Choosing the Right Public Relations (PR) Firm – 5 Helpful Tips

If there is one industry that has become overly saturated these days it is the field of Public Relations. It seems that PR Firms are cropping up faster than weeds, and the process of sorting through the slush to choose a public relations company of quality can be a daunting and overwhelming process, to say the least.

This article offers you 5 helpful tips that can hopefully make the journey of choosing a PR Firm or a publicist a little bit easier and more streamlined, so that you can get the most bang for your public relations buck, and actually see a return on your investment.

Five Tips For Choosing The Right PR Firm For You

1. Size – Are you seeking a large corporate PR Firm, a mid-size firm or a small or boutique firm?

The question I pose is not a black and white one. The answer to this question must be determined by several things. Your budget, how much hand holding and personal attention you require, how far you want your public relations outreach to be, and your desire for a team working on your account or for just one or two ambitious publicists working on your account. Large corporate public relations firms generally charge between $10,000 and $20,000 per month for their basic retainer services, so budget is a huge factor here. To a company like Microsoft or Johnson & Johnson this is a drop in the bucket. But to a small or medium sized company that type of fee is far out of reach. The benefits of a large national and sometimes international firm is the wide reach your brand can achieve, a large team working on your account, a large pool of other clients who are with that firm from that your company can possibly network with and benefit from. These large firms generally have a ton of experience on their side. Many of these large PR Firms are 20, 30 or 50 plus years old. The downside of these large firms aside from the hefty monthly fee is the amount of bureaucracy and red tape involved in the day to day functions of the company, and unfortunately this can often lead to smaller clients falling through the cracks. Another minus to working with large PR Firms is the lack of personal touch and attention, which is fine for established companies but not as good for start ups, small and medium sized companies who require more nurturing, more brand development and other complimentary services like writing and basic marketing assistance.

Smaller public relations firms tend to offer monthly retainers that can range anywhere from $7000.00 all the way down to about $2500.00 depending on how much overhead that firm has, their level of experience and expertise, their particular public relations niche, their contacts and how much time they plan to devote to your account. Most PR Firms out there tend to fall into the mid-size, boutique or small category and are also very effective at doing their job.

2. Ignore the Hype and Look at a Public Relations Firm’s Portfolio of Work!

I cannot stress this enough. In perusing some colleagues’ websites recently I was shocked to observe that some of these websites have flashy graphics, catchy promotional copy about their services, and glossy images but NO examples of their media placements, marketing case studies, writing samples… nada! Where is their work? Don’t fall for public relations firms that are all flash and no substance. Always, and I mean always look to see if their website is packed with examples of past projects, past examples of media placements and other examples of work created by the firm. Look over the work that is displayed on their website and when speaking with a representative from that public relations firms ask them to elaborate on their body of work. Some great questions:

What media placements are you most proud of? How was that media placement achieved by your firm? What is your firms biggest strength? Can you tell me some of your contacts in the media? Can you give me some marketing case studies? Some public relations case studies? What sets your firm apart?

3. Make sure you are a match: Assessing values, vision and creativitiy

The above sentence is pretty self-explanatory but I will elaborate. This publicist or pr team will be your brand ambassador. You want someone whose values reflect your own values. You also want to be sure that your publicist understands, appreciates and shares your vision for your company or organization. If a PR Firm wants to pitch your beauty brand as an elite, untouchable, prestige brand and you want your beauty product to speak to the every-woman, showing her how beauty can be accessible to all women, then that publicist may have a vision that is not in line with yours and things will likely go from perplexing to downright tense. A good trick is, when speaking to a potential publicist ask him or her how they see your product, who they think your audience/demo is and how they envision positioning the product to the media and to potentiial consumers. Don’t expect them to go into too much detail before really delving into the product line, but they should give you a basic pitch that falls in line with your own vision. If not, move on.

