Finding a PR Firm Isn’t the Piece of Cake it Used to Be . . . and It Shouldn’t Be

Time was, searching for a PR firm meant jotting down a few requirements and shooting it to a few former colleagues or friends of friends at two or three familiar agencies.

Sorry. Like everything else in life, finding the firm that will best serve your needs is no longer that easy. And it shouldn’t be. In today’s bottom line-focused ROI environment can you really invest six digits into an agency that may or may not be able to move the needle for your organization? You need to be assured you’re getting smart thinking and measureable results — and agencies should be accountable for their commitments to their clients.

The agency landscape is wide, and wide open. Sometimes it feels like there are too many qualified agencies out there. But that shouldn’t guide you toward short cuts, or rushing the process. As we’ve pointed out many times to clients and prospects, if the money you have allocated to a PR agency budget were instead going toward the hiring of two or three full-time, professional staff, how much time and effort would you and your HR department spend investigating their backgrounds, capabilities, and knowledge?

The recently released USC Annenberg biennial GAP Study assessing PR industry trends and practices expects more money to be spent in 2014 and beyond for communications. The study of 347 senior communicators says that PR-related recommendations are being taken more into consideration by senior management, who expect the function to be a contributor to organizations’ financial success. Your organization should be selecting firms with proven experience in supporting your internal managerial needs as well as your overall communications goals.

Today’s agency field includes seasoned veteran agencies, mid-sized niche players, and a crop of very competent rookies that have left some venerable firms to blaze their own paths. Whether they are local, large, full service, or specialty, there are probably dozens of agencies out there most suitable for you. But the right agency can only be discerned through the lens of a detailed and thorough search that is tailored to your organization’s needs.

When interviewing prospective agencies it is critical to include process and procedure as key topics. Too often, we find confusion when the client-agency relationship begins if staffing, structure, reporting, billing, and event contracts are not discussed in the early phases. And, we’ve even advised clients that repairing agency relationships that have gone sour may be a better use of time and resources than parting ways with that agency and starting over with a new search.

Even agreeing on your mutual definition of success is no small feat, and so often is overlooked or not addressed during the selection process. With projects the issue might be easier (one would hope) but with longer-term, multi-year contracts it is very important to establish measureable benchmarks even before searching for your agency, and then making it clear that is what the selected agency will be judged on. Believe it or not, it will more appreciated than you’d expect. Because any good PR firm will tell you that a good client knows what it wants and has, or develops with the agency, the metrics of success.
- Robert Udowitz

Robert Udowitz is a principal of RFP Associates, a PR agency search firm serving trade associations and corporations. This was originally published on the RFP Associates “Cart Before the Horse” blog, which can be found at

Study: The Press Release Is Not Dead

Despite the glut of information available to almost anyone, many journalists still rely on the press release and PR professionals for story leads. One communications pro shares some tips on crafting an effective release and the art of media pitching.

No news is not always good news, especially when you’re trying to generate some much-needed publicity for your association. But getting reporters to cover your event, study, or new CEO may not be easy, especially as newsroom staff and other resources dwindle.

A new survey of journalists by Business Wire sheds some light on how reporters, editors, columnists, and bloggers prefer to be pitched or informed of news in order to effectively cover a story.

For example, the wire service’s “2014 Media Survey” found a heavy reliance on press releases. Almost 90 percent of respondents had referenced a release in the previous week, and 62 percent had used one in the last 24 hours.

When evaluating a press release, the most important information journalists look for is:

  • breaking news (77 percent)
  • supporting facts (70 percent)
  • interesting story angles (66 percent)
  • quotable sources (52 percent)
  • company background (50 percent)
  • trending industry topics (49 percent)
  • supporting multimedia (29 percent).

“The first question you need to ask is why would reporters care about this,” Sheri Singer, president and CEO of Singer Communications, said of writing press releases. “Is it newsworthy?”

While journalists at major consumer publications may not always care about your news, smaller trade publications may pick it up. This is an important consideration when directly pitching media regarding news about your organization, Singer added.

“Should it go to all reporters? Or is it inside news that you’ve got a new CEO, which, unless you’re a big trade association, that’s probably most important to trade press and press in the CEO’s hometown,” she said.

