Questions to Ask and Answer When Hiring a Public Relations Partner

By David Gordon
Executive Vice President, Cohn & Wolfe

Or…What I really wish I’d known before our first date.

Unlike the dating process, where dinner and a movie can quickly screen out unsuitable matches, identifying a good agency/client relationship can be a time consuming and expensive proposition.

To ensure the expectations of a ‘perfect date’ are matched by reality, both parties should be prepared to ask, and answer, a variety of intimate questions before the doorbell even rings:

1.    Is this your first time? (Experience)
Agency – outline experience in the client’s business and related sectors.  Clearly demonstrate the relevance to the assignment at hand.
Client – describe your experience with public relations, including in-house capabilities.  If new, demonstrate a willingness to learn what is necessary to be a good partner.

2.    Who will be coming on our date? (The team)
Agency – introduce the team and their roles.  In particular, introduce the day-to-day account manager and confirm the role of senior staff to demonstrate they are not just there for ‘the pitch’.
Client – provide a day-to-day contact and confirm they will be available to meet with the agency, approve materials and stick-handle projects through the company.

3.    What do you like to do for fun?  (Risk and Creativity)
Agency – demonstrate your creativity.  Show how you have used different approaches to meet client objectives in the past.
Client – clearly articulate your corporate culture – are you willing to try new ideas or are you more comfortable with tried and true methods of communication.

4.    Are we speaking the same language? (RFP vs. RFI vs. RFQ)
Each of these mechanisms is distinctly different and it is important to both parties that they be appropriately used.  RF = Request For; P = Proposal; I = Information; or Q = Qualifications.
Agency – an RFP should ask you to provide a strategy and tactics to meet a specific scenario or respond to a series of clearly stated questions.  For an RFI or RFQ, it should be a simpler process (which may lead to an RFP) that asks for information about your firm and capabilities.
Client – the request should be well laid out and easily understood.  Using a document designed for advertising or engineering is not always relevant to public relations. Make sure scenarios are clearly articulated and appropriate information is provided.  Be prepared to answer questions and share responses with all bidders.  Provide appropriate timelines and rules.

5.    Do I look good in this? (Situation analysis)
Agency – demonstrate insight into the competitive challenges currently facing the client.
Client – open the closet and share your knowledge.  This is an opportunity to demonstrate your willingness to work with a team.  No one knows your business as well as you.

6.    How will we know if things are working out? (Objectives and Results)
Agency – articulate what you will measure and how it relates back to the client’s business objectives.
Client – clearly state your objectives and work with the agency to set reasonable expectations.

7.    How do you feel about commitment? (Project relationships vs. AOR)
Agency – be willing to prove yourself based on a project.
Client – be open to the benefits of an ongoing relationship, which include having an educated agency account team with a diversity of experience constantly looking for opportunities on your behalf.

8.    Have you had your shots? (References)
Agency – provide the names and numbers of previous and current clients.  If they are no longer clients, explain why.
Client – look at the client list and references and see how many are long-term.  If the agency seems to have always been dating but never married, find out why.

9.    Who is buying dinner?  (Budget and Finances)
Agency – budgets should set out the number of hours required to complete the assignment, along with the team resources dedicated to it.  Billing rates, administrative fees, and mark-up policies should all be clearly laid out.
Client – don’t expect the agency to work for free, but expect budget accountability and ROI.  If there are budget limitations these should be established in advance.

10.    Where do we go from here?  (Strategy and Tactics – First Steps)
Agency – provide a timetable of what needs to happen in the first 30, 60 and 90 days in order to deliver the program.  Set up a management model of how you will work together.  Be passionate about the strategy you provide – relationships might survive without passion, but they aren’t as much fun.
Client – make an investment in your new relationship.  Hold an education session for the account team, so they can learn as much about your business as possible in a short time.  You will be better off in both the immediate and long-term by putting as much into the relationship as you take out.