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May 30, 2000
How To

How to Select, Pay and Work With Your PR Firm to Maximize Business Media Mentions

SUMMARY: We’ve noticed a lot of you are concerned about whether you’ve picked the right PR firm, how to get your money’s worth and how get more media attention. So when we ran into our pal Sachin Shah of Fusion PR in Washington DC’s Union Station, we grabbed him for a quick Q&A session.
Q: There are about 5 zillion PR firms out there, how does a vertical business-to-business site find the one that’s exactly right for them?

Shah: First of all, you have to know exactly which media you’re looking for coverage in. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Industry Standard, BusinessWeek DON’T count as “your media” unless your last name is “Gates.” Especially if you are a private company. These big media reporters watch for trends, markets, financial results … not yet another Web launch. Plus, right now there’s a big dot-com backlash in the media. Everybody’s dot-commed out. So, if you get coverage there, it’s a bonus. But don’t expect it, and don’t hire a PR firm specifically to get it for you.

PR is all about having a good relationship with the media, so you need to find the firm that has the best rapport with the editors and reporters in your particular field. So call the reporters at your trade journals and ask them which firms are the best at pitching stories to them. I also get a lot of referrals from account reps at ad agencies whose clients have asked them who’s good in their niche field. You should also check out the press releases of non-competitive companies in your field and see who’s representing them.

By the way, if you’re a Net market maker for a non-tech industry then don’t go to a tech PR firm. Being on the Internet is not enough to call yourself a tech company. Go to a firm in your industry instead.

Q: Ok, I’ve found the best firms for my industry niche, now how do I pick which one gets my account?

Shah: Ask to meet the people who’ll be actually working on your account. 80% of the problems people have with firms are because the VP walks in and is incredibly impressive and very knowledgeable about their industry. But after he or she gets your account, you never see them again. Instead you get some 20 year old kid out of college who doesn’t know s**t on a stick and has no experience getting to the media. You want a good solid team in place with at least one senior executive, but believe it or not, you really want that junior-level person too because they’re so eager and enthusiastic.

Also, when you are interviewing firms, ask them which reporters -- not just publications! -- will be most interested in what you are doing. Don’t be afraid to ask for media references. Then call them just like you would call references for any other potential employee. Say to reporters that you are considering hiring such and such firm and can they vouch for the quality of their work?

Q: How much should I pay my firm?

Shah: Typically these days for a B-to-B tech company or site it’s $12,000-$15,000 monthly cash retainer plus $5,000-$10,000 per month worth of equity.

Q: What do I get for that money? And wouldn’t it be cheaper to hire someone in-house to do this stuff?

Shah: When you hire a PR firm, people assume your workload goes down. If they’re any good your workload should go up! You can’t just say, “You’re our PR firm” and expect a bunch of media clips the next week.

First of all you can’t expect any PR firm to walk in and understand your business right away. You’ll need to educate them. Then they’ll help you develop key messages for the media (which may be different from key messages for your clients), position yourself and devise a media strategy. This is stuff an in-house person often can’t handle alone because they are too busy doing daily tactical work to also handle strategic, even if their job description says otherwise.

Q: We hear a lot of people complaining that after they hire a firm they get a lot of media attention for a couple of months … and then zippo after that.

Shah: That’s a common problem. With a lot of firms you have significant stretches of time when you’re not getting any value for money. You’ll get a surge of media attention when you get financing or introduce a new product (although not for partnerships -- they aren’t big news anymore) and then media attention will go to zero until the next “event.”

If this is happening to you, you need to light a fire under your firm. You can’t expect them to keep your media attention at fever pitch all the time, but they can reduce the lulls by getting you speaking gigs, releasing white papers, writing articles, etc. If your firm isn’t meeting expectations, don’t fire them right away, try to build a relationship first and work with them a bit to get better. It’s a process.

Q: When should you fire your firm?

Shah: If there’s a constant shuttle of people managing your account at senior levels, you have to ask yourself how important you are to that firm.
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