PR News Checklist: 3 Questions to Ask a Potential Agency Partner

For a brand with a small team and limited in-house resources, a strategic agency partnership can widen your media relations efforts. It's important to remember, though, that beyond an agency's smooth veneer must also be a proven track record.

PR News spoke with brand communicators to learn what they insist on asking when vetting an agency. Here are three questions that any agency should answer before you work with them.

"Can I see a list of clients and media partners?"

Every agency should roll out the red carpet.  Jenna Hilzenrath, VP of communications at Birchbox, emphasizes that agencies proud of their work should feel comfortable sharing at least some of their client lists with you.

"While it's useful to see presentations with big ideas, capabilities and case studies, the most telling insight can come from speaking with the agency's clients about their experience," she says.  You should also talk "to journalists who work with that agency regularly," she says. "You'll get a more revealing look at how the agency operates, its strengths and weaknesses, challenges and more."

"Ask for a client list. See how this aligns with your business sector," adds Teddy Basham-Witherington, deputy director at The Impact Fund."Do they 'get' you?" In addition to speaking with those clients, you'll quickly learn where the agency's industry expertise lies—and if that expertise is different than advertised.

"How do you measure the success of your PR efforts?"

Andrea Staub, Perdue Farms' VP of corporate communications, notes that a legitimate measurement strategy is something many brands tend to overlook when vetting agencies. "Have they demonstrated an ability to provide a measurement plan for the success of PR efforts?" she asks. If the agency isn't forthcoming with its measurement plan, it's a red flag that the plan might not be that strong.

Moreover, an agency that primarily measures its success using superficial, top-of-funnel metrics such as 'impressions' likely has a revisionist perspective on how successful its brand campaigns actually were. Impressions can be a valuable starting point. A plan should include more telling data such as engagement time (for digital campaigns), interactions, share of voice and hard numbers on earned media coverage.

"How much listening are you doing?"

Staub says an agency that has a deep understanding of your business will be able to share the social listening strategy it has for monitoring your brand and its industry standing. This should include an "understanding of the competitive landscape, industry, company and issues."

Basham-Witherington also emphasizes that, just as in a healthy relationship, a solid agency will know how to listen to you, its partner. To this end, he often wonders if an agency is in "receive" or "transmit" mode.

"As a brand manager you’re looking for an agency that listens to you, gets you—that’s  the receive mode on the radio," he says.

"Some agencies can bamboozle the client...sometimes making extravagant claims in an attempt to woo the client. I’ve often heard it said that the agency that does its best job selling themselves will not do as good a job selling you. That’s the broadcast mode, and one to beware of as I can attest to, borne of hard-won experience."