An Interview with Corporate Ink’s Amy Bermar, Part 1: What to Know Before Hiring a PR Firm

Many public relations firms get fired after two or three years – hardly an ideal track record. With procurement more involved than ever, it’s time to look beneath the covers and boost the odds – not just the budget – in your favor.

This series provides insider knowledge on how to shop for the right PR firm. This first installment will tell you what to expect, the right questions to ask, and the best ways to measure success. Later, you will also get some observations from the analyst side (particularly relevant to solution providers choosing to be represented by a PR firm when working with analysts).

First, a look from the inside. This perspective comes from Amy Bermar, who has been on all sides of the agency pitch – selecting, winning, and losing. She is the president of Corporate Ink, a PR firm focused on supply chain clients – something Spend Matters can attest to from working with them and several of their solution provider clients over the years.

Thomas Kase: What is the most important thing to know to make a good pick?

Amy Bermar: Industry expertise is #1. That’s more true now than ever, because the competitive market is so challenging. The best PR is no longer media-centric. It needs to be about the buyer, about selling, and about overcoming objections. Anyone who thinks that media relationships is all it takes is only thinking about a tiny portion of what PR ought to be delivering.

TK: Is two to three years a reasonable amount of time to keep an agency?

AB: Absolutely not. Most companies need two to three months to run even a small search, and then the agency needs another two to three months to come up to speed. Trimming that ramp time is another reason why finding an agency that really understands your industry is so important. A good relationship should last for many years – with the agency consistently coming up with new ideas, competitive insight (because it’s plugged into your market), and perspective well beyond your walls. You can hire anyone to write a press release. That’s not even table stakes now.

TK: So what goes wrong?

AB: There are five things that VPs of marketing complain about when it comes to their agencies.

  • They don’t know my market.
  • They wait for me to tell them what to do.
  • They don’t know how to write.
  • I don’t know what I’m paying for. (“I’m not getting enough results.”)
  • It’s overhead I can’t afford – because I can’t tie it into revenue.

TK: What’s the biggest mistake companies make when looking for a firm?

AB: It’s easy to get sold by the promise of media access. Having someone’s phone number sounds sexy, and it can work – for the first call. But your customers and prospects aren’t relying on the media for their news or product insights nearly as much now — so how do you fill that information gap?

It’s also easy to get sold by a nameplate – the brand equity of a global firm. That can deliver huge value, too, as long as your firm is big enough to attract the right level of attention. If you’re not in your agency’s top 25 percent of clients or represent a new strategic market, you will probably be better off with a smaller, more specialized firm, where you’ll be more important and get more immediate and sustained value. That’s true with smaller firms, too – if you’re in the top 25 percent of a firm’s clients, you’ll get the right level of attention. If your budget is more modest, then understand whether and how you are strategic. That can become a significant advantage – and get you far more attention than you’re paying for.

A third mistake will sound painfully familiar. The selection team has different goals but hasn’t addressed it directly. Someone may want the new messaging in the market as a top priority, while the product manager may want reviews, and the VP of marketing wants to ensure that the company never misses an important story. All of these can be addressed, of course, in one smart program. But when you’re trying to pick the best firm, it’s worth being clear about what’s most important, because that should shape the priorities and help define the right results.

Check back later this week for the second installment of this interview.

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