When contacting journalists directly, you may want to forgo a standard press release in favor of an email alert, which is preferred by 69 percent of survey respondents, as opposed to 22 percent who prefer a standard press release.

Given the fact that journalists receive hundreds of emails in any given day, one way to cut through that clutter is to personalize your outreach and include contact information, Singer said.

“Don’t make the reporter work. Don’t make them go back to your website to find out how to get in touch with you,” she said. “You need someone’s name and phone number in the email, and that phone number needs to be a cell number because reporters work 24/7 now. You can’t rely on the fact that you’re going to be in the office when they call.”

- Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now

September Sponsor Spotlight: Phil Rabin, Editor of the Capitol Communicator

Every month or so, we are going to highlight a chapter sponsor so you can learn more about them, and possibly connect with them as they have done so much to support our chapter. We want to thank Phil Rabin, Editor of the Capitol Communicator, for participating in the second spotlight. Here are the details:

Question: Tell us more about the Capitol Communicator and your role there.

Answer: I’m editor of Capitol Communicator, which is an online resource for communicators in the D.C-area and the Mid-Atlantic that’s working to bring together the spectrum of communications professionals by providing news; trends; education; profiles; and opportunities for networking, career enhancement, business exchange and showcasing great work. We focus on building a community that encompasses public relations, advertising, marketing, media, creative, video, photography, printing, digital and the multitude of other professions that support this region’s multi-billion-dollar communications industry.

Question: How long has Capitol Communicator been involved with PRSA-NCC?

Answer: We’ve been involved for years, officially and unofficially, providing coverage of PRSA-NCC events in Capitol Communicator, and working on events that include PRSA-NCC and other organizations – such as The One Party, a holiday party that is held in December. And, for a number of years, I was a member of PRSA-NCC.

Question: Is there anything you want to tell our members about the Capitol Communicator that we may not know?

Answer: There are two things I think that are really interesting from a communications standpoint: First, our still photos have had more than 1.1 million views and the head of the D.C. office of a national PR firm regularly viewed our photos. When I asked why, the individual said it provided a good sense of what was going on outside that person’s agency. Second, we’re seeing significant spikes in views of our still pictures every time we post an “up close and personal” profile of a communicator in the mid-Atlantic. In fact, we had more than 14,500 views of our photos in a single day because, apparently, as the head of that PR firm told me, people want to see other people and what they are doing. BTW, the picture with the fourth-highest number of views is Pam Jenkins, president of Powell Tate and president of Weber Shandwick Mid-Atlantic (Washington, Baltimore and Atlanta).

Question: What do you like best about working with PRSA-NCC so far?

Answer: I’m impressed by the commitment that the leadership and members make to the organization and, as a result, the scope of activities that PRSA-NCC offers its members and the larger communications community. It’s really quite impressive.

Question: How can our members learn more, get more information about what Capitol Communicator has to offer?

Answer: PRSA-NCC members and all communicators should go to our website,, to check out what’s happening in the mid-Atlantic that impacts communicators – and to check out our popular “up close and personal” profiles. And, they can also sign up to get our free weekly email updates at Finally, if they have news they think would be of interest to other communicators, let me know. I can be reached at

Reporters Urge White House Transparency: The challenge is access to experts

By Tracy Schario, originally posted at PRSAY

Tension with the media is sometimes an unfortunate and unintentional aspect of public relations. PR and public affairs practitioners often face a delicate balancing act between providing accurate information in a timely manner to reporters and bloggers while managing confidential employer/client information. When a PR contact doesn’t return a call or email, however, it can look like stonewalling or withholding information.

When it comes to covering the White House and federal policy and regulations, the stakes for media and public affairs are high. President George W. Bush’s administration was often criticized for being the most secretive administration in history. With this background, President Barack Obama took office in 2009 promising to lead the most transparent administration in history.

But, transparency is not the same as access to information, government officials and scientific experts who can help interpret presidential decisions and administrative actions. To this end, President Obama has been criticized by the media for a myriad of offenses:

  • Limited access for photographers in favor of releasing official White House photos.
  • Justice Department reviewed private communications of Fox News reporter James Rosen to find a national security leak.
  • Justice Department secretly obtained AP phone records in an effort to find a government leak.
  • Administration denied or censored more Freedom of Information Act requests than it approved.
  • Politically-driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies (e.g. the Affordable Care Act, food stamps, Fukushima).

