This is a story that’s hot off the press of an experience my team and I just went through. I figured I’d jump on here to explain what I learned about the process of finding a top PR agency.

To sum it up, we found that there is a pretty large gap in agency skill-sets and knowledge amongst the many options out there. Let’s start off by taking a quick look at my problem:

At the strategic level, the enterprise B2B software company I work for is at the level of maturity to perform a legit PR program. The market is right, there are some interesting things we have to talk about and to top it off, we’ve just completed a couple of acquisitions.

So what did we want to do in the world of PR?  We knew we wanted to go beyond the traditional press release approach we’ve historically employed. In addition we believed that a PR agency should have a focus on getting us coverage in some of the industry pubs that follow our industry. Finally, we desired to get some broader coverage in business pubs like CIO, Entrepreneur Magazine and others.

First place we started our search was at one of our existing agency partners. After all their websites said they did PR. What I quickly learned was that a digital agency that says it does PR, really doesn’t.  I felt confident they could help with press releases, and perhaps even write some by-lines, but I didn’t get the warm-fuzzies that they could really do the program justice as it related to getting coverage via a strong outreach program.

Next we turned to the web, spoke with some of our peers, and eventually identified three top PR agencies that focused exclusively on in the B2B technology industry. All three were fairly small boutique-size companies. This was not a big surprise as we were looking for expertise in our space, not a larger generalist firm. One agency was local, the other two were in our timezone, but not drivable.

After coming up with our standard set of questions that we’d make sure to ask each firm, we set up initial phone meetings with each one.  We were able to eliminate one of the agencies right away based on identifying that they really didn’t have any customers in the general software industry (despite what it said on their website.)

The final two included the local agency, who we met with face-to-face in our corporate office.  While the other finalist presented to us via web-sharing, we ultimately left both discussions undecided.  Each agency said all the right things. They talked about their tech pub relationships, showed examples of awesome headlines they’d placed on all the right small and large media pubs.  Each outlined a focus on specific deliverables, which in our minds was relatively equivalent.  In addition they had a consistent message about what to expect from a program like this (in real life). They didn’t try to inflate anything just to win the business, which I tend to appreciate.

At this point, we decided to speak with client references from both agencies. This turned out to be the deciding factor. Often it isn’t, as I’ve found that vendors often put their perfect customers on these calls. However, with the local agencies client, we discovered that the full gambit of services we were looking for was never done at the client reference’s organization.  The client spoke lots of praise for the agency, but the reality was that the agency wasn’t doing much more than press releases and some content development.

The non-local agency reference was immaculate. Thus we worked out the contract and got them engaged.

So what are some key takeaways?

  • Full-service or large digital agencies were not the right choice for our program. We needed more advanced expertise, and we could only find it with specialty PR agencies.
  • The face-to-face meeting was nice, but not the deciding factor one way or another. We didn’t feel like we needed to walk over and see the agency on a regular basis. For our market, having the best agency was more important than having a local one.
  • Public Relations as a discipline has really shifted over the years. We learned that a specialty PR agency is as much a content marketing specialist as they are a specialists in PR. The disciplines are fairly intertwined.
  • Dedicating time to meet with client references is super important, even if it sometimes feels like a check-the-box exercise for procurement.

In the end, the top PR agency  rose to the top by being able to educate my team, being clear and honest about what to expect and being able to produce legitimate client references that had been down the same path we were embarking on.