15 Questions Ad Agencies Should Ask Before Engaging PR Services

Conference room photo

For many small- to medium-sized ad agencies, public relations can be a mystery.

Ad agency principals are experts when it comes to strategy, branding, creative and messaging, but dealing with reporters can be intimidating if one doesn’t fully understand how public relations works and the “magic” used to generate publicity and goodwill for clients or an agency.

It’s not unusual for ad agencies or their clients to say they want to use PR because “no one knows us outside out of (city, region, industry).” They want to increase awareness.

If I were to ask why they want to gain awareness, they may very well look at me and say, “Well duh, we want more people to know about us so that we’ll grow and make more money.”

Fair enough. But if I ask how PR is integrated into their new business plan, more likely than not I’ll get blank stares.

Yet increasingly, decision makers are finding vendors rather than the other way around, which make PR more important than ever for new business success.

Instead of chasing new business through cold calls, which has very limited effectiveness these days, agencies need to use PR strategically to help them be discovered by decision makers.

Here are 15 questions to help your agency get started on the road to PR success.

These questions are designed to assist you in assessing your situation, your highest priorities and needs, and what you really want to accomplish through public relations.

Once you and your team have thought through and answered these questions, you will be much better prepared to have a productive conversation with a PR person or PR agency:

  1. What is the desired result from PR (e.g. increase awareness, change perception, be positioned as an expert in a particular niche, generate new business or something else)?
  2.  How would you rate your agency’s PR capabilities on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the best and 1 the worst?
  3. How would you rate your agency’s new business focus on a scale from 1-10, where 10 is perfectly targeted and 1 is we’re all over the map?
  4. Are you looking for PR help with your agency, to offer it as a service to clients, or both?
  5. What is the primary way you use or would like to use PR in your agency: Agency promotion, new business development, provide as a service to clients or enhance integrated marketing communications capabilities?
  6. How effective were your past PR efforts (assuming you had some)? Current efforts?
  7. What PR opportunities can you identify that have not been maximized?
  8. How would you describe your agency’s positioning/branding?
  9. How would you define your target audience for new business?
  10. How should PR integrate into your new business strategy?
  11. How does social media fit with new business strategy and PR?
  12. Where would you like to obtain publicity (i.e. target publications, bloggers, radio/TV programs)?
  13. What speaking events would you like to be invited to participate in, and how can PR help with that?
  14. How will you define PR success?
  15. How will you measure that success?

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What “The Thing” and Ad Agency PR Have in Common

The Thing in ArizonaIf you’ve ever driven across Arizona on I-10, you’ve no doubt heard aboutThe Thing.”

Along a 200-mile stretch in the desert 247 billboards cry out to drivers to come see “The Mystery of the Desert.” The Thing.

Mile after mile, there’s nothing much to look at along the roadside except red, black and yellow signs tantalizing readers to stop and view The Thing. It’s been a tourist attraction since 1950, and surely one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time.

Years ago one of my clients told a story about a colleague whose father was a professor. They lived in California, but each year the family packed up and headed east where his father taught during the summers.

Their summer journeys took them through Arizona, so as a boy this colleague had to ride past these billboards—at least one every mile—about The Thing. You can imagine how irresistible it must have been for him; he desperately wanted to stop and see The Thing, whatever this mystery was.

But there was a problem: it cost a quarter to see The Thing.

His father was a real tight wad and refused to spend the money. And so every summer, year after year, this boy had to endure 200 miles of teaser billboards about The Thing.

Signs like, “The Thing?” then a littler farther down the road, “What is it?” and then “The Thing – What is it?” and “Don’t miss the thing!”

It sort of hurts to think about that, doesn’t it? This boy grew up never getting to see The Thing.

Fast forward some 20 years later, and this boy, who is now a man, finds himself traveling that same highway on a business trip. Only this time, he is NOT going to be denied.

He turns off the exit, pays the admission fee and goes inside to gaze at The Thing. The Mystery of the Desert.

After finally fulfilling this life-long dream of seeing The Thing, he called his father, who was now retired.

Dad, you’ll never guess where I am!” he said when his father answered the phone.

“Son, I have no idea. Where are you?”

“I just saw The Thing!”

His father was appalled. “You paid a quarter to see that Thing?”

“No, Dad, it’s a dollar now.”

When his father got over the shock of his son spending his money so foolishly, he said, “So, what is The Thing?”

There was a pause, and then with a smile you could hear through the phone came this reply:

“I’m not going to tell you.”

While there are probably a number of lessons that could be learned from this story, the one I want to focus on is the power of frequency.

