How to work well with PR agencies

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.

You’re ready to launch, you’ve been waiting for ages to leave ‘stealth mode’ (even though it does sound pretty cool and James Bond-ish) and you need a PR agency to help the world to understand your genius. I see a lot of start-ups who say, “Okay, we’re ready to go public — let’s bring on an agency!” as if that’s the end of the story. It’s not necessarily the wrong move but it’s not always done in the right way or at the right time. I’ve never worked agency-side, but I’ve run communications teams in-house and managed all kinds of agencies in the US, South America, Europe and Australasia, and here’s what I can tell you.

  1. Choose wisely. Conduct a robust RFP where you meet with and talk to various agencies. Just because one has been recommended to you by another founder, they might not cover your industry or be experienced in what you need, so talk and ask tons of questions. What other clients do they have in this space? What sorts of projects are they most proud of recently? What sort of coverage would they see as a win for you? How would they pitch you? Their answers should be practical, on-budget, and thoughtful — I’m often suspicious of promising too much in those first pitch meetings or if they seem cavalier about any difficulties you might have been having. Bonus: I also ask agency teams what their favorite recent piece of coverage is (whether they’ve placed it, or not). It reveals, to a degree, how they think and what sorts of things they prioritize — and sometimes you get an interesting article to read out of it.
  2. There’s no such thing as working with an ‘agency’. You work with the people on your account — and probably not the director you met in the pitch meeting. One of the reasons I don’t recommend “an agency” (but often do recommend excellent individuals who work at agencies) is because your success will entirely depend on how good the execution is on your account, and not on the reputation of the agency itself. So when you’re interviewing agencies, ask the questions: Who will be my day-to-day contact? What is their level of experience? Assess whether you think you will be able to communicate honestly and openly when things aren’t going well. Don’t be afraid of asking to put someone else on your account if you feel like your day-to-day contact isn’t working for you.
  3. What’s your internal set-up? I always ask founders, who does the agency report into? And sometimes they say, “Oh, our intern” or “whoever can make the weekly call”. This level of commitment is likely directly indicative of the success you’ll have with your agency. Who’s going to be managing this agency on your company side? Who’s invested in it? Is there company buy-in to “get PR”? Is your team media trained and ready to deal with the press? Lots of things are worth thinking about before you onboard an agency, and how you’ll invest in your relationship with them is key.
  4. Have a strong narrative at the outset. If you aren’t proscriptive about your own story to your agency, they won’t know how to pitch you. It’s worth taking the time with your team to hone in on what your core, strategic narrative is and develop it such that you’re confident of its resonance and that it’s an accurate reflection of your company. (Hint #1: if you don’t know how to do this, here’s a post on thinking about your company narrative like a product. Hint #2: this is also what Hedgehog + Fox actually does — talk to us!).
  5. Talk frequently with your agency. This might be the most obvious but least understood: If you’re not talking to them, they’re probably not doing their best work, yo. Have weekly work-in-progress phone calls, talk openly about your biggest priorities and also be clear about things you don’t care about. Suggest having a WIP Google Spreadsheet (or alternative favorite organizational tool) in which the agency lists each area of focus (e.g. corporate thought-leadership or consumer launch etc.) and lists out what outlets/reporters they’re pitching and when. Each column should have a status section: eg “Emailed Nick — he’s interested in pursuing next week” etc. Each column should also have what the agency ask is: do they need an interview from someone at the company? Hi-res screenshots? Help your agency be ready for what they need so when they finally have an interested reporter, you don’t leave them in the lurch. Remember you hold all the context and they’re only connecting the dots you give them: If their work isn’t up to scratch, it could be because your briefings haven’t been, either.
  6. Talk honestly about expectations. Oftentimes founders want the world (front page of the Wall Street Journal, please!) and agencies can be reluctant to course-correct early if that doesn’t seem likely. (Sidenote: they can get you in the WSJ fairly quickly if you commit fraud, harass someone or go bankrupt, so front page isn’t always what you want…). Having upfront, open discussions about what sort of themes you want pitched (and why, and when) is key for the relationship to be on a good footing.
  7. Be explicit about coverage goals. Not only is specifying the type of outlet you want is important, but so is how much coverage you want. (e.g. two feature articles per quarter, for example). Further, what sorts of mentions are you after — and what’s reasonable? Do you want substantive features or just as many quick mentions as you can gather? Print or online? No TV or only TV? A good agency can give you a sense of what is reasonable to expect — and be suspicious if they sound overly confident that these coverage goals are easy to get. Now more than ever it is incredibly hard to get splashy, positive coverage. (Erin Griffith wrote an excellent essay on these trials and tribulations from the perspective of a reporter and it is required reading for anyone on the press, PR or founder side).
  8. An agency should be your first phone call in a crisis. If you don’t tell them what’s coming, they cannot help defend you. Do not worry about confidentiality: if you have a functional relationship, you should already be telling them your strategy and outlook so this call is an extension of your existing relationship.
  9. Share content and context with your agencies. I used to often share regional coverage from, say, an agency in APAC with another agency in LATAM. It helps to show them what types of stories might be landing in different regions, and can motivate an agency, too. It’s unusual for the exact same story to work region to region but sometimes it can inspire a new take or idea.
  10. Know when to leave and when to stay. It’s easy — especially when you’re paying a sizable retainer each month — to get disappointed quickly by an agency’s performance. Even excellent agencies need some ramp-up time, so build that into your plan. You’re not setting anyone up for success if you onboard them and then fire them a month later. Having said that, if you feel like your agency isn’t paying you attention or the account director isn’t engaged, be very upfront with the head of the agency that you want someone else on the account or get ready to start the RFP process anew.

Good luck and make smart decisions!

Kate Mason founded Hedgehog + Fox to bring human stories to complex companies around the world. Our clients include Instacart, Waymo, Girls Who Code, and Alto. Say hello@wearehedgehogandfox.com.