This last protestation was codified in a July 8 letter signed by 39 individuals representing media associations including the Society of Professional Journalists, Associated Collegiate Press, Association of Opinion Journalists, Radio Television Digital News Association, National Press Photographers Association, and The Poytner Institute. They argue that the Obama administration’s restrictions on press access to public affairs offices and government sources are a form of censorship.

Politico Magazine recently surveyed members of the White House press corps regarding their opinions on transparency. The resulting infographic narrative is an instructive take on the fourth estate’s view. For example:

When President Obama calls this the “most transparent administration in history,” my reaction is… “To groan. Depends on what your definition of ‘transparent’ is. This WH means it is putting its own version of pictures, video and readouts on its own website.” —Ann Compton, ABC News 

The primary take away from the letter and survey is two-fold.  First, journalists want – and need – access to experts to fulfill the role of media watchdog, the hallmark of a democratic government.  Government officials, both on the record and “leaked” information, deliver the news and provide analysis for interpreting complex policy issues. Public affairs officers are the facilitator between the media and sources – and sometimes are the source.  Like it or not, reporters need the public relations function.

Even when the news is bad, government has a responsibility to be accessible, factual and transparent.  In 2010, I had the good fortune of teaching a master class in political communications with former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino. She was fond of telling students to “own your bad facts.” In other words, don’t try to bury the news but acknowledge the facts, and do your best to present a positive and compelling narrative.

Second, journalists want to be treated with respect. For five years, I taught a graduate course in media relations at the George Washington University and hosted reporters throughout the semester. I was dismayed that most all commented on the amount of profanity used by public affairs officers in the Obama administration.  Even my PR colleagues in the administration admit that cursing is common place and sometimes encouraged. A “pro tip” in the Politico survey states: “Come on. If you can’t deal with a White House official swearing at you, it’s probably time to head for the exits of the profession.”

I must admit that when working in the tech sector, casual cursing was permissible – and a boss once told me profanity was an acceptable way to prove I had authority and knowledge. However, this is unprofessional behavior. It may be cliché, but I’ve found that a little honey goes a lot further to getting what you need – be it photo placement, a correction to a news story, or a follow up interview.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to the most recent criticisms in the journalists’ letter on CNN’s Reliable Sources defending the administration’s record of transparency. He also acknowledged the sometimes testy relationship with the press saying that if the press corps didn’t push for more access, that “is the day that they’re no longer doing their jobs.”

The media need sources and report on conflict. These are the realities of their link with public relations. The responsibility of a practitioner is to be responsive, truthful and facilitate access to expert sources. For PRSA members, that also means adhering to our code of ethics. Among its values and provisions are honesty, free flow of information, and enhancing the profession through respect. If we make a concerted effort every day to balance the sometimes competing needs of the press and business goals, we can take a step toward building stronger relationships with the media.


Tracy Schario, APR, is a member of PRSA’s Board of Directors and a past president of the National Capital Chapter. She has taught media relations at The George Washington University and speaks on media and PR strategy.

The Cost of Doing Business: ACA Can Raise the Cost of Hiring an Intern or Freelancer

Whether for PR or other functions, adequate staffing is a challenge all managers grapple with. Now they must consider the cost impact of the Affordable Care Act, even when using interns, freelancers or temps.

To the government there are no interns or temporary employees; the only categories that exist for the purposes of the health insurance law are Full Time, Part Time, Variable Hour and Seasonal. In 2015 – just a few months away – employers with more than 100 full-time equivalent employees will need to provide coverage for 70% of their full-time employees. By 2016 employers with more than 50 full-time equivalent employees will need to provide coverage to 95% of their full-time employees.

So, bringing in anyone for 30 or more hours per week will mean examining whether the organization will be responsible for the individual’s insurance.

Many PRSA-NCC members are freelancers who work on-site in their client’s offices, supplementing staff or filling in for someone on leave. Now client organizations must consider the impact of adding that professional to the team, even short term, to their health care costs, depending on their role and the work arrangement, and whether that individual has insurance of their own, independent of a subsidy.

