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.
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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 rfpassociates.net.

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Q&A with Katherine Hutt: Words of Wisdom to Help You Prepare A Session Proposal – Part II

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It’s that time! The call for sessions for the 2014 PRSA International Conference is now open. We spoke with Katherine Hutt, APR, Fellow PRSA, who provides valuable advice and suggestions from her perspective and experience. Read this before you submit that session entry!

Q: What are your top three suggestions for submitting a strong session proposal?

  1.  Pay attention to the guidelines set out by the Conference Committee. Tailor your proposal to fit within the structure suggested.
  2. Play off the conference theme if you can. The Conference Committee is looking for a program that flows, so topics that fit within the theme are going to get more attention, especially if there are similar proposals.
  3. Spend some time thinking about a clever or action-oriented name for your presentation.

Q: Do you have advice to share on how to pick a topic or issue that will be most relevant and compelling for this audience?

The most compelling topic is one that you know a lot about. Let’s face it, none of us has cornered the market on public relations, so be sure to highlight what you bring to the table on a particular topic. Take a look at your practice over the past 18-36 months. What is the most significant thing you’ve done? What presents a new or different approach to a widespread matter? What new tactics or techniques have you tried successfully?

Q: How do you identify the right panelists to participate in the session?

Sometimes this occurs naturally, especially if you’ve worked on a team, hired a great agency, or been in coalition with other groups. Look for a balance of roles, levels of leadership, speaking styles, PRSA involvement, etc. Frankly, if I had a choice between an APR and non-APR to be on my panel, I would ask the APR. Have the most senior person serve as the moderator; this can be the most senior person on the project or the most senior person within PRSA.

One thing I would avoid is a panel made up of a client and a vendor only. They tend to end up sounding like commercials for the vendor’s services, even if that was not the intent. A vendor can be a valuable contributor to a panel, but make sure there is balance.

Q: What do you believe is the true value of organizing and participating in a session at the International Conference?

I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of public speaking and mentoring, so that is my primary motivation. If I was considering running for national office or was looking for a major career move, I would certainly see the value in high-visibility opportunities such as this.

I would say the one reason not to do it is to hone your presentation skills. We’re all professional communicators, so if you are not at the top of your game, practice elsewhere before attempting to speak at PRSA. People will get up and walk out of a session if the speaker is poor, the topic is disorganized, or the presentation does not meet the description in the program. Don’t throw something together at the last minute, even if you are a good extemporaneous speaker. You are being judged by a jury of your peers! Give them something to rave about.

 

Katherine R. Hutt, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Director of Communications at the Council of Better Business Bureaus, where she serves as national spokesperson for the 100-year-old BBB brand. She had her own PR agency for 15 years, and previously worked for two non-profits. A PRSA member since 1985, she has been accredited since 1989 and a Fellow since 2004. She has held several national positions, including the PRSA Board of Ethics, and is a past NCC president, board member and committee chair. She has also served as president of Washington Women in Public Relations, and WWPR honored her as “PR Woman of the Year.” She has spoken at three previous PRSA National Conferences and recently has a proposal accepted to speak at this year’s ASAE conference.

Q&A with Judy Phair: Words of Wisdom to Help You Prepare a Session Proposal

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It’s that time! The call for sessions for the 2014 PRSA International Conference is now open. We spoke with Judy Phair, APR, Fellow PRSA, who provides valuable advice and suggestions from her perspective and experience as a session reviewer, organizer and panelist. Read this before you submit that session entry!

Q: What are your top three suggestions for organizing a session?

A: First, you must connect your topic to the overall theme of the conference and decide the appropriate track that most closely matches your session; your proposed session must be relevant to the audience and fit within one or more of the tracks. Second, the focus of your proposed session must be current and relevant and apply to a broad audience (unless it’s targeted to a specific section, such as travel and tourism). The session proposal must be timely and valuable with a clear statement on the expected outcome from an attendee perspective. Lastly, choose the right panelists that are most appropriate for the subject matter—people who have relevant stories and experience to share.

Q: Can you share suggestions on how to put together a winning proposal?

A: Get to the point quickly, and keep it simple. You need to address why the topic is important and how it relates to the field today, and elaborate on the expected outcome or takeaway for attendees. Illustrate why professionals should care about this topic right up front.  Remember that the devil is in the details, so don’t forget to proofread before submitting. Also, make sure that you choose the right track that is most appropriate for your proposed session topic to make sure the proposal reaches the right reviewers.

Q: What do you believe is the true value of organizing and participating in a session at the International Conference?

A: There are many benefits to organizing and participating in a session, but most importantly, you are helping public relations professionals expand their skills and expertise, and advancing the profession. In addition, you are building on what you know and enhancing your own skills and expertise, and therefore, adding value to your clients and/or employer. I believe it is important to stay focused on growing your career by constantly building on your level of knowledge and expertise within the field and presenting at the PRSA International Conference is a great opportunity for all PR professionals. Best of luck to you!

