Public relations · Launch Festival

What are some of the key things to ask/look for when interviewing a PR firm?

Dave Shefferman Founder/President at MadeMoments

August 23rd, 2013

When interviewing PR firms to help a company with exposure around a launch, what are some of the key questions to ask and things to look for to find the right partner? 

For a small, self-funded startup (consumer ecommerce) how much should one expect to budget, and what are some of the metrics we should measure them on (aside from the # of press mentions/articles they are able to generate)?  Since everything else has been built super-lean, this will likely be the single largest expense line for us, and we want to make sure that we're using these dollars wisely and efficiently. 

Thanks in advance for any input!

Brian McConnell

August 23rd, 2013

The CEOs job is to be the PR agency. I am also a professional writer, and can tell you that PR firms are vastly overrated. Journalists _hate_ PR firms. The only thing they are useful for is badgering people. If someone is interested in writing about your company they will talk to _you_. So think about paying for a PR firm as a tax for being lazy about not developing press leads yourself. And despite what they tell you, PR firms are sweatshops. What you get for your money is a bunch of underpaid interns who hate their jobs and know nothing about your business cold calling people on your behalf. Is that who you want presenting your business and product? Getting press is not rocket science. You just need to have something that people want to write about. If you do, they'll be happy to hear from you when you cold call them. If you don't, well no amount of PR budget will compensate for that, at least when it comes to quality coverage.

Eli Salomon Director of Partnerships at Stealth Drug Development Startup

August 26th, 2013

I went through the entire process of researching and selecting a PR firm in a previous company I helped run.  First, let me dispel the notion that PR is worthless.  We got a TREMENDOUS amount out of our PR firm.  That being said, I believe one of the key reasons it worked out so well for us is because we did our homework and approached the firms we spoke to with a tremendous amount of skepticism.  Many PR firms are utter BS, will insist on a $20k minimum retainer, and will do absolutely NOTHING that adds value.  As many people have pointed out, they are essentially fancy spammers.

One of the key things we focused on in our search was locating a small shop that was hungry for our business and that could demonstrate DEEP connections in our vertical, with past results for similar small companies and references to back up their claims.  If you're in a niche vertical and your PR person knows everyone and has placed lots of articles in different industry publications, chances are they can do the same for you - IF you have a compelling product.  Don't expect PR people to work miracles.  If you have something interesting, they can really make it shine, craft a compelling story with you (not for you), and share it with their established friends.  In our instance, our PR person really believed in our product and viewed it as an important turning point in their career - they were thrilled to have the business and called up a LOT of contacts.  We worked closely with them, making sure that they had a good understanding of what we were trying to achieve, and our vision for the PR effort .  Our PR firm appreciated that, and was grateful that we cared enough to carefully be involved in the process, rather than just expecting them to concoct an entire story for us and then blaming them when it didn't work out.  We ended up getting published in every major publication in the vertical, with amazing reviews.  Advertising would have cost us significantly more, and we wouldn't have gotten the time of day from the writers if we approached them ourselves.  Our person also did an amazing job of bringing people to our booth at an extremely important trade show, and really brought some important, influential folks, helping us create not only media buzz, but also social buzz in real life.

If you are a small company interviewing a potential PR firm and all they can talk about is how they represent some huge company - RUN AWAY.  They will not care about you, because they are too busy servicing their "important clients."   In your interviews, look for people who convey skepticism about different promotional angles you take and actively dissuade you from spending a lot of money or going all-out with a giant media blitz.  If you are just starting out, you want to avoid those things.  You can't build up a PR machine overnight.  If you blast everyone with PR right out of the gates, you will overload your media contacts and their readers - you may have your 20 seconds of fame, but it will then be over. 

Also, look for firms who can give you a clean budget and explain exactly where all your money is going and why it's important that it go there.  If you are interviewing a PR firm that gives you a cookie-cutter proposal that doesn't demonstrate a knowledge of your business, and has a fee on there that is not broken down by line item, with an explanation of why the expenditure is important and timely, they should be avoided.  When I was sourcing firms, I got so many proposals that were just generic presentations along with a giant number at the end.  Essentially "We propose to help you get in every magazine and website ever!  Your product is amazing and we know exactly how to make it appeal to everyone, even though we know nothing about your business!  We will charge you only $30,000, paid up front, for this privilege!  Trust us, because we are hired by the biggest and the best!" (note:  cheesy PR firms love using exclamation points quite often).   With so many firms I spoke with, I'd try to ask questions about the numbers and the firms would take the approach "what, $30k is too much for you?  You should be happy we're even considering taking you on!  Do you know who our other clients are?  How dare you question whether we're spending your money wisely!" 

Bottom line:  If the PR firm doesn't understand your business, there is no way they'll be able to explain your value or make you shine.  Look for firms that do their homework upfront and want your business.  They will fight tooth and nail for you and will take pride in sharing your stories with others.


Steve Birnhak COO at Ready Set Recover

August 23rd, 2013

My advice is: 1) check references (ask if they're proactively strategic, or do they do the minimum - i.e. write and distribute press releases) 2) research the coverage the references have gotten and how that coverage came about (see point 1) 3) find out what the references pay, negotiate, and don't get locked into anything long term 4) find out who is going to be the primary person on the account (sometimes you get passed off to junior people). Do you like them? Are they smart? Have they given any thought to your business to win your business? If they don't show any excitement or proactivity now, they definitely won't later. 5) constantly re-evaluate. Good luck! Steve

Carolyn Branco Head of Marketing at Snupps

August 28th, 2013

We haven't hired anyone yet - still exploring PR firms, but this is our list of questions.  PR seems to be about creating a close relationship with a particular provider, founded based on a trust.... but that said, you need some way to judge and evaluate them.  These questions form the basis for most of our first round discussions.