And if an intern works more than 30 hours a week and isn’t covered by his or her parents’ plan or other source and signs up using a subsidy on a public exchange, the organization hiring that intern could be hit with a penalty.

For organizations bringing on temporary staff through a temp agency, it is important to be sure that they are contracting with the firm, not an individual associate, and that the associate is an employee of the firm. That way, the temporary staffing agency is the employer of record and the client organization is not liable for the individual’s insurance.

Kate Perrin, CEO
PRofessional Solutions, LLC

Event Recap: “Creating PR Magic…on a Shoestring Budget”

by Danielle Moore, News Generation, Inc.

It is all too common that public relations professionals are expected to create magic publicity on next-to-nothing budgets. With the extensive amount of non-profit organizations and small businesses in the Washington D.C. area, lots of PR pros are affected by small budgets.

On Wednesday, August 13, 2014 at 8:00 a.m., the PRSA-NCC Professional Development committee hosted “Creating PR Magic…on a Shoestring Budget” at the U.S. Navy Memorial. Panelists included: Jeff Ghannam, communications director at the Wildlife Habitat Council; Dionne Clemons, division director of communications and community engagement at the United Planning Organization; Alicia Mitchell, senior vice president for communications at the American Hospital Association (AHA); and Lindsay Nichols, senior director of marketing and communications at GuideStar USA, Inc. Karen Addis, senior vice president at Van Eperen & Company introduced the panelists and moderated the conversation.

After some brief housekeeping announcements, all four panelists gave presentations on their best practices for public relations on a “shoestring” budget. Their combined experience working with small organizations and limited resources allowed them to share great insight to an audience full of non-profit, small business and private sector PR folks.

“Creating PR Magic…on a Shoestring Budget” panelists; Aug. 13, 2014, at U.S. Navy Memorial

Jeff Ghannam offered his advice with “10 Things in 10 Minutes.” He emphasized the importance of having a “roadmap” or focused communications and marketing plan as a reference point for company operations. Ghannam also encouraged building mutually beneficial partnerships with:

  • Staff who need to understand your brand and who value internal communications;
  • Stakeholders and coalitions who are always looking for companies to engage with;
  • Boards, committees, local units, and members who often need media training and can serve as a resource;
  • Customers who have the ability to spread the word about your work; and
  • Meeting attendees, sponsors and exhibitors who you should provide the tools (like social media) to talk positively about your brand.

Ghannam closed by stressing the importance of negotiation, developing meaningful networks, and the vitality of SEO.

The second panelist Dionne Clemons works to maximize her limited resources at her small grassroots organization every day. She presented on “How to De-Structure Your Department” and highlighted seven ways to save money:

  • Assess your budget - see what you have to work with
  • Conduct an audit - see what has worked and what hasn’t worked in the past
  • Use your organization’s strategic plan and fiscal year calendar to help you financially plan - create your own communications plan based on your organization’s strategic plan
  • Be selective in the big projects you want to work on - decide on 5-7 solid projects for the fiscal year that align with your strategic plan and will help you work toward organizational goals
  • Create a master organizational cycle calendar – align your organization’s normal events with “pseudo-events” on the national calendar
  • Put systems in place – set up policies that guide you on how to deal with different situations
  • Spread the love - organize more ways for team members to get involved in projects they’re interested in

Clemons continually emphasized the importance of being critical when deciding how your budget is distributed among different categories. She encouraged audience members to cut out any excess expenses and consider reallocating the distribution of their budgets.

“Creating PR Magic...on a Shoestring Budget” panelists; Aug. 13, 2014, at U.S. Navy Memorial

“Creating PR Magic…on a Shoestring Budget” panelists; Aug. 13, 2014, at U.S. Navy Memorial

Panelist Alicia Mitchell works for a much larger organization, but she shared examples of her successful PR initiatives that can easily translate to small organizations with less resources and a tighter budget. Mitchell focused on three platforms of promotion including:

  • Instagram campaigns – During National Hospital Week, the American Hospital Association encouraged Instagrammers to use the hashtag #myhospital to shoot short videos on how their local hospital helps the community. Mitchell’s team got more than 50 videos from across 34 different states and promoted them through social media.
  • Infographics - She encouraged the audience to invest in outsourcing a graphic designer or learning how to perfect their own graphic design skills because images help to tell a visual story.
  • Radio for audience targeting – Mitchell referenced the effectiveness of earning broadcast coverage. She talked about how using radio was especially useful in publicizing the accolades of the AHA’s medical centers’ palliative care. She urged PR professionals to consider radio outreach.

