Before You Hire a PR Agency or Consultant: Questions Nonprofits Should Ask

By on Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Questions abound when it comes to hiring public relations agencies and consultants. Before you take the leap for your nonprofit organization, think through your project:
Questions to Ponder Why do we want to hire a public relations agency or consultant? Is it a special project or campaign? Do we need ongoing help?
  • What do we ultimately want to achieve for our organization by seeking public relations advice? Will we gain human capacity to do more, media contacts we didn’t have before, or a more comprehensive strategy from it?
  • How will this project/campaign/ongoing communications assistance help our organization achieve its strategic goals and fulfill its mission?
  • What information will we need to give the agency or consultant? Do we need to issue an RFP (Request for Proposals) because the project is fairly complex?
  • What types of timelines or deadlines are we working with?
  • How much can we afford to spend? If we were to keep this work inhouse with our staff, how much is it likely to cost us and what will be impacted?
Questions to Ask: Getting Acquainted
  • How long has the agency or consultant been in business?
  • Why is the agency or consultant qualified to do the work?
  • Have they worked with a nonprofit organization similar to ours in the past?
  • Do they specialize in particular issues or industries that are important to our organization?
  • What types of services does the agency provide in-house?
  • Who are the agency or consultant’s other clients? Can they share references?
  • Where is the portfolio with examples of the agency or consultant’s work?
  • How does the agency or consultant manage client relationships? What is their philosophy about working with clients?
  • How often will we be updated?
  • How often will we be billed?
  • What is their policy on revisions?
  • What types of successes has the agency or consultant had in implementing campaigns or strategies in the past?
Questions to Ask: Project-Specific
  • How can you meet my organization’s needs for this project/task?
  • How will you help my organization build its brand and reinforce/clarify existing messaging?
  • Thinking short term: I think my organization needs __________________ (insert what you think you need). How can you help my organization meet this need?
  • Thinking long-term: My organization’s ultimate goal is to _____________________ (insert what you want to achieve). How can you help my organization achieve this long-term goal?

Questions to Ask: Working Together

  • Who will manage our account from the agency? Who specifically will be our point of contact on a day-to-day basis (a senior practitioner, a junior executive, an assistant, the owner, the consultant)? How will we get in touch with them?
  • Who from our organization or association will be the liaison to the consultant or agency?
  • What process will we use to agree on a strategic plan with implementation steps for this project/campaign?
  • If we are doing a public relations campaign – are there research, planning, implementation and reporting phases planned and what do they look like?
  • What timelines are we working with as a team for this project?
  • How often will someone (the consultant or the firm) check in with us?
  • How many meetings are needed for the work we are proposing? I always urge some caution in this area, as it seems to be an area where nonprofits and associations can get into trouble. Be aware that while “meeting time” can be valuable, time spent in meetings by consultants and firms after you have hired them is typically billed. If you insist on weekly one-hour phone conferences with a large team, those are hours that are getting billed, and your budget should reflect it. If the meetings are necessary, then it’s time well spent. But often meetings can be shortened, and check-in needs can be met in a variety of ways. If your budget is limited, think creatively about how to handle check-ins, so more money can go to research, planning, implementation or reporting, and fewer dollars cover meetings.
  • Who will write copy for press releases, reports, brochures, social media, etc.?
  • How will the sign-off process for materials produced by the agency or consultant work? How many revisions are possible, and if we request significant revisions, how will that impact timelines?
  • What types of fees are involved in hiring the agency or consultant? Do we need to pay a retainer up front, that the agency or consultant then charges time against? Will we pay monthly? Or will we be billed at key milestones?

Items That May be Helpful to Provide to a Public Relations Agency So They Can Understand Your Organization or Association 

  • Your organization’s strategic plan.
  • Your organization’s overall marketing or communications plan.
  • Research, public opinion polls, or marketing data about your organization or the issue/topic that your organization is passionate about.
  • Messaging briefs or positioning papers.
  • Style guide or branding manual used by your organization.
  • Organizational chart explaining how the staff within your organization relate to each other, and in particular, how the communications staff (if existing) operate within the organization.

Before you write an RFP that requires a dissertation-level response: I would add too, that I have seen some nonprofit organizations put together a lengthy Request for Proposals (RFP), thinking that a heavy duty screening effort will help them select the correct firm or demonstrate the importance of their work. I’m all for good vetting and asking for what you need to know and how a consultant or form will assist you on a proposed project. But I’ve seen RFPs that require bidders to scope out fully a campaign, offer loads of ideas and creative work with design samples (for free), and even requested our original work samples from other clients (to keep).

As a result, small and nimble agencies, aka, often the most affordable ones, will opt out of responding to your RFP if they don’t know you well, if it is too cumbersome, or requires a hefty creative investment. Consequently, you may only get responses from larger agencies who have more capacity to throw resources at a project they may not win.

What’s important to know is: Does the firm or consultant have the skills and capacity to do what we need? Are the strategies and steps they are proposing going to meet your goals? Can they meet our deadlines and deliverables? Do you like working with them and think they can do the job? Ask the questions you need to find those answers, and you will hire the right consultant or firm for the job.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your projectreview our portfoliosign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven

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