Ad agencies know that for advertising to maximize its potential, there has to be sufficient frequency to effectively convey the advertising message and move the target market through the multi-step process that starts with awareness and ends with purchase.

Consistent advertising also reinforces a brand and provides top-of-mind awareness.

Yet when it comes to ad agency PR, agencies often lack consistency in their public relations efforts, relying instead sporadic activity. This is not the optimum way to utilize public relations, especially publicity.

Consistent ad agency PR can help you . . .

  • Build your agency’s brand and reputation
  • Give you a stronger presence in the marketplace
  • Make you more “discoverable” among those whom you most want to reach
  • Gain expert status for a particular agency niche

Frequency works extremely well in marketing The Thing, and it will work for your ad agency PR efforts.

photo credit: Tim Patterson via photopin cc

How to Generate Great Content in the New Year


Creating content that stands out from the pack isn’t easy to do, and sometimes even trying to define what constitutes excellent content can be a challenge.

What sort of content do people like so much that they want to share it? There probably are a variety of opinions about that subject, but first and foremost, great content is enjoyable to read.

It’s well written, relevant, timely and to the point–even downright entertaining–without a lot of extraneous fluff and stuff. It’s not a disguised sales pitch, a headline that promises one thing but delivers another, or a recycled version of conventional wisdom that really doesn’t offer anything new.

Below are my suggestions for 15 ways to generate great content in 2015. Of course, you won’t use all of these suggestions with each piece you write, but keeping them in mind will help you develop copy that is fresh, lively and on target for your audience:

  1. Offer new insights or information
  2. Provide new information
  3. Be practical and relevant
  4. Converse in an easy-to-understand manner
  5. Offer guidance for solving a problem
  6. Tackle a tough or controversial subject
  7. Offer thoughtful analysis
  8. Discuss a trend and its implications
  9. Make a prediction
  10. Take a counter viewpoint—or at least a different slant—to conventional wisdom on a particular topic
  11. Offer tips and advice that are actionable
  12. Answer questions
  13. Tell a story
  14. Use practical, real-life examples to illustrate key points
  15. Make an emotional connect

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Ad Agencies: Are You Winning Awards or Market Share?

Image of a trophyA number of years ago, I had the opportunity to work on a project with Coca-Cola Bottlers. One evening I went to dinner with the Coke representative for this project, and the subject of Pepsi’s advertising came up. At the time Pepsi was known for churning out some very creative and entertaining TV ads, and it had been successful in generating a lot of buzz.

Acknowledging his competitor’s advertising success, the Coke rep smiled and said, “Pepsi wins awards, and we win market share.”

Touché. He had put his finger on a problem that too often plagues agencies, whether they are focused on advertising, public relations, promotions, direct marketing, digital or some combination of them.

Agencies like to tout their awards, but at the end of the day if you aren’t helping your clients sell more of their products or services, or enhancing their reputations and goodwill, how much good are you really doing them?

Although I specialize in public relations, at one time or another in my career I’ve been involved in nearly every aspect of marketing—and I’ve been fortunate to have been part of some very talented teams that have won professional awards.

Creativity is important, but the most meaningful awards are those that can
be tied to achieving specific results and objectives.

In fairness, it’s important to recognize that agencies often lack control over a variety of factors that can affect a client’s sales. And it’s certainly possible for agencies to win awards and market share for their clients, so it doesn’t have to be one or the other. But too often I’ve seen agencies fall into the “Pepsi syndrome” of focusing more on the awards they’ve won than on how they have helped clients meet their business objectives.

When it comes to ad agency new business, PR should be playing a critical role in your overall strategy. If your agency’s PR efforts are winning awards but not helping you achieve new business success, it’s time to reevaluate what you are doing and how you are doing it.

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Crisis Management: It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish

One of the most important things a public relations advisor can do during a crisis is to help leadership keep a long-term perspective.

It’s not unusual for the negative publicity and intense scrutiny from the outside that often occurs during a crisis to be accompanied by a creeping sense of panic over loss of control and concern about what might happen next.

Sometimes a crisis is created by an opposing special-interest group that wants to stir up trouble and put the organization on the defensive. With the advantage of surprise, the group then continues to pour kerosene on the various fires it has set. Typically, the organization is caught off guard and forced to divert resources to fight these fires.

More times than not the result is a siege mentality and short-term focus, which only makes the situation worse (and plays into the hands of the opposition).

But, as cosmetics giant Mary Kay, Inc. emphasizes to its millions of independent beauty consultants worldwide, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

Patience, not panic, will help an organization finish well in a crisis.

Here’s an example of how ad agency PR can make a big difference in helping clients successfully overcome short-term pain and enjoy long-term gain.