Mitchell closed with an easy acronym to remember:

M – makeover an existing PR project to make it better;
A – adopt social media because it gets others involved;
G – grassroots approaches allow you to tailor your reports or projects locally;
I – infographics help you tell a story and get people interested; and
C - the company you surround yourself with matters

Measuring ROI can be a challenge. Self-proclaimed “data geek” Lindsay Nichols broke down ways PR professionals can make it much easier. Nichols spoke about how she bases her measurement practices off of the Barcelona Principles and recommended that the audience check out ROI measurement blogger Katie Paine. Before diving in to measurement, dive in to your goals, said Nichols. She emphasized developing hypotheses about what you think will result from your projects and conducting a SWOT analysis before you begin. Once you’re ready to measure, she suggested eight cost-effective “DIY ROI Measurement Methods” for PR pros on a tight budget:

  • Pattern analysis
  • Surveys
  • Online pulse polls (ex: LinkedIn)
  • Content audits
  • Interviews
  • Roundtables, lunch, focus groups
  • In-depth interviews
  • Secondary research

Nichols said qualitative, quantitative and competitive intelligence measurements should be taken consistently every month for specifics and every year for a bigger picture. She uses platforms Vocus, Simply Measured, Social Mention, Twitter Counter, Google Analytics, Excel, Igloo, LinkedIn and more to track her data on a monthly and annual basis. Nichols was sure to emphasize the two things she always measures: the share of conversation index and the brand equity index. “Metrics prove you’re making a difference,” said Nichols. “It’s what you do with it that matters.”

As Karen Addis opened up the question and answer period, audience members presented thoughtful questions asking for advice on how to stay focused, how to show the c-suite your department’s worth, how to monetize and how to adapt to diversity in the media through introducing foreign languages.

Veterans Matter: PRSA-NCC Provides Valuable Resource in Moving Veterans Forward Career Transition Workshop

It could have been any one of dozens of professional networking events happening on a weekday around the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. But this particular group of 50 seasoned public affairs professionals gathered at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia for an event the first of its kind — specifically empowering military communicators in their transition into civilian public relations careers.

The PRSA National Capital Chapter kicked off its comprehensive Moving Veterans Forward Career Transition Workshop with a networking session in the Memorial’s panoramic atrium where military communicators both active duty and veteran service members in military and business attire mingled with panelists and other attendees prior to the panel discussion.

Navy public affairs officers Elizabeth Zimmerman, a 20-year veteran and her colleague, Michael Sheehan, a 16-year veteran who flew in from Minneapolis for the program, were eager for it to begin.

“I am here to glean insight into the transition process, all the do’s and don’ts, and make new contacts,” said Zimmerman, whose transition begins in two months.

“I did really well in the military side of public affairs, so now I am exploring how to translate my skills effectively in the civilian world,” added Sheehan.

Moving Veterans Forward Career Transition Workshop, Presented by PRSA-NCC and Exelis Action Corps, July 23, 2014

Moving Veterans Forward Career Transition Workshop, Presented by PRSA-NCC and Exelis Action Corps, July 23, 2014

Against a backdrop of assorted flags representing various states, territories, and all the branches of the military, six panelists – all military veterans themselves – provided an overview of their professional backgrounds and experiences, sharing insights on successfully making the switch.

David Albritton, a Navy public affairs veteran, currently chief communications officer at Exelis, kicked off the panel discussion by championing the power of networking, having good mentors, and thinking strategically about one’s key strengths and how they fit into the big picture of target organizations.

“Every opportunity I ever had came because of someone in my network,” said Albritton.