 

Judy Phair is president of PhairAdvantage Communications, LLC, an independent consulting firm founded in 2002.  She is a seasoned public relations executive with extensive experience in strategic planning, branding, global public relations and marketing, media relations, fund raising, and legislative relations. Judy was 2005 President and CEO of PRSA and a recipient of PRSA’s highest individual award, the 2010 Gold Anvil Award.  It is considered PRSA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and is presented to an individual “whose work significantly advanced the profession and set high standards for those engaged in the practice of public relations.”  In late 2013, PRSA-NCC inducted Judy into its Hall of Fame.  Earlier, the Maryland Chapter of PRSA honored Judy with its Lifetime Achievement Award, and her work has been recognized with numerous other awards in public relations, publications, marketing, and crisis communications. Judy is a frequent speaker on public relations and marketing issues, with appearances in China, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Croatia as well as the United States. She also writes extensively in the field.

Okay, We’re All Busy. Is That Really a Good Excuse?

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In my April 9, 2013 blog, I spoke of how Mickey Kennedy, founder of eReleases, commended the field for its embrace of codes of ethics. What I hope didn’t get lost in his message is that he also suggests we actually use those codes in our work. Our own organization’s Code of Ethics is one of the most widely recognized in the industry. Our website’s ethics area is expansive and includes case studies, professional standards advisories and a rich resource area.

Kennedy suggests the vast majority of us are good, ethical professionals trying to help our bosses and clients tell their story. I agree. I think the vast majority of us are good people. However, as Alison Kenney recently blogged, there are shades of gray in the ethical lifestyle we lead as PR professionals.

The problem I’ve always had figuring out “ethics issues” is that I don’t always see the ethical dilemma until its almost too late. At that point, all I can say is, “I’m sorry,” which of course is never good enough. At what point am I supposed to say, “That’s it! That crosses the line!” How am I supposed to know I’m there? And, once I’m there how do I know what I am supposed to do about it?

What conditions existed that allowed Penn State to cover-up the Jerry Sandusky scandal for so long? How could leaders at the IRS not see the impact their operational decisions would have on public opinion about their organization?

Can the resources we have available to us at http://www.prsa.org/ethics (and other places) help us? Let’s start with our Code of Ethics. Have you looked at it lately? It’s not really all that long and boils nicely down to six concepts called our “Statement of Professional Values:”

  • Advocacy
  • Honesty
  • Expertise
  • Independence
  • Loyalty
  • Fairness

Six concepts that are easy enough to remember.

I’ve had many discussions over the years about the concepts of advocacy and loyalty. Don’t they contravene the other four points? In my mind, there is not an inherent conflict among these six values. We are charged not just with advocating on behalf of our organizations or just being loyal to them. Rather, our Code charges us to advocate in a responsible manner and to be “…faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.” The information we provide into the marketplace of ideas is supposed to be accurate and truthful and further public debate on the issues. And, sometimes, loyalty to our organization means admitting we can do a better job of serving the public interest. Look to the Coca-Cola Company’s recent campaign about their—and their competitor’s—efforts to introduce reduced calorie soft drinks in schools. The campaign has taken some hits for being disingenuous, but if you take a look at the likes and dislikes and the comments at the YouTube page where the commercial resides, I think you will conclude that the campaign is furthering honest debate on the issue.

While the “Statement of Professional Values” is important, it doesn’t really provide the kind of guidance that can help you recognize when an ethical issue is about to hit you. I think the real meat of the Code lies in the next section, the “Code Provisions of Conduct.” It is here that you find the core principles upon which the Code of Ethics is based. These principles are:

  • Free flow of information
  • Competition
  • Disclosure of information
  • Safeguarding confidences
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Enhancing the profession

I will be discussing these code provisions in upcoming blogs. Hopefully, we can discuss them in a way that helps us find a way to internalize them and use them as triggers that will better arm us to recognize ethical dilemmas before they become ethical issues.

 

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Mitch Marovitz is the Treasurer and Ethics Committee Chair for the Public Relations Society of America’s National Capital Chapter.

Will you be the next PRSA-NCC Social Media Rock Star?

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Did you know that 20 percent of our day is spent on social networks? I admit that first thing in the morning, I’m checking Facebook and Twitter for the latest news. We want to see, as well as share content, stories, tweets and advice through our various social networks.

What better way to celebrate our time using social media than to recognize public relations professionals that help share content for the National Capital Chapter of Public Relations Society of America (PRSA-NCC). PRSA-NCC’s Marketing Committee is starting a new program to acknowledge members who help promote and share information about our events. The committee will monitor Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and each month we will announce the PRSA-NCC Social Media Rock Star.

PRSA-NCC understands the value of social media. It has helped raise the visibility for our events. For example, this year we used various social networks to promote Social Media Week in DC. PRSA’s event had one of the highest attended professional development events in our recent history, with 50 percent of the audience being non-members.

