Choosing the appropriate PR firm
Public relations firms serve a number of purposes, the most obvious of which is getting you publicity. This is so important that most large companies have internal corporate communications departments, which are supplemented by outside PR firms.
PR firms also help deal with unexpected crises. After any sort of disaster – whether it be an accident, a crime, or some embarrassing situation involving an officer or employee – a public relations preparedness plan makes the difference between an unsympathetic perception of events, with a resulting drop in business and share price, or a sympathetic reaction, in which sales and stock price remain stable or go up. We at LUBRINCO tend to deal with corporate communications and PR companies in three situations.
The first is during planning for a crisis. Whether it be planning for a natural or un-natural disaster, or any other sort of crisis, we are rather insistent about having the various communications players, both corporate communications staff and outside PR consultants, involved.
The second is during testing of crisis plans. As with anything else, if you make a plan you need to test it, and testing through a simulated crisis requires the participation of the full crisis management team, including internal and external PR people. The kicker here is that none of the participants in the test can run it. Thus, while crisis management plans, and even the crisis management tests, are often designed in some part by the outside PR firm, they cannot run the tests. This is because the objective of the test is to see how all the participants will react, and the PR firm needs its reactions tested, too. If the people running the test are the people doing the testing, the result is not valid: They are always heroes who never make a mistake. We are sometimes brought in to run the show as independent experts with no axe to grind or point to prove. And no, even we can’t run the simulation if we are also participants in the solution.
The third area is in helping smaller firms, with little experience in PR, and something less than multi-million dollar budgets, find appropriate help in this area. Why would we be involved in this decision? We are involved when the initial concern is PR in a crisis, but we believe that PR is too valuable a tool to be ignored for general use, so we make the recommendation that the company look at the broader – and more traditional – benefits of PR, as well as part of crisis management.
In some cases a large PR firm is an appropriate choice, but, frankly, if you have millions to spend on PR you are already spending it, and won’t be asking us for advice.
For many smaller companies, however, a large PR firm is not appropriate. The reason for this is that a large firm has senior people whom you’ll meet during the sales cycle, and junior people whom you will see on a daily basis. While this is fine for a large client of a PR company, where a junior person can do a lot of the day-to-day work, a smaller client really needs more high- level services than they can pay for.
An alternative approach for these clients is to go with a senior person who has left a large firm to start their own business.
As an example, Nancy Tamosaitis, a senior person in anyone’s book, formed her own company, Vorticom (http://www.vorticom.com/). She takes a small number of clients, but her clients are getting the full attention of a senior person, without the added cost of huge overhead. (Remember that with a large firm of any sort some part of the fee goes for the overhead, and big fancy offices cost a lot of money.) Her clients regularly appear in top-tier media outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Fortune Small Business, Entrepreneur, CNN, and other national and regional broadcast opportunities. (An article she wrote on generating successful media relations was published by Brandweek.
Startup companies may need PR, beyond what is covered by their retainer, and can’t afford the required additional charges. In these cases Vorticom is sometimes amenable to trading additional work for a small piece of equity. This essentially gives the client high-powered support on a contingency basis. It gives Vorticom the incentive to truly be a partner in their client’s success. For the small business, Ms Tamosaitis, and others like her, represents the best of all possible worlds from a PR perspective.