Vox Optima owner and executive director, Merritt Hamilton Allen, humorously shared that she was initially “the public affairs officer that no one wanted” but sheer resilience and willingness to be flexible and continuously step up to new challenges despite health setbacks has been instrumental to her success. As an entrepreneur, she has also proven to be a person of her word, hiring vets who make up two-thirds of her staff, and speaking up about the challenges and opportunities disabled veterans face.

Twenty-year Air Force vet, Jon Anderson, who is now deputy director of public affairs for the National Guard Bureau, emphasized honest self and skills assessment.

“When I applied for jobs, everyone knew what I was capable of,” he said. Anderson also quelled any apprehension about the transition process, “Things weren’t so different when I left the Air Force. I still had to work long hours and continually challenge myself to learn new skills,” he said. This commitment to improvement led him to join PRSA where he also received his Accreditation in Public Relations.

A love of everything about media led Vic Beck, a retired Navy Reserve flag officer, and now managing director at Burson-Marsteller, to a long, impressive career in public affairs. He encouraged veterans to be tenacious during this phase of their careers.

“Do informational interviews, find people who are leaving military service now and talk to them,” he said. “Keep your contacts warm, take a no ‘shrinking violet’ approach – ask for advice, tips, help.”

Hiram Bell, strategic planning and communication chief at U.S. Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate and a 31-year Army veteran said he actively sought out mentors “who gave me advice about jobs I was suitable and unsuitable for – armed with such invaluable feedback one can dig a little deeper, better,” said Bell.

Moving Veterans Forward Career Transition Workshop, Presented by PRSA-NCC and Exelis Action Corps, July 23, 2014

Moving Veterans Forward Career Transition Workshop, Presented by PRSA-NCC and Exelis Action Corps, July 23, 2014

As chief executive officer and founder of ScoutComms, Fred Wellman was not shy about working online connections via LinkedIn and setting up coffee meetings to grow his professional contacts.

“Experiences unique to their service is what vets bring wherever they go – they know firsthand how to solve problems. This is a skill needed everywhere.” Wellman said. “Go beyond the job sites, invite people to coffee, and ask them to introduce you to more people.”

The panel discussion closed with Q & A followed by one-on-one mentoring, career counseling and resume review sessions for which participants signed up at arrival.

A culmination of weeks of planning, the event was part of a broader PRSA Moving Veterans Forward initiative launched in the fall of 2013. By spring of 2014, the PRSA-NCC, the organization’s largest chapter, started enrolling participants in the D.C. area. Benefits of the program include a one-year free PRSA and PRSA-NCC membership, resume writing, networking, and job interview advice from PRSA-NCC mentors.

“The main thing is we wanted vets and service men and women within the communications niche to know they matter,” said Richard Spector who came in from New York to represent PRSA and participate as one of 16 mentors.

“It’s not always a matter of life and death in the corporate world but vets have lived in that space – they helped protect our future, now PRSA wants to help protect theirs.”

The following individuals were panelists and mentors for the workshop participants:

Panel members and mentors:

  1. David Albritton, Chief Communications Officer, Exelis;
  2. Merritt Allen, Owner and Executive Director, Vox Optima;
  3. Jon Anderson, Deputy Director, Public Affairs, National Guard Bureau;
  4. Vic Beck, Managing Director, Burson-Marsteller;
  5. Hiram Bell, Chief, Strategic Planning and Communication for the U.S. Coast Guard, Acquisition Directorate
  6. Fred Wellman, CEO and Founder, ScoutComms


  1. Mitch Marovitz, USA retired, PR consultant and instructor
  2. Cyndi Scott-Johnson, CEO & Executive Producer, 3Roads Communications
  3. Russ Hodges, President & Executive Producer, 3Roads Communications
  4. Karen Jeffries, President, CEO, Veterans Moving Forward, Inc.
  5. Ginny Bueno, Communications Director, US Department of Agriculture
  6. Jill Wolf, Senior Communications Manager, Exelis Inc.
  7. Leah Lackey, Director of Commuications, Exelis Information Systems
  8. Janie Lee Mabe, Career coach, TechStarz, LLC
  9. Richard Spector, PRSA Moving Veterans Forward Initiative

A former co-chair of the PRSA-NCC membership committee, the author, Ufuoma Otu, is the founder of TakeCulture LLC which provides marketing communications solutions for international organizations. Visit:, for more information.