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So you've decided you need a public relations firm? Maybe it's for a short-term one-off project; maybe you're looking for long-term counsel on a retainer basis. Now, you're probably wondering how to find, brief, hire, work happily with and get the best possible results from a public relations firm. Here's some advice from three Board members of The Council of Public Relations Firms in Hong Kong (CPRFHK), a not-for-profit independent body that represents the public relations consulting industry in Hong Kong.

Finding the right consultancy

The first step is to identify just a few agencies that might be right for you. Rick Allen, President, Asia Pacific of Brodeur, suggests: “You need to do a bit of screening first, for instance by getting recommendations from journalists, checking websites and directories or by finding out who your competitors have used.? Try to get a feel for what kind of consultancy you want. A lot depends on the chemistry – certain types of clients are attracted to certain types of agencies. At the end of the day it's the people and the relationships that will determine the decision.” Genevieve Hilton, Senior Vice President of Ketchum Hong Kong, warns, however: “Don't ask every single public relations firm to pitch for your account. Ask for their credentials first then whittle it down to a short-list of three to four agencies, then ask only those agencies to submit a proposal.”

In 2004, the CPRFHK conducted a survey of over 100 senior marketing and business executives, about their attitudes to using an external public relations firm. David Ketchum, CEO of Upstream Asia and now the Chairman of the CPRFHK, commented on the survey results at the time: “It is encouraging that clients in Asia value the chemistry with their