What makes a relationship with a PR agency work is no different from what makes any great relationship work: The chemistry has to be there, they have to really "get" what you're trying to do, and just because they're able to prove past success in past relationships doesn't mean they're necessarily right for you.

But as is the case with many relationship "mistakes" we make in life...you don't know what you don't know, and the failures and missteps are what enable us to grow. However, it's still nice to have some idea of what to look for in order to avoid common pitfalls.

I leaned on a few PR pioneers, who span firms ranging from small boutiques to worldwide agencies, to get their take on the best way to go about outsourcing PR and communications. Consider this your ten-step guide for finding the best in the business, plus how to onboard them and set them up for success.

Here's what you should be considering before and after you hire a PR agency. If you're already working with one, there are some good reminders for you here too.

1. Know what you're trying to achieve in advance.

Are you launching a new company? Have you changed the direction of your business and do you need to adjust your brand perception accordingly? Before you start reaching out to PR agencies, consider the problem you're looking to solve. Emily Dunlop, Senior Vice President of PPR Worldwide advises that this is the best place to begin. "It's important to have a clear answer to the question 'what am I trying to accomplish?' Having a clear view of your goals will make hiring the right PR agency that can help you accomplish those goals much simpler," she says.

Make sure to get specific, too. Simply "getting the word out about your brand" may seem like a shoo-in problem to solve, but you really should get a little more granular than that. Do you want mommy bloggers to write about your company's new cleaning solution so that you can tap into their powerful networks of consumers and ultimately drive sales during spring-cleaning season? Now's the time to get gritty with what you want out of PR, before you even hop on the phone or put out an RFP.

2. Make sure you're ready for PR. (Horse before the buggy.)

Founder and CEO of boutique agency DialedPR, Andrea Holland, comments, "Just because you want people to 'know' about your business doesn't mean you're ready for PR." She advises that you consider the following first before attempting to build a PR strategy.

Can you...

  • Easily prove how your business is different than the competition?
  • Clearly define your target audience?
  • Allot resources to effectively manage your outsourced PR?
  • Offer spokespeople to talk to the media?
  • Work with your designated PR budget for an extended period of time?

If you're only hitting three out of five of the bullets above, it may be best to wait until you're better equipped to work with an agency. PR is not piecemeal, and to see results you must be willing to budget enough to create a comprehensive program that lasts beyond a few months.

3. Ask how the agency plans to measure success.

This is probably the most important question you can ask. Measurement is your barometer for worthwhile PR, and the best way to set yourself (and your prospective agency) up for success is by having a chat about what success looks like to you.

Gini Dietrich, Founder and CEO of mid-sized agency Arment Dietrich comments, "Can they talk metrics? Not impressions and an increase in Facebook likes, but the kinds of things that are going to help you generate more revenue. Do they ask about your business goals and are they able to tie their work directly to what you're focusing on?" She thinks the right measurement is all about identifying where you want to move the needle.

Holland chimes in to share from her experiences in building PR strategies for startups. "One of the biggest challenges is defining what success looks like. Unlike working with larger, established companies, there isn't access to month-over-month or year-over-year metrics to help gauge improvement or decline. With both types of clients, success can happen immediately, or it can take 6 months to a year. However, a good PR professional will be able to counsel and suggest goals to hit based on factors such as uniqueness of the product, funding, competition, in-depth knowledge of the media landscape, and so on."

4. Agencies of different sizes offer different benefits.

Size of agency matters, to a degree. The agency's size will affect everything from how much you're spending to the personal attention you'll get from those higher up on the agency totem pole. Solopreneurs, boutique agencies, mid-sized, and larger, worldwide agencies all offer different benefits and specializations.

Kristen Tischhauser, Managing Partner of PR firm talkTECH, suggests that you pay attention to the types of clients in your prospective agency's portfolio. "If the agency's portfolio consists of mostly early-stage startups and you're a startup, then this would make sense for you. If the agency works for big brands and Fortune 500 companies and you're a startup, then steer clear. Your company will be paying high fees and most likely not getting the attention you need and deserve to make a real splash in the press," says Tischhauser.

Dietrich describes what to expect from small, medium, and larger agencies:

  • A boutique agency is going to be very flexible and nimble. They're going to be up-to-speed on changing trends and they wear many hats. You'll likely work with everyone from the CEO to the intern.
  • A mid-sized agency begins to specialize. They'll have a team of specialists working with you and you'll begin to see the CEO less as his or her business grows.
  • A large agency has the capability to work with other offices or sister agencies to do pretty much anything you want or need. The teams tend to be more junior (except in cases such as crisis or lobbying or regulatory work).

