What we're talking about 

Public relations (PR) is all about managing your business' messaging and reputation, and finding the most effective ways to spread the word about your brand to the right audience. That might be done in-house but, in certain situations, the best option could be to bring in some external expertise via a PR agency (or individual). You might work with an agency on an ad hoc basis, for a specific period (like the launch of your business) or on a continuous basis, paying them something called a retainer.

PR agencies can help in many ways – but, most broadly, they can help define or refine your message and help you get it out there. Traditionally, that might have been through press coverage – now it also entails securing speaker slots at events, podcast or radio appearances, and growing your social media channels. 

Why it's important 

A concerted and considered PR strategy can make a huge difference to a business' growth and success – and it can help you stand out in your category, making you the first choice for customers. Outsourcing PR can help you focus on the other parts of the business that demand your full attention, like strategy or sales. But doing it well is hard – journalists, for example, are often inundated with hopeful and unfocused pitches. The right PR agencies can help you hone your story pitch and give you access to their address book of connections.

Realizing that you need and can afford the help of a PR agency is a big decision – especially when you're tight on resources and have to prioritize different areas of the business. Small businesses can expect to pay between $2,000 and $10,000 a month for an agency retainer, with no guarantee that results will materialize. That means picking the right agency or individual is essential. This is a partnership: they need to understand your brand and mission and have the necessary tools and contacts to spread your story. It's not unusual to hear of business owners making bad moves in the PR department, being scarred from the experience and vowing not to spend on external help again.

Things to note 

You might not need external help yet. There's plenty to be said for doing PR off your own back for as long as possible. It might be that you can take advantage of your founding team's passion, deep knowledge and existing connections and do it yourself. In fact, hearing from the founder can sometimes be more compelling for a media outlet than hearing from an agency. Plus, there are plenty of online resources to help you on your way, such as our guide to pitching to the press.

Lean on your network. As with most things, if you don't know where to start, look to your immediate network for recommendations. Ask people if they've had any positive experiences with PR agencies, particularly if they're in similar or adjacent sectors – it's a great way to get initial names and contacts.

You can also work with individuals. Sometimes it's enough to work with one person rather than a whole agency. There are lots of PR professionals who specialize in specific sectors, like food and drink, and work as freelancers. Working with a freelancer, and building a personal relationship with someone firmly embedded in their industry, is a very popular route. Freelancers are usually cheaper and more flexible than agencies. 

It's all about fit. You can't just work with any old agency and expect results. Rather, you should look for one that fully understands your brand and vision and has experience in your sector. They'll need to understand the nuances of PR for small businesses as opposed to big companies, and they should have a proven track record across the kinds of media you want to prioritize. Ultimately, you'll be working with them pretty closely – there needs to be a good connection and cultural fit for this to be fruitful for both parties. And, remember: for the good PR agencies, you'll need to make a compelling case for them to take you on as a client, too.

How to hire the right PR agency 

1. Align your business goals. Get clear on the wider aims for your business and then align PR goals to fit with them – you might be looking to attract talent, raise investment or promote a product launch. Who do you want to reach and why? Your chosen agency will help you define your goals in more detail, but the more specific you can be at this stage, the more likely you are to pick an agency that truly understands your business. 

2. Establish constraints. Your primary constraint will be your budget. A common baseline for budgeting is to spend 10% of your revenue on marketing and PR – but there are more detailed insights here. Land on a range and upper limit, thinking about where PR fits in with your other priorities. But don't forget to think about other constraints, such as time – how much of your week can you dedicate to working with an agency? Media companies often need super-quick responses. 

3. Consider your options. Confirm that an agency is the best choice. Is it too soon in your trajectory? Do your demands require someone working full-time in-house? There's scope to try out different options and combinations – by bringing on freelancers, for example – until you know what works. 

4. Create a shortlist of agencies. With the essential criteria you've noted, start drawing up a list of agencies and individuals that are suitable. Lean on your network and your team heavily; scour online directories in your area; dig into who does PR for companies in your sector; think about recent campaigns that resonated with you and find out who was responsible. There might be specialist PR companies that are closely linked with your sector. Do some preliminary research into any options, looking at past work and testimonials. Draw up a list of around five to pursue.

5. Draw up a proposal. When you start to contact agencies, you can either send a request for proposals (RFP) or take a more informal approach by striking up an exploratory conversation. There's more info on the pros and cons of each option here, but first-timers can benefit greatly from going down the RFP route. Whatever happens, drawing up the necessary document is a useful exercise; even if it's just a couple of pages, it'll ensure that your requirements are crystal-clear to both you and the agency. There's a template here.

6. Make contact. Get in touch with the agencies or individuals on your shortlist to see if they have capacity, are interested in working with you and fit your essential criteria. Organize an initial conversation – allow for a couple of weeks' preparation, giving the agency as much info as possible on both your business and what you're hoping to establish during the meeting. 

7. Evaluate pitches. Find out how the agency can make your goals a reality. Listen carefully to the plans, ideas and any relevant past work, but also pay attention to character traits and communication skills. You need to get on with the person who'll be managing your account. Find out costs and get answers to some other essential questions.

8. Make a decision. Based on which pitches resonate most and the information you've gathered, make a decision on who's best for your business. Clarify your expectations before making the offer. This can be an informal arrangement, but it can also be formalized with a contract including a statement of work. 

Key takeaways 

• You can't ignore PR, and there's a reason that plenty of businesses take on external help: PR specialists have the time, expertise and contacts to get your brand the exposure it deserves. 

• Good PR takes momentum – you need to give an agency a fair amount of time to build that. 

• This is a brand-building exercise – it's not necessarily a silver bullet for sales. The aim is to build a relationship with a company or individual who truly understands what you're trying to build.

Learn more

Perspective. On the Earned Media podcast,marketing expert Jay Baer talks about how small businesses can successfully hire and work with PR agencies

Example. From small business advice site Minutehack, some PR firms talk through the specifics of what a good campaign looks like, fee structures and onboarding processes. 

Tool. As you vet your PR agencies, refer to this list of questions from journalism platform Muck Rack. You may also find these resources – covering everything from budgeting to RFPs – helpful.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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