4. Are you in it for Website traffic, magazine placements, TV appearances? What is it you want? Be specific!

Don’t be shy about what it is you want. Why are you searching for public relations services in the first place? Really sit down and think about it. And don’t be shy about your needs. Is your main objective to build a strong targeted online following to drive quality traffic to your website and convert visitors into sales? Is your main objective someone who can write outstanding copy for your business like press releases, articles, pitch copy to send to media outlets, etc.? Is your main objective to become something of a personality and expert in your field and to build a resume as someone who makes appearances on television news programs giving advice to promote yourself as a brand and an expert? Figure out what your goals are and choose a PR Firm that is strong in your area of interest.

5. Location, location, location

In the age of email, fax machines, long distance phone plans and inexpenseive air travel the location of your public relations firm may not matter to you… or it might. Do you want lots of face time with your publicist or do you not care if your publicist is in Timbuck Tu as long as they can get the job done, and get your company press coverage? Everyone’s comfort level with location is different and there is no right or wrong. If you are looking for entertainment public relations you may set your sights on a PR Firm that is in Los Angeles or in New York. If you are an up and coming Internet company you may find value in a San Francisco based PR Firm. Fashion, New York may be the way to go for you, unless your fashion line is a range of swimsuits; in that case a Miami PR Firm could be the right fit. Looking to attract the Latin market, again, Miami could be the key for you.

Or, you may simply look for a public relations firm with a rolodex of contacts in a particular city or industry, regardless of their brick and mortar location.

Public Relations Counselors

The aim of Public Relations is to maximize support and minimize opposition for your enterprise among the various stakeholders and general public. A PR campaign consists of two distinct elements — strategy and execution, i.e. what to do and how to do it.

The role of a Public Relations Counselor is to suggest strategy, i.e. advocate âwhat to doâ. A Public Relations Counselor would typically be involved in defining the PR policy of your enterprise, analyzing problems and opportunities, identifying the stakeholders or publics you need to reach, recommending the key messages for each public, and allocating responsibilities to the team.

Given the criticality of this position, here are some qualities you need to look for in your Public Relations Counselor:

Good Judgment

Good judgment is the single most important quality of a good PR counselor. She needs to correctly interpret the strength and longevity of public opinion, and must know what to react to, and when and how to react. This calls for superior judgment.

Research and analytical capabilities

A responsible public relations program is based on the understanding of its publics. This comes through patient research, quantitative and qualitative measurement and insightful analysis. Without these qualities, a public relations counselor cannot hope to succeed.

Thinking on her feet

PR counselors are invariably called on to deal with crisis situations when hostile publics demand swift and sensitive action. Imagination, quick reactions, and sensitivity to the publics view will help your PR counselor deal effectively and efficiently with these adversities.

Persuasive Communicator

Communication is critical to all public relations functions. Well-planned, effectively handled communication is the key to the success of every PR program. Your PR counselor must also be persuasive in order to gather information and opinions from people, often in times of trouble when most people dont want to talk.


Above all, you want a PR counselor who will always be honest with you. Your PR counselor needs to be a mirror of the public opinion, helping you see an honest picture of what the public thinks of your enterprise.

Reflections on the New York Public Library or An Ode to Public Institutions

Anyone who has visited the New York Public Library understands the most basic elements of what is amazing about it. When you walk in, you feel both grand and small. This is a magnificent edifice dedicated to knowledge, ideas, culture, and creativity, which are all-as Maria notes-limitless. At this same time, this is a public space, it is there to serve you and it was created in your honor.

This has always inspired me when I walk into the library. But this time, a few more reflections are in order.

This city honors libraries.

The buildings that make up a city determine the character of a city. It is significant that one of the most admired buildings in Manhattan is a library.

What does it mean to honor libraries? I don’t need to reinvent the wheel here, there are quotes carved into the wall all over the library. To honor libraries is to honor democracy. It is to honor the equality of citizens-to respect and indeed create a meritocracy. It is to honor the role of knowledge in society. It is to honor human potential.

This library is a demonstration that New York City honors these ideals, however imperfect we may be in fully realizing them.

