Getting Started on Press: What Questions to Ask a PR Agency & The PR Agency Creative Brief

Press/Public Relations (PR) can often be a bit of a “black-box” to many start-ups and entrepreneurs. From the outside, it seems strange that some founders have no trouble getting placements (articles written about their company), while others can’t get press to save their lives. The truth is that those that are good at press don’t have a special genetic predisposition to getting great placements, but a skillset and toolkit that can be taught and used by any startup founder. The skillset (i.e., media training) to generate good placements is one of the many reasons you work with a PR agency, but the toolkit is what we provide here.

Executive Summary of What We Cover for Press

A Quick Aside: Don’t Do Press Yourself

Founders often ask if they can generate press without a PR team or agency. The benefit of this is clear: Owning the press relationship one-on-one increases authenticity and therefore the likelihood of publication. If you want to do this, read Mark Suster’s post on building relationships with journalists (he’s a fantastic writer). However, we don’t believe this is the right path.  Maintaining relationships with writers and editors is the same as maintaining a relationship with a good friend. If you’re not willing to treat the reporter like you would a co-founder, investor, or your mother then why would you expect them to give you special treatment like your closest friends do? It’s better to go with a team to build and maintain those relationships than maintaining those relationships yourself and taking away time from building your company.  Choosing the right public relations firm (or internal hire) that treats your company’s press relationships like their own is what we address below.

Before You Start Outreach, Create a PR Creative Brief

Press agencies are run by people so we can apply some of the logic we use in customer outreach with press agency outreach:

  • Define your audience/target
  • Find the PR agency that attract that audience
  • Gather data on the agency’s performance (e.g., placements, clients)
  • Reach out and build a plan that optimizes for your goals
  • Sign a contract and start generating awareness

There are details that we’ve over-simplified above, so we’ve created this Press Team Proposal Creative Brief template (alternative .doc version here) to help guide you and your team in deciding what you want from a PR Agency. Filling out this tool and sharing it with potential partners before the first call will improve the conversation and your decision making with potential PR Agencies.

What to Ask PR Agencies on the Call

If you’ve shared your completed PR Agency Creative Brief, the initial conversations will be dominated by those topics. But, it’s important that you also ask probing questions to understand the PR agency’s strategic thinking and commitment to your business. For those, we collected guiding questions that our favorite PR professionals like to hear from well-prepared clients:

  • Elliot Tomaeno, Founder & CEO of Astrsk PR
    • Check for relationships: Check for the closeness of relationships that the press team has to writers and editors. The press agency founders/staff should be able to talk about the tight relationships they have for hours. If they stop quickly, it’s an alarm bell. Or, if there are no strong relationships beyond the founder, that too is an alarm bell.
    • Check for passion and creativity: They should have heavily researched your business before the call. Ask them, why do they want to work with your business? They should come back with answers quickly because they’ve done research and believe in the opportunity. You should be able to feel the flow/emotional connection with the team in their response to these questions. They will be representing your business, so you need to feel their authentic passion for what you’re doing, otherwise, they won’t be passionate when representing you to reporters and editors.
    • Check for expertise: Have they worked with companies that are similar to your size or in your industry? Or, if you’re looking for press outside of your industry, do they have the expertise in the field where you want exposure? Have they accomplished similar goals to what you’re seeking? Make sure they align on these values and ask for a case study that is specific to your industry and recent (should be done in the last 6 months).
  • Kevin McLaughlin, Co-Founder at Main Stage Public Relations
    • Ask for their best strategy (overall approach) to obtain your short-term goals and long-term goals. Make sure they are specific to your industry and more importantly your company. If it feels boilerplate that should be a major warning sign.
    • Ask for lots of examples from different PR campaigns they’ve done that are similar (and some that are different). If you’re looking for a specific execution (e.g., an event), then ask for lots of event examples across different industries and relationships. If you’re looking for a broad range of execution, get a broad range of examples. Also, great to ask them what they learned from each execution. A PR firm that’s not learning and growing is not going to improve your business or keep up with the changes in the industry.
  • Barry Schwartz, President at Schwartz Public Relations
    • Be sure to ask who would be working on your account. Many PR agencies, especially the larger ones, woo the potential client with the initial meetings/presentation from senior management, who then seldom seen once the client is signed, leaving the actual PR work to light-experienced juniors.

What Questions to Ask PR Agency References

After you’ve found a PR agency that you like, it’s important to run reference checks. Just like hiring, poorly executed reference checks have no value or negative value (false positives). However, well-executed reference checks can save you a lot of trouble with a PR agency that is not aligned with your business. We recommend doing three reference checks before signing with a firm:

  1. Current client – A current client that is similar to your company (size, industry, etc.)
  2. Past client – A past client. Some PR agencies will push back on this request, but be persistent.
  3. Behind-the-Scenes Current or Past Client – Using tools like LinkedIn, find a reference to get another view of the PR agency. This is usually pretty easy to find by searching the LinkedIn connections of your agency contact.

If you have to prioritize your time and only do one or two reference checks, we feel that past client and behind-the-scenes references are more important than the current client references.

When on the call with a reference, keep it short to respect the time of the reference. You can also send questions in advance to help the reference prepare. Below are questions we like to ask, but it’s important to have a natural conversation and be curious.  If the reference says something that’s compelling, ask follow-up questions to learn more.

  • What were they hired to do? How did you align on success? It’s important to ask these questions to understand if the goals you’ve created for the PR agency are the same (or similar) to the goals that the reference had for the team. If they’re different, use this as an opportunity to ask follow-up questions on strengths and weaknesses of the firm. A good question to follow might be…
  • What are they best at? What do they need to improve? Similar to above, these questions help confirm that the services you’re looking to receive are provided by the firm and that they can execute those services well. Another way of asking these questions (if you don’t get good answers) is to ask the below…
  • What was a project they knocked out of the park? Where did they miss? We like these questions because they make the reference come up with specific examples, which are much harder to sugarcoat.
  • How long before you saw results? Did the PR agency stay on schedule? These questions will help you to understand if your internal goal setting and deadlines are aligned with that of the PR agency.
  • (If no longer a client) Why did you stop working with this PR agency? What went well? What didn’t go well? This question is very important to ask the previous clients or
  • If you had it to do again, what would you change when working with this PR agency? There’s always something that can be improved and this question will give you insight into how to have a successful working relationship with the agency.

Remember, be curious and ask for examples. Use questions that start with, “What, How, or Tell Me More,” to get concrete answers.

What’s Next with Press?

After you’ve found the team to work with you’ll move into the contract or statement-of-work (SOW) phase. If you’ve done your PR Team Creative Brief, this phase will be fast because goals and timelines are already established. We recommend getting as much of the creative brief into your contract as possible to have consistent communication on deliverables.

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