Dunlop thinks the size of the agency doesn't matter when your needs are narrowly-defined. "If you need basic media relations, individual contractors to large agencies can work. However, the advantage of an agency that is part of a larger network of agencies is that you can have access to a broader range of services that meet your needs as they evolve. For example, larger agencies tend to have global reach, connections outside of PR, and specialized teams (social media, social responsibility, issues management, etc.). The ability to evolve your agency relationship as your business evolves is advantageous," she adds.

5. What to spend depends on your needs.

It's less about identifying an amount you can spend now and more about what you can commit to longer-term. Dunlop comments, "There is no magic formula to figuring out your PR budget--you spend what you can spend. But, my advice is to aim for an ongoing, retained relationship, so you can work together as a team, growing stronger year after year."

Dietrich believes your PR budget should be defined based on what you're spending on marketing. "Most companies will spend about ten percent of their revenue on marketing. This includes everything from trade shows and advertising to direct mail and PR. The PR piece should be three to five percent. If you don't spend ten percent on marketing, you can drill that down to three to five percent of what you do spend," says Dietrich.

If you're an early-stage startup, Tischhauser recommends paying between $4,500-$10k per month tops.

6. Location shouldn't be an issue.

In today's digital world, proximity shouldn't be a hurdle when it comes to working with a PR agency. It mostly boils down to personal preference, how much you value in-person meetings versus remote collaboration, and assessing whether working with an agency based in a relevant market could be advantageous to you.

Dietrich agrees, "Location is less important than it once was because the web has opened up the opportunity to work with anyone, anywhere. I would focus more on whether or not you like them and can work side-by-side with them everyday."

Adds Tischhauser: "Unless you're trying to target a specific market that caters to "locals" (for example a dog walking business), location shouldn't really matter. Companies are going virtual, but if it's important to meet in person initially or quarterly, make sure this is stated in your contract. Most of the time, weekly calls should suffice."

7. Dedicate a point person for managing your PR agency.

Once you've hired them, consider your agency an extension of your in-house team. Like in-house employees, someone has to manage them and is responsible for their proper integration and growth. That person should have solid experience in PR or another relevant field.

According to Dunlop, "The most important quality of an agency relationship manager is being open to a spirit of partnership. You do not have to 'get PR' to understand what you are working together to accomplish with your agency. If your business goals and marketing plan are clear, then PR domain knowledge is not a must. But an open-mindedness to learn and take counsel from the agency (and vice versa) is important as you manage the program together."

8. How to onboard an agency.

Just like when onboarding a new team member, setting an agency up for success is all about how well you integrate them from the beginning. And we're talking about more than sending links to your corporate page or past press releases.

"The most effective agency relationships are partnerships where the agency is an extension of your team. Give them information, bring them into the inner circle on future developments, and allow direct communication with select stakeholders in your company. The smarter the agency is on your business and your way of doing things, the more powerful your combined team can be," says Dunlop.

Tischhauser adds, " In general, the company should give the agency their assets such as company logo, founders' headshots, bios, any past messaging materials, and news releases. Onboarding usually takes two to three weeks so that the agency can do a deep dive into the messaging, research the industry landscape/competitors, then create a timeline and curate a tailored press list."

Dietrich believes that even more is beneficial. "If you've asked the right questions, the agency will need access to your data, your business plan, and your social networks, plus introductions to the media with whom you already have relationships."

9. Work to build trust, the key to a happy client-agency relationship.

It really isn't all that different than any other relationship. Be honest, transparent, and respectful when communicating and working toward your common goal. If you're the client, you've hired your agency because they specialize in what you don't know, so trust them when they make a recommendation.

"It's easy to fall into a typical client service role and have an agency or consultancy that 'yeses' you," says Holland. "A sign of a good PR professional is that they actually tell you like it is... whether it's that your competitors are doing it better, why your news is boring to a journalist, or that free lunches/yoga and unlimited PTO aren't enough to make headlines. Having an objective perspective and being able to take a macro-level approach to the news is one of the biggest benefits of hiring an outside vendor. If your agency isn't questioning you, you should be questioning them."

10. Remember, PR doesn't work in a vacuum.

In order to best leverage the money you're spending on PR, it needs to be integrated into your greater marketing strategy. Dunlop advises,"PR is hugely valuable, but does not stand alone in building or shaping a brand or product. The future is one of more integration across PR, social, digital advertising, paid media and more. So, my advice is to start integration early, uniting various marketing disciplines and agencies, and aligning everyone to a common goal."

As you can see, there's a whole lot of work to do on your end before it's time for an RFP. If you ask the right questions from the beginning, you and your agency will be set up for success down the road.

Happy hiring!

Published on: Feb 16, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.