Why you should think twice about hiring a public relations firm

The boss is sitting in his office -- hatchet poised over my copy -- when the phone rings. It's a public relations woman from multibillion-dollar Warner-Lambert Co. She wants to know when Inc. is going to do that story she pitched on W-L's new flavor of Trident gum.

The boss is a patient man, so he explains (1) we are the magazine for growing companies -- it says so on the cover -- and Warner-Lambert is many things, but it ain't no growth company; and (2) everything we publish is designed to help owners and managers of growing companies do their jobs better. "Given that," the boss asks, "why would a story on Trident interest our readers?" Says the PR woman, "They chew gum, don't they?"

That in a nutshell explains what's wrong with public relations firms and why you may want to handle your company's PR yourself. Public relations firms often haven't a clue about what would interest the audience they're pitching to, and they rarely listen when a reporter or editor tries to explain it to them. If they did, we never would have received requests for coverage of the International Llama Association's ninth annual convention or of the completion of a new bridge linking Georgia and South Carolina. Nor would we have received a news release in Spanish pitching a new television show (we think).

Now this would be funny, except for two things. First, odds are, your public relations folks are guilty of sending out equally inappropriate information. Just ask for the list of media that received your last press release. You'll be amazed. And second, it's a waste of a great deal of money.

If you want to get a reporter's attention, what you need is common sense. But that is exceedingly rare when companies try to blow their own horns. So when we got a letter suggesting we do a story on Dana Eggerts, president of Creative Design Consultants, an interior-design firm in Costa Mesa, Calif., it stood out because it was clear both Eggerts and her tiny outside PR firm -- Frank Groff Public Relations -- knew how to draw attention to her company. Not only had they pitched the story to the right person, but they also had come up with an interesting angle.

"Are you sitting in a gray room?" the letter began. "Chances are, you should be, because gray not only induces creativity but stimulates productivity and evokes artistic flair -- an ideal setting for a writer."

Flattery never hurts. But more important, the letter -- written by Frank Groff -- went on to explain how different kinds of businesses use color to boost either sales or productivity, and why Eggerts was the perfect person to talk to about that. The note, unlike 97% of the mail we receive, got a reporter to call to find out more.

The secret, says Groff, is to know your audience. You have two of them. "Obviously, we want to reach the reporter," he says. "But our audience is also the client. We need to know why she hired us. Is she looking for greater name recognition, prestige, credibility?"

The idea is to meld the two objectives, and Eggerts says Groff has done it extremely well. "I am competing with companies that are 20 -- sometimes 30 -- years old," says Eggerts, who started her $9-million firm in 1980. "I needed to get our name out there, and Frank has done that."

And done it in a systematic way. Eggerts earns 75% of her revenues from designing model homes for builders. Her first goal was to get into the building trade press, and Groff helped her do that. Then, she wanted to be positioned as an expert, the kind of person a reporter would automatically think of calling when doing a story on interior design. Groff spent a lot of time with Eggerts, learning her business. One of the things that struck him was how builders used color. Figuring that if he was intrigued, reporters would be, too, Groff stressed color in his releases. It worked.

"He got us into all the local business journals and The Los Angeles Times," Eggerts says. "The stories remind customers we exist. Any positive press we get reinforces our other marketing efforts."

But isn't that kind of a fuzzy return on Groff's $2,100-a-month retainer? True, companies that are Creative Design's size typically pay retainers of between $3,000 and $5,000 a month, but can Eggerts prove her PR pays off?

"Can we point to a specific story leading to a specific piece of new business? No," Eggerts says. "But do more people know who we are? Is it easier to get our calls returned than it was when we hired Groff, two years ago? And are we on more short lists when builders decide whom to invite in for bids? Yes." So then, all the horror stories about PR firms are overblown? Absolutely not, says Eggerts. "Our first PR firm didn't make any attempt to learn our business. Basically, it wanted us to write the press material for it, and then it'd rewrite it. It kept telling us it would take time to get press. We gave it two months, then three, and finally six, and in all that time, it couldn't even get us into the local paper."

Caveat emptor.


How to pick a PR firm

If you're still convinced you need to hire a PR firm, here's how to start:

* Get recommendations. If you ask a firm for a list of satisfied clients, that's exactly what you'll get. Better you should talk to your friends. Also, keep an eye out to see who's getting publicity. Then call those companies up and ask who handles their PR.

* Find out who will be doing the work. Many PR firms have senior people pitch new business. Then once they land the account, they have neophytes do the work. Know who'll be working on your account.

* Get it in writing. Know going in exactly what the PR firm is going to do and what it will cost. Some firms charge by the hour, some by the project; others like retainers. Make sure you are comfortable with everything.


Simple steps to success

Before you or your PR people knock out a press release, do the following:

* Ask, Why are we sending out this release? Because we want consumers to know we exist? To change perceptions about us or our company? Knowing why you're writing it will help you stay focused.

* Get to the point. Reporters and editors have ridiculously short attention spans. If you write, keep the letter to one page, and make it clear early on what you want the reporters to do and why they should do it.

* Get a name and an address. Preferably the right ones. If you have an interesting story on financing, why don't you send it to the person who writes the financial-strategies column? And check the spelling of her name while you're at it.