Here are some statistics about how much we have grown since 2011:

• Facebook = 350/593 (June 2013)
• Twitter = 1,000/2,066 (June 2013)
• LinkedIn = 350/1,104 (June 2013)
• YouTube = 1,284/13,000 views (April 2013)

Social media is a powerful tool for PRSA-NCC as well as our members and their clients. Are you going to be our next Social Media Rock Star?

To participate, PRSA-NCC members should use the hashtag #PRSANCC or re-share material on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. If you aren’t following PRSA-NCC yet, here are our different social media handles and links:

Twitter: @PRSA_NCC
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/30633095702/
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/PRSANCC-Public-Relations-Society-Americas-828017/

We want to raise the visibility of our active members who help us promote our different events, but board members and committee chairs will are not eligible for the award. At the end of the year, the Marketing Committee will recognize all the winners during its annual holiday party.

So, start sharing content today, including my blog!! If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

See You on Stage!

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At Ogilvy, we view entering the PRSA-NCC Thoth Awards as an annual opportunity to showcase work that exemplifies our creed: ideas and solutions that make a real impact in fresh, original, and noteworthy ways.

Ogilvy Washington submitted entries to more than 20 categories last year and was recognized across nine– winning three Thoths and six Certificates of Excellence. The thrill of the evening was taking home our very first Best in Show award for “Kidney Sundays Help African Americans Understand Their Risk for Kidney Disease,” with the National Kidney Disease Education Program.

Entering the Thoth Awards offers your organization the chance to reflect on the work your team does throughout the year and be recognized for it. While winning is great, the pursuit can be just as satisfying. Of course the formula for winning Best of Show is a closely held secret of the Thoth judging committee, but here are a few helpful tips that helped us create winning entries in multiple categories:

  • It starts with the work: Great campaigns are rooted in solid research and deliver real results that make a positive impact for your client. Tell that story!
  • Every detail matters: Support your entry with meaningful data, detailed results and demonstrated success.
  • Enter in multiple categories, but tailor each submission to the language and requirements of each specific category.
  • Dare to take a fresh look at your campaign.It is likely that there is a supporting element of your campaign that deserves the spotlight. The Thoth Awards offer the opportunity to bring those elements to the forefront in the “Component” categories.  Don’t miss this chance to win!
  • Don’t be discouraged if you didn’t win last year – every new client campaign provides a new opportunity to be awarded for your work in partnership with your client.  The value of losing is in learning why you didn’t win. Request the score sheet to determine how you can refine and retool your campaign approach. We do – and we’ve learned a lot about our work in the process.

Think your work could be a winner – Enter it in this year’s Thoth

We are looking forward to a great Thoth Gala in 2013. See you (hopefully) in the winner’s circle!

Tiana Allen, Account Supervisor, Ogilvy Washington

Ellen Birek, Vice President External Relations, Ogilvy Washington

Why Do We Get Such Bad Press?

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I was reading an article by Mickie Kennedy, founder of eReleases, the other day. He wonders why we PR pros are often reluctant to tackle our own industry’s bad ethical reputation.

He speculates we earn this reputation due to our seemingly unending “…habit of spinning bad actions into a positive light…”

While the really bad decisions some of our so-called colleagues have made headlines, Kennedy says the real problems causing our bad reputation are the more common “…PR stunts such as pay-for-play television programming, where businesses pay to appear in news casts, blurring the line between editorial content (i.e. hard news) and advertisement.” Also hurting our reputation are “…anonymous internet postings where PR pros attempt to create fake word-of-mouth campaigns to promote products…[and]…’astroturfing,’ where corporations advance an agenda while trying to appear as if the effort were merely an astounding grassroots movement.”

If Kennedy has good news, it’s that he feels most of us are good people just trying to do our jobs. He says, “If the honest PR pros continue to uphold their ethics while denouncing PR pros that cross the line, then the industry can eventually shed its bad reputation.”

I agree. I’ve been in this business about 20 years, if you don’t include the time I spent in broadcasting. In all that time, I can count the number of people I wouldn’t do business with again on one hand.

Despite the reputation we carry as “just so much fluff” from some organizational middle managers, senior leader continue to hire us because they understand the vital role we play in the success of their organizations. These senior leaders understand we’ve got a tough job. We have to keep one foot in the organization and one foot with the organization’s stakeholders. Our bosses depend on us to know what’s going on inside and outside. And, they depend on us to give them good counsel.

Giving good counsel means tackling the tough problems, and tough problems often have an ethical component.

Kennedy commends the field for its embrace of codes of ethics and suggests we use them. I agree. Our own organization’s Code of Ethics is one of the most widely recognized in the industry. The PRSA website’s ethics area includes some great resources, including case studies, professional standards advisories and a rich resource area.

All of these resources are only as useful as we make them, of course. That means that in the heat of our busy days, we must recognize when we are facing an ethical situation, if we are ever to hope to resolve it. I think that’s the hardest thing to do of all and I’ll be talking about that in my next blog post.

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Mitch Marovitz is the Treasurer and Ethics Committee Chair for the Public Relations Society of America’s National Capital Chapter.