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Companies looking to partner with external public relations (PR) agencies to help manage communications and brand reputation should know a few things. Not all public relations is the same, and each has its rightful place in the matrix, but it’s essential for C-suite decision-makers to know the difference.

What often feels like a daunting task to identify multiple firms, conduct due diligence calls, review proposals and initiate follow-up meetings before a decision is ever made may be made easier to pull better candidates in step one. Here are the key differentiators that companies should consider when selecting an agency, with a priority on today’s economic climate.

More agencies than ever are offering additional services as clients, primarily led by chief marketing officers (CMOs), are beholden to more data-driven results and need to do more with less. If a company is going through rounds of layoffs, it’s a tougher sell to keep outside vendors unless they can show value.

While I previously discussed Reputation + and how that supports value and growth-focused organizations, public relations professionals from contractors through large agencies are revamping core offerings.

Here is a breakdown of five different types of external public relations professionals, what they specialize in and who they are a “right” fit for.

Related: Here’s One Easy Way to Establish Yourself as a Thought Leader in Your Industry

1. Publicists

During approximately one-third of the time potential partners get to us, they are looking for a personal publicist versus a full-scale strategic communications team.

A publicist is someone who typically works 1:1 with an individual who has a sizeable personal brand and does not typically work for another organization. This may be a highly visible influencer, broadcast personality, author, artist, musician, etc.

Publicists are exceptional at securing personal brand-earned media, especially broadcast tours, feature articles and other high-profile moments where the personality is the main story. It takes a nuanced skill set to represent a personality, and publicists should be the first stop if PR is just for “you.”

These pros frequently work on a monthly retainer but may be available to do one-off moments like a TV or podcast tour.

Related: How to Secure Game-Changing Media Coverage for Your Product or Service

2. Media relations, Contractors and Freelancers

This category sits just before reaching a small or boutique agency profile. I consider this one of the most important distinctions because almost every time someone engages with our agency in place of different representation, they communicate dissatisfaction around what is, at its heart, strategic partnership.

The professionals in this category are phenomenal to work with if both parties fully understand the scope.

Most freelancers and contractors are “pitchers,” either utilizing pre-packaged brand stories or offering some modifications and creativity on a brand’s editorial and messaging to secure a predetermined amount of earned media.

They can do more if a brand can provide them with as much completed work as possible. This is because they’re one-person businesses and don’t have team members to support or delegate to. If they can spend at least 70 percent of their time conducting media outreach, they can deliver. However, if they have to cut from that time to do strategy, ideation, writing, editing, design or owned media, it drastically cuts into deliverables.

And that is where the breakdown usually occurs. These budgets are much more brand-friendly, especially for startups or those with a smaller marketing budget. Both parties must understand what is possible with the scope and budget available.

These pros also typically work on a monthly retainer but may be available to do one-off PR moments, like a brand launch or a more significant scope project (with enough planning time).

3. Strategic communications

This is our personal sweet spot and is often the perfect mix for brands with a dedicated marketing budget (including a CMO or communications leader) who need a team to manage key messages, narrative development, media relationship growth, earned media, thought leadership and owned media.

Strategic communications firms can come in various sizes but most often provide full-service support with personalized strategies for each client.

It’s important to look at industry-specific experience when partnering at this level. It is because every industry has unique challenges, trends and players. An agency with experience in a particular industry is better equipped to navigate these intricacies and create targeted campaigns that resonate with the target audience.

Industry-specific experience also allows for a deeper understanding of a company’s competition and helps the agency craft strategies that can give their client a competitive edge. Moreover, a PR agency with industry-specific experience has established relationships with key media personnel, influencers, and stakeholders, which is crucial when securing media coverage and amplifying the client’s message. In summary, industry-specific experience ensures that the PR agency can create an effective campaign that meets the client’s needs and delivers measurable results.

These professionals almost always exclusively operate on a monthly or annual retainer and rarely do one-off moments unless the scope is large enough to justify onboarding an entire account team.

Related: 7 Ways to Build Strong PR for Your Personal Brand

4. Public affairs

Most of the time, companies that need a public affairs (PA) agency realize it right away. Still, there are times we get approached about this type of work and have to recommend our peers who specialize in this area.

Companies that need PA representation often fall under one of three categories: 1) advocacy and coalition building, 2) government relations or 3) regulatory and policy issues.

It means you may be involved in heavily regulated industries, like healthcare, energy and finance or need to build relationships with key government officials or policymakers. These types of agencies are experts at building third-party coalitions, educating consumers on various issues that may impact them at a local or personal level and help to mobilize others advocating for changes in policy or regulations.

Just like media relations excel because of strong journalism relationships, so do PAs who know key stakeholders in politics, organizations and other important decision-makers that impact a brand.

Budgets may vary widely depending on the scope, local, state or national, though almost all work on a large budget project basis or long-term retainer as an organization’s agency of record.

5. Crisis communications

If you know your brand is constantly under stakeholder scrutiny, is on deadline with a current crisis or just wants to be prepared should one ever occur, this is the type of agency you need.

A crisis today can range from disinformation campaigns to product recalls to negative national media or social media coverage. A primary benefit of working with a sector-specific crisis firm is that they have a deep understanding of the challenges and sensitivities of the industry and know how to tailor messages (both in terms of who should deliver said messages and prioritization of messages) and tailor crisis strategies for every individual instance.

Composed primarily of senior-level strategists, they likely have a wealth of experience managing crises in your industry — and know how to do it to meet the speed of the threat or issue. Any brand knows that when a crisis happens, time is of the essence. The ability to quickly mobilize a team who are already familiar with the industry and external sources in play enables a targeted crisis response plan to be executed quickly.

When looking at budgets, these agencies will be on the higher end of the PR spectrum. Still, effective crisis management can go a long way toward preserving a brand’s reputation and mitigating financial damages.

Related: 5 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn About Preparing for Crisis Communications

Here’s a bonus

Once you’ve decided on the type of agency that is a fit for your brand, here are the things you should have on hand to help determine who is the best fit:

  • Research the potential partners — Once you initiate communication, a good PR pro is also researching you and your brand. Things to look for: previous wins, track record of success, communications styles and account team background.
  • Define your goals and expectations — If you don’t have an RFP available for an individual or agency, that’s okay, but you should be able to provide an idea of what you need. They take this information to use when building out your proposal, including scope and budget.
  • How goals are tracked and shared — Every organization is different and needs goals communicated uniquely. Whether you use OKRs, KPIs or other metrics, talk about this upfront in initial conversations and negotiations so it’s built in as soon as a team onboards.

Choosing the right PR representation for your brand is a critical decision with long-lasting implications. Investing time and resources in understanding the different types of agencies and their approach to PR can help you make an informed decision and find a partner that aligns with your brand’s goals and values. A good PR agency can help your brand reach new heights and build meaningful connections with your target stakeholders. So take your time, do your research, and choose your PR agency carefully – your brand’s reputation and success depend on it.

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