Beck Bamberger founded BAM Communications in 2007 and has since founded three other businesses, Bite San Diego, Nosh Las Vegas and Pangea Pal.
Making decisions is a daily and unending to-do function of entrepreneurs. Some, such as whether to take Uber or Lyft to your next meeting, are immaterial. Other decisions, such as whom to select to appoint to a board seat or which law firm will handle the acquisition of your company, are heavy considerations. Somewhere on the "bigger deal" side of the spectrum is the inevitable decision to hire a PR firm.
When your company should hire a PR firm is another topic that I’ve written about previously, so let's assume your company is now at that juncture where public relations assistance is needed.
Similar to law firms and digital agencies, PR firms are wildly diverse and range in size, industry focus and flair. And as the founder of a PR firm focused on startups and innovative enterprises, I can attest to how important it is to comparison-shop for the right match — and any good PR firm will want you to do your homework, so they can serve you better. Here are three metrics by which I advise our potential clients to measure us or any PR firm:
Metric 1: Proof of Placements
Let me guess. The last PR firm's website you visited stated that it is "results-driven." So did the previous one. What does that mean? I don't care if you're driven. The bottom line is: after the drive, did you get to the destination or not? The same question applies to a PR firm you're considering.
If you'd like your brand to be featured in TechCrunch, Men's Health or CNN, then ask your potential PR firm to show you placements that it has secured in those exact outlets. I'm often asked if I have contacts with someone at X or Y outlet, likely inspired by the trite saying "it's not what you know, it's who you know." Perhaps a more accurate adage would be, "It's not what you know, it's who you know that can make things happen." In short, have your potential PR firm show you its proof of procuring placements in the outlets you desire. Proof trumps promises and puffery.
One point of caution: just because a PR firm has secured a number of placements in a desirable outlet isn't a guarantee that your company will be deemed suitable for that outlet. That said, run for the hills if any firm guarantees a placement in a particular credible media outlet. Such a "placement" is called an advertisement.
Metric 2: Skin in the Game
The phrase, "skin in the game" is thought to have come from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” whereby a pound of flesh is promised as collateral for a deal the antagonist, Shylock, is working with the protagonist, Antonio. A bit extreme, sure, but a fair question to ask a potential PR firm is, "So, what's your skin in the game?"
From what I've witnessed, nearly all PR firms operate like law firms. Perhaps you're being sued, and whether you win or lose, the lawyers are still paid. This is a misaligned incentive structure in which you, the client, are bearing the financial burden of the relationship. In many PR agency structures, the same applies. At best, the PR firm keeps you happy and you continue to pay the firm. At worst, the PR firm doesn't perform to expectations, and the PR firm now just has a disappointed client. Although the PR firm's reputation may suffer, there isn't a measured, fair repercussion for not performing. At BAM Communications, we guarantee placements or we work for free until we get the number of placements we promised. The "skin in the game" for us is having to bear the financial burden of our team's continuing work for a client who is no longer paying us. It's bold. It forces us to be careful and thoughtful about the clients we bring on and what we promise them.
One point of caution: be leery of any PR firm that seems excessively eager to have your company on their roster list and rushes the process along. It may be a sign that the PR firm is more interested in the revenue to be reaped rather than the burden to be brilliant. In short, put your trust and money in a PR firm that has "skin in the game."
Metric 3: Jive
Jive is a style of dance that emerged in the ’40s, similar to the Jitterbug and Lindy Hop. I refer to "jive" to encapsulate the question, "Can we dance well together?" Too often I hear from founders that, upon reflection, they didn't really like or fit with their PR firms. Why would you hire your employees based on your core values and vision and not your PR firm by the same standards? A PR firm is the captain of your cheer squad, yelling and pumping out your mantra to the "crowd," the audience that is watching your game unfold. No one in the crowd is going to do the wave if the cheer captain is slumped over on the bench looking bored. Your PR firm should be an important contributor to your team.
Ask yourself: Would you like your PR team to be in the office with you daily, working next to and with everyone on your team? If you can’t answer confidently in the affirmative, then this PR firm is not going to jive with you or your company.
Here's a recent example to illustrate jive: I was chatting with a potential client who had a product aimed at tech-sophisticated mothers and a closed seed round. This potential client was disappointed with their last relationship with a PR firm, which was focused on government affairs, mostly male-staffed and located in Washington D.C.. "It just wasn't a fit, I guess," said the founder. As it turns out, the firm didn't have a single mother on staff, any understanding of a real startup (compared to their big government affairs clients), and little interest in pitching so-called lower-tier digital outlets (which are some of the largest online media outlets in existence).
Bottom line: hiring a public relations firm is a big decision. Use three metrics to help you weigh the attributes of each PR firm under consideration.