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August 9, 2011
The Smaller the PR Agency, the Bigger the Attention?
I recently spoke with a potential professional services client about her current PR strategy. Once she found out I was a PR person, she opened up and began to discuss all of her fears and concerns with her current (not-to-be-named) “celebrity”-owned, large-sized PR agency.
She said she initially hired this agency on a recommendation from one of her industry organizations that the agency had done work for, not just on their reputation alone. Clearly, from her remarks to me, she hadn’t done enough homework. Not only was she unhappy that she had been through four junior level account people over the past 10 months — apparently all were giving her attitude — but once her account was transferred to the head honcho (the “celebrity” owner), she said the owner talked a good game without fulfilling any of what he claimed he could do for her and her business. (And yes, the owner had been the one to initially present the PR strategy to her.)  
When her contract ends at the end of January, she won’t renew with them — or hire another agency for a while — because she feels that she did more work on her own behalf than the agency did. She also can no longer afford to spend thousands of dollars for the cache of the agency’s name. So what’s the point of hiring a brand-name PR agency that can’t deliver when a boutique or solo practitioner would possibly have done better at half the price?
Before answering that, let’s take a look at what the client failed to ask the agency and herself before signing the contract:
  • What level PR person would be working on her account and how many hours would be devoted to her account?
  • What story angles the agency would pitch on her behalf, once hired, and what specific media outlets would be targeted?
  • Where could the agency realistically get her press and what would be slightly out of reach (or a goal)?
  • What type of clients does this agency typically handle? Have they ever gained PR for professional services? Do they have the contacts I want to reach out to?
  • Are there additional client references within my industry I may speak with?
  • Do I need a big agency, a boutique, or a solo practitioner? Who will give my project the most attention?
  • Do I need to tell all my friends that I’m with “celebrity”-named PR agency in order to feel good about the money I’m spending?
A digression: Setting aside the idea that we all need to make money in order to continue doing business, we know that there are many small and large agencies out there that make promises and can’t deliver (due to lack of experience or contacts in a particular industry), and that most junior-level people in large agencies are told to “smile and dial” — send info to everyone, call everyone to follow up, and whatever sticks, sticks. If you are able to survive your beginning “smile-and-dial” years in PR, you know that this tactic doesn’t really work. All clients need a targeted and strategic approach to public relations. I’m not knocking junior-level PR people; they need to start somewhere to be trained properly, both for the industry and the clients, and they often bring new creative perspectives to the table. But senior level PR people aren’t without fault here, because they’re the ones doing the training and overseeing of the accounts.
Tactics for clients need to be changed. Instead of “smile and dial,” let’s try putting together two-person teams (one senior- and one junior-level PR person) to work with each other; the junior level person can sit in on calls (or lunches) that the senior level person makes on the client’s behalf and begin to build solid working relationships with journalists. I understand how competitive this business is, but we can’t expect newer PR people to stick around too long if they’re not taught how to participate in their business. The senior-level PR person should not simply “oversee” what the junior-level person is doing, but get involved and teach. That’s the best way to learn and provide clients with the best service.
Back to your regularly scheduled program…The client should have asked the agency and herself the above questions before agreeing to work with them. Why? To find out if the agency was truly qualified to handle her account or if she simply wanted to be able to tell her friends that she was working with a prestigious agency (yes, psychology also plays a role here). Again, from our conversation, the agency clearly did not know enough about her industry or have the proper contacts (never mind the junior staff on her account).
Who would have been qualified? As per our conversation, it is my strong opinion that had she answered the above questions, she would have realized that a small boutique or a solo practitioner would have been more qualified to pitch her business to the media, and they would have given her much more personal attention, which is what she wanted. While I do not believe she is the type who needs handholding, her account definitely was not getting the attention (or results) she paid for. In addition, I’ll bet that a small boutique or solo practitioner would have charged her half of what she was paying the “celebrity”-owned agency, as she was also paying for the privilege for a brand name. The solo practitioner, who typically works from home these days, probably would have charged even less, since he/she has less overhead.
At a small boutique or with a solo practitioner, the person who pitches the client is usually the one who also handles the account; as a client, you get to know your account person pretty well and vice versa.
What does this all mean? Basically, don’t overlook the smaller boutique or solo practitioner, as one of them might do a much better job for your business at a significantly lesser price. And that type of work deserves much praise and many referrals.

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Jocelyn Brandeis is an accomplished and award-winning communications professional with more than 15 years experience in the entertainment, consumer, new media, B2B, Hispanic, and nonprofit industries. She is responsible for securing interviews and media placement and creating full PR campaigns. Since co-founding JBLH Communications, the client roster has included: National Lampoon Comedy House, Doggy Tug, Mandinez.com, Play Clay Factory, The Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation, and The Child Center of NY.

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