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PR Observations: Are PR firms like a box of chocolates?

"Hiring a PR agency is like a box of chocolates," director of comms Gump once told me. "You never know what you’re gonna get.

He’s mostly right, but not completely – one of the downsides of being a fictional character with fictitious confectionary, I guess. Most of the time, when hiring a PR agency, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re not going to get. It’s a bit like that scene in Michael Douglas’ Falling Down, where D-Fens orders a “Wham burger” and compares the image on the menu to the limp morsel he receives:

“See, this is what I'm talking about. Look at that. See what I mean? It's plump, juicy, three inches thick. Look at this sorry, miserable, squashed thing. Can anybody tell me what's wrong with this picture? Anybody? Anybody at all.”

During the pitch phase an agency will frequently roll out its big guns. Plump, juicy agency founders and pitch gods who will dazzle, amaze, promise and convince. The issue is, anyone that’s had any length of in-house experience will tell you that there’s always the danger of them being replaced by sorry, miserable, squashed things* once the account is won and day-to-day account management begins.

How to avoid this? One option is to get in writing that the people who are pitching are the ones that must manage the account; but that’s not always possible because of budget and various other cold hard realities. Another option, usually offered, is that the people you really value in the room commit to a certain amount of oversight – but even then can you really guarantee the quality of the account managers?

The most successful approach I’ve found is to ask for the proposed account managers to give a couple of contacts for clients they’ve previously managed (or still do). Then speak to those people and get an off-the-record briefing on what their real experience is.

“Ah,” you’re thinking. “But they’d simply give you some tame contacts who will eulogise the individuals and I’ll be no wiser than before.”

Dear reader, stop with that thinking. I’ve done this for 4/5 pitches now and, well… once you get people to open up you learn plenty. Even things that will help with the agency you do eventually choose.

So, Forest G, you do know what you’re gonna get, as long as you speak to someone else who has eaten the chocolates before. Which I think makes that person an influencer, and that’s basic PR isn’t it?

[This column was brought to you by 30-year-old film references.]

This PR Observations column was written by David Quainton, head of communications at the digital consultancy Emergn. The opinions are his own.

*Legal note: most account managers aren't sorry, miserable, or squashed. Many agency founders are, however, juicy.

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