The agency where I worked prior to staring my own firm had a health care client that owned a medical center in the western part of the U.S. Out of the blue one day, the local paper ran a very damaging and misleading front-page story titled “Worried hospital employees seek help from union.”

The local Teamster’s Union had been attempting to organize the medical center’s employees through a series of meetings, so an “issue” had already raised its head. In spite of this red flag, no one in leadership at the medical center was expecting an article like this, which raised serious charges about patient safety, employee morale and overall quality of care.

Photo of Teamster's Union rep

The medical center’s marketing director contacted me the day the article appeared, asking for strategic counsel and help in formulating a response to the numerous accusations that had been made in the paper.

Our objectives were threefold:

  • Persuade employees to reject unionization
  • Motivate employees to lead the charge against the inaccurate reporting
  • Restore the community’s confidence in the medical center

Based on information obtained through some quick research, our agency developed a letter for medical center employees, a list of erroneous statements with corrective facts and a guest column bylined by the medical center’s CEO. We also recommended an in-person meeting between the center’s CEO and marketing director, and the paper’s editor and the reporter who wrote the story.

The list of erroneous statements, with corrective facts, was used in that meeting to make sure all salient points were covered and that the meeting stayed on track.

The meeting was a success and resulted in a front-page story titled “Staff defends hospital; refutes claims of compromised care.” In addition, a guest column by the CEO titled “Hospital takes health care seriously” also ran in the editorial section.

Supervisors gave the informational letter to employees, and then were available to answer questions they may have. With the facts in hand, employees were more effective in responding to questions they were getting from friends and neighbors. Corrective information also was provided to the community’s lone talk radio station.

A group of employees, through their own initiative, met separately with the paper, while others called or sent letters to the editor. Employees felt their competence had been attacked by the union, and they were a major factor in successfully delivering the message to the community that such attacks were untrue and totally unjustified.

According the medical center’s marketing director:

The union’s attempt to get the paper involved backfired due to the outpouring  of support the hospital received from our employees and the community.”

The most significant result, however, was the fact that union activity ceased after the medical center’s public response. Patient levels, which dropped dramatically after the first hit-piece article was published, quickly returned to normal.

The center’s rapid response also helped contain the story to the community, and more than a year after the incident there had been no further attempts to unionize the center by the Teamsters or any other union.

Not every crisis has this quick a turnaround—or as successful an ending—but the principle remains the same: Keep the long-term in view because the storm will eventually pass.

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Ad Agency PR Is Never More in Demand than During a Crisis

Palm tree in Puerto Rico

A couple weeks ago, a car crashed into the church I attend. That’s right, a car. And it did some major damage to the area it hit. (The car didn’t come out of this all that well either.)

It happened late at night when the driver, who apparently was traveling at a high rate of speed, missed the curve in front of our church and plowed into the building. He fled on foot, but it didn’t take long for the police to track him down.

I have to admit that I never thought about the possibility of a car hitting our church—but it did. The incident was a stark reminder that a crisis can strike at any time, without warning.

Ad agency PR is never  more in demand—and needed—than in a crisis. A case in point is another incident that took place—also at night—that not only was unexpected, but potentially devastating to a mental health center owed by an agency client.

Somewhere around 3:30 a.m., on a Friday, I got a call from one of the agency’s partners where I worked at the time saying that the client’s mental health center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had just experienced a fire that damaged a unit of the facility.

Two patients were dead, and reporters were onsite covering the story.

Rumors were flying, I was told, and I needed to get on a plane in the morning to go handle the matter. My weekend was going to a little different than I planned.

When I arrived in San Juan and entered the hotel lobby, my eyes were drawn to a newspaper with a front-page story and photo about a prison riot where 26 people were injured and several guards had been taken hostage. The news media left the mental health center to cover the prison riot, which bought us some time to get organized.

I quickly discovered that the number of newspapers in San Juan numbers in the teens, making it feel more like a regional than local story given the number of print outlets we had to deal with (not to mention radio and TV).

After being transported from my hotel to the mental health center, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the marketing director and chief medical officer (who served as our spokesman) were top-notch pros, and they were going to make my job much easier.

Plus, the center had established good relationships in the community, so it had plenty of goodwill to draw upon, and there was no shortage of people who were willing to help us.

After a quick briefing to ascertain the facts, determine what had been communicated by the media (including rumors that the facility had burned to the ground) and making a list of all our audiences, we developed a game plan, followed by a crash media training session in which I helped our spokesman and marketing director prepare for interviews.