We start with a quick discussion of what we do so they understand our startup, creds etc... and then we jump into the questions.

The USP and weakness questions get particularly rich responses. 
  • Where are you based??
  • Walk us through a potential project (timeline, stages, etc).\
  • What is your USP?
  • What goes wrong with a client engagement and how do you try to avoid it?
  •  Geographic speciality?
  • What is your industry speciality?
  • How big is the company?
  • Who’s our point person? How many people work with us? What is the team size?
  • What backgrounds does the team have?
  • How many projects do they work on?
  • Who’s doing the messaging?
  • Who’s picking up the phone to talk to the journalists? 
  • What have they done before?
  • What are some creative ways you have got coverage?
  • Any strong relationships with particular media?
  • Cost per month? Additional costs? Length of engagement?
  • Any unusual clients?
  • Success stories?
  •  Do you have any b2c tech experience?
  •  Biggest weakness?       
  • What questions aren’t we asking?
  • Have you ever collaborated with other PR firms? What works or doesn't?
  • We're a B2C tech company.  How do you bridge the divide between pitching to the tech and consumer media?
  • Do you turn down any clients?
  • Have you had a campaign that failed and why?
  • How do you time stories to work?

Jonathan Vanasco

August 23rd, 2013

One of the ventures I'm a partner in is an online e-commerce company ( - we sell limited edition prints from the highly-sought after emerging artists )

One of my partners there is a former top marketing exec from Ogilvy.  She knew the power of advertising and PR, so we had a decent budget for traditional PR ( magazines , journalists ) and Social Media.

Here's where it got us:

With the Traditional PR, we spent our planned budget -- and more -- chasing down mentions in magazine Holiday Guides and coordinating journalists through the PR firm/freelancers on possible mentions in other features.  We ended up in a few guides, had a handful of mentions in articles, a few snippets on financial news things -- but the needle on sales didn't really move each time.  We had some more hits , but not much more -- and the conversion rate was the same.  Through some great connections, we had a relationship with the Nate Berkus show on TV.  Our artwork was featured on it several times, we had some giveaways, and there were special discount codes so we could track uptick.  Again, the needle didn't really move.

With Social Media, it was a different story.  Blog posts, retweets and various mentions generated significantly more hits than PR placements.    They were also quantifiable and we could see what was working and what wasn't -- so we were able to run co-branded promotions with the groups that had more engaging audiences.  Generic retweets and facebook posts didn't work - enaging with bloggers and users did.

I later worked in Publishing and saw how the other side of PR works.  Writers are harassed all day with PR agents.  If an agent who is a good friend reaches out (happens a lot more than you think), they might be inclined to pitch a story to their editor.  Usually though, they ignore the reach out. Same holds true if they think the story might be something that can generate traffic / buzz and make them look good [ generally that doesn't happen]. On the off-chance they've been assigned something that might fit, they'll consider replying.  That happens a lot less than you think.

So i'd figure out what you want to get out of PR.

If you want sales, I'd go for a social media editor / blogger outreach.

If you want something to frame to make you feel good about yourself, then I'd go with traditional PR.

John Wallace President at Apps Incorporated

August 23rd, 2013

I know the folks over at The CEO created and ran an Inc 500 company and he's actively involved in our local Entrepreneur's Organization (which is how I know him). I agree with previous comments that the CEO is usually the best PR person for a company, but if you don't have the bandwidth to cover that yet, then going with a firm is a better option than not doing any outreach.

As far as questions go, I'd want to know (a) what knowledge do they have of your niche, (b) have they represented customers similar to you, (c) how do they do help you with your outreach and to whom (phone, blog, email, Facebook, twitter, etc.), (d) what kind of ROI can you expect, etc.

Michael Brill Technology startup exec focused on AI-driven products

August 23rd, 2013

+1 on Brian's comment. My experience with small PR budgets is that your message gets neutered and then the first reasonable question a journalist asks is met with silence and an "I'll get back to you." If you're doing the talking then you've got an opportunity to convey the details that get people interested. Plus it forces you to really nail your story (which an outside resource will *never* be able to do). 

Dave Shefferman Founder/President at MadeMoments

August 23rd, 2013

Thanks for the comments so far.  Let me redirect a little bit. 

At current, this is a one-man show.  And that one-man has a day gig (and will continue that day gig for the foreseeable future).  So in the absence of full-time attention on the project, and having to tend to all other aspects of the business as well, it makes sense to hire out some level of demand generation.  This can come in the form of a PR/Marketing agency, a contractor, or a full-time hire. Of the three, an agency seems to provide the broadest breadth of experience and skills, albeit at a slight premium.  So it's not necessarily entirely PR, although influencer outreach (press, bloggers, etc) will be a significant component. 


Not sure if that changes any answers, but happy to hear more opinions/suggestions. 


Mark Piekny Engineer, Consultant & Entrepreneur

August 25th, 2013

I'd say your best bet is to find a partner whose versed in PR and marketing.  There is no substitute for a vested interest in the success of the endeavor.


August 23rd, 2013

Dont waist money on PR.  IT is useless and only makes you feel good.  

Launch day : Yeah we launched.  Yeah we got on our blogs.

Next day : Oh only 5% of those users were actually interest in our service.

PR is not a growth engine.  Take the money and put it in the growth engine.  PR will come later when it no longer matters.