Libraries are both the past and the future

Although its architecture is very classic, when the New York Public Library was built, it was a model of innovation. The system of book retrieval is an illustrative example. Being a research library, many of the NYPL’s books are not in continuous demand. Therefore most books are not stored in the open spaces of the library, but rather between floors and below the basement where they are amassed in shelf after shelf of books. A patron would find the book she wanted in the catalogue and write it down on a retrieval slip. The retrieval slip would then be put into a capsule which would be transported to the appropriate floor via what was then a modern vacuum technology. A porter would receive the capsule, and fetch the book. This system had the added benefit of giving rise to an urban legend: that the teams retrieving books travel around the stacks on roller skates (not true, I’m sorry to report).

As you might expect, the NYPL is very different now than it was when it opened. It was one of the first libraries to digitize its catalogue, maintaining a wall of books filled with the old cards, for preservation purposes. We saw books being moved off-site, as the library relocates much of its collection to a warehouse in New Jersey. The books will still be available, but they will have to be transported from the warehouse upon request. While this move was spurred by changes in the ways the New Yorkers access information-and in particular a decreased demand for books, it caused a lot of controversy in New York, as people lamented the end of the book.

Of course, the NYPL has not abandoned the book. But this story does give rise to an interesting conundrum that libraries face. Although the library is a public institution, people’s relationship with it is deeply personal. The library is thus in a tricky place, it has to both continually innovate to be at the cutting edge, but it is also the vanguard of our shared culture, which can spill over into nostalgia.

In Busia, we get to be cutting edge now. We get to start from scratch and think about all the things that Busia needs, scope out all of the best ideas that are out there, and build based on that. We’ll have a citizen science center, a co-working space, and an oral history lab. But, once built, the job of being innovative is not done-it’s a continual process to not be a relic.

Libraries are multi-use spaces

I can’t even list all of the different activities we saw going on at the library. We visited the map room, the reading rooms, the microfiche room, and the children’s section (Winne the Pooh!). We stepped over art students making sketches of the building interior, we breezed through one of the two brilliant exhibitions curated by the library’s staff, we tip-toed through the library’s rooms for research fellows. Each of these places were full of human beings, doing-I don’t know what. Perhaps one of them was there to look online for a job, and maybe one was researching a story from their family history. I’m sure one of them was there to read poetry, or look at old maps, and I’m equally sure that someone was there simply because she had no place else to go. Perhaps someone is on the verge of curing cancer, or writing their first novel. Each one was in their own universe of thought, of ideas, of creation.

In the international development community, when we talk about participatory or community-based development, I’m not sure why libraries aren’t at the tip of our tongues. They are the ultimate expression of people defining and meeting their own needs.

Libraries are a civic duty

New York Public Library was built with private money and it is largely maintained with private money, as are many libraries in this country.

Team Maria’s Libraries has had the conversation about private donations many times, including doing a two month research project on it this summer. We’ve experimented with different models of garnering funds from the community, and nothing has really taken hold quite yet. Maria had a lot of questions for our noble tour guide about this aspect of things-especially about how the trustees work. Of course people have their own interests for being on a library board, but overall, supporting libraries is firmly in the sphere of civic duty.

Another way to look at Maria’s “libraries are like an ocean” comment would be to consider the intricate collection of actors required to make a library run and be relevant-although perhaps we should call it an ecosystem. Private citizens, government, technical experts in library science, architecture, and technology, and of course the library users-all of these groups need to be in balance, to work in separate spheres but in concert with each other. This is a library.

In Conclusion

The tour of the NYPL is greatly inspiring; it was also both intimidating and affirming. While Maria has been working for 12 years and Maria’s Libraries has been working for 4 years towards the completion of the library in Busia, we continually realize that we’re only just beginning. Since ML has been involved, we’ve spent two years working out our relationship with the government, two years settling the property rights issues on the plot of library land, and now we’ve begun our negotiation process with the architects around the building plans. We have yet to identify our local patron (if anyone reading this is the Brooke Astor of Western Kenya, email me!), and identifying what is needed in the full library collection is not even on the table yet. This process is slow and sometimes feels like a series of hurdles. And this it will continue to be, for as long as the library is around.