Here’s what happened next:

  • We established a link with the police and fire department spokespersons to get advance notice of what they would say to the media so that we had time to prepare our responses.
  • I worked with the staff to put together a brief statement for employees, patient family members and the news media, updating them on the latest information. The statement expressed concern for the victims’ families and appreciation for the heroic efforts of the staff who tried to save everyone, and managed to do so except, unfortunately, for the two patients who perished. (I later learned these patients were suspected of having set the fire in the first place).
  • The statement included a clear but low-key message that the hospital was functioning, and that only one unit of it was affected by the fire.
  • We also developed a fact sheet explaining what happened to combat rampant rumors and made it available to reporters and other interested parties.
  • Media coverage of our statement was light because of the Columbus Day holiday (which I learned is a big deal in Puerto Rico), so we took out full-page ads reprinting it in leading newspapers.
  • We also sent a letter from our spokesperson, who was highly respected in the local medical community, to key referral sources to ensure they understood that the center was functioning.
  • Finally, we encouraged health care professionals in the community to speak out on behalf of the center within their areas of influence.

All this took place over the weekend, and in less than 48 hours I was able to return home.

In the days that followed, the mental health center reported very positive responses from the community, while the news media was on to its next story.

My main takeaway from this experience: We were able to manage this crisis so effectively in large part because of competent staff and positive relationships in the community.

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Do Reporters Really Hate PR Pros?

Love hate text

There’s always been a certain amount of tension between reporters and public relations professionals, even though there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two.

Reporters need credible sources and a constant stream of story ideas, while PR people need the news media to help them share important information and spread the word about their clients or employers.

PR people want coverage as favorable as possible, while good reporters want a balanced story that presents all sides and perspectives. PR people want to help shape and influence the story, while reporters bristle when they feel they are being pushed or manipulated.

While there are more PR options available than ever thanks to social media, the news media still are very important because of their reach and perceived credibility.

Anyone who is going to be successful in PR needs to be able to work successfully with reporters, so when I came across an article titled “Why do reporters hate PR pros so much?” I was intrigued.

The headline says “reporters,” which implies all reporters feel this way. And not only do reporters hate PR pros, but they hate them “so much.” That seems like a stretch to me.

It’s been quite a while since I was a reporter, but I can honestly say that I never hated PR people who contact me to share a story idea, even those who were on the annoying side. (In fairness I should mention that I wasn’t a reporter for all that long, so my attitude may have changed had I been on the receiving end of pitches year after year.)

Using several Tweets from disgruntled reporters attacking PR people to support her contention, the writer of this article asks, “Why would anyone hate to hear from someone that is trying to help them professionally?”

And therein lies an important clue as to the cynicism some reporters have toward the PR profession.

As a reporter, I never once thought that someone was trying to help me professionally by pitching a story to me. Nor was my motivation to help a reporter advance professionally by suggesting a particular topic to him or her when I flipped over to the PR side.

My motivation was self-serving:  I was seeking publicity for another party, usually one with which I had a financial interest.

If I did my homework, I knew I was approaching a reporter who covered a particular industry and subject matter to ensure that my pitch was relevant. Ideally, this resulted in a win-win situation for all concerned: A good story for the reporter and a happy client, which in turn made me happy.

The notion that reporters should want to hear from us because we want to help them professionally is about as believable as “I’m with the government and am here to help you.”

The writer goes on to conjecture that “There is something fundamentally wrong with the way PR pros relate to the media.”

That’s undoubtedly true in some cases, but there also are quite a few PR professionals who work very successfully with the media because they understand how reporters think and operate. They take the time to learn what the reporter covers, the preferred methods of contact, when the reporter is on deadline and the types of stories that interest him or her before reaching out.

One of the writer’s suggestions to remedy a PR industry that is “clearly broken,” as she put it, is to send e-mails to reporters that are not pitches but rather “how are you?” inquiries. Considering how much e-mail most reporters get, I suspect that last suggestion is more likely to irritate them, unless you know the reporter very well.

I’m not convinced that the PR industry is broken, nor am I persuaded that we can draw sweeping conclusions from a few negative tweets.

My advice to anyone who wants to be successful in working with the news media is to:

  • Put yourself in the shoes of the reporter you want to reach, and ask yourself how you would like to be approached with a story idea.
  • Get to the point, don’t waste their time and offer them something that is genuinely news or feature worthy within the niche(s) they cover.
  • Understand the details of what you’re pitching, and be prepared to give a succinct explanation as to why it’s worth their time.
  • Take into consideration the timing of your pitch. Old news or a subject that’s been covered from every conceivable angle is not likely to generate much enthusiasm.
  • Avoid taking rejection personally. Look for other opportunities and at all costs avoid being a pest.

Just as having good content is critical to content-marketing success, having a good story idea that is well targeted and properly presented is critical to success in the public relations business.

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