How Do I (and do I need to)... Hire a PR Firm?

Communication is important. My neighbors, a married couple, are a case in point.

Susan named their two dogs Harry and Winston to give her husband a little nudge, a little reminder that she likes jewelry. She likes really nice gems -- the kind that sparkle and reflect the style of famous jeweler Harry Winston .

Susan's husband, Mike, was so pleased for years that the dogs were named after his role models Harry Truman and Winston Churchill. Eventually, Susan and Mike found each other out. There were actual diamonds involved resulting from the "discussion" that cleared things up.

When it's so hard some days to communicate with even your friends or family, how do you get your message out about your company's wild new widget or your spectacular service to strangers?

"All businesses need to have a communications plan," advises Laura Van Eperen, the head of Van Eperen Public Relations, a five-person company in Rockville, Md. "Even if you don't have a dedicated public relations firm or in-house professional, try to send out a quarterly marketing newsletter or have some kind of communication with your clients on a regular basis."

She acknowledges that a lot of mom-and-pop shops can't afford to hire an external firm, "but if the CEO can find a couple hours a quarter to hammer out a marketing newsletter, that will help."

Joel Ranck, who heads the one-man PR shop Lincoln Park Communications in Washington, D.C., also notes that not every small firm needs a public relations outfit.

"If a firm is not very communications savvy, then a PR firm could add value, but if you're a good communicator, maybe it's an unnecessary investment." But, he added, a PR firm doesn't just write press releases, it can offer a lot of sales and marketing support, too.

While many communications firms have rolling accounts with clients that pay them on a monthly basis, some businesses are willing to work on special projects, said Jennifer Strohm, an account supervisor with Van Eperen's shop, which has been in business since 2004.

For example, Van Eperen's firm charges up to $5,000 per month for ongoing work, but fees differ for one-time special projects.

An initial visit with a PR firm is generally free. A small business doesn't have to pay anything until a contract is signed, so there's no harm in discussing a firm's needs or desires to determine if there's synergy between a business and its potential mouthpiece.

"Smaller business owners tend to wear a lot of hats in a company and need to understand that if they're going to hire a PR firm, getting out the message has to be a big priority for the company," said Van Eperen, whose clients include a quasi-government agency in Rockville that has a full-time staff of three with minimal annual revenues to a 50-person real estate firm that rakes in millions. "We certainly can't just have someone throw money at us without their input and time to be able to give a firm what they need."

Ranck, who started his company in 2002, worked with a biotechnology firm that wanted him to post press releases on a public relations newswire aimed at journalists. However, after some discussion, Ranck realized that the firm really didn't want to reach out to journalists. It was seeking to build a better relationship with a specific niche of customers. Ranck and his client ultimately put together a small outreach piece directly to the firm's customers "which did what they wanted it to do," he said. "Some people think 'we've got something new, we've got to send out a press release,' but that's really not always the case."

Ranck recommends that a small business "carefully consider who their audiences are, and what sources of information their audiences go to." A small entity may find that it's not a PR firm that they need, but an advertising agency, a direct mail company or a strategic adviser.

"It really helps if a small business can create a scope of work like a project that they use with everyone they interview [for communications help] so that they have an apples-to-apples way of comparing" their skills.

Here are some resources to help find a public relations or other communications firm:

* Local chambers of commerce, such as the one serving greater Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

* Economic development associations, such as the one for Rockville, Md., or Falls Church, Va.

* American Marketing Association .

* International Association of Business Communicators.

* Public Relations Society of America.

Small Business readers -- Do you use a PR firm? What value have they added to your small business?

By Sharon McLoone |  August 20, 2007; 6:00 AM ET How Do I...
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