past, such as giveaways, chats, etc. on social media sites, says Tellem. Also ask if it has a comprehensive approach to customer relationship management.

For a small business, hiring a PR agency can be a daunting task. Armed with these questions, you'll be able to begin your search for an agency on the right foot.

Follow Sahil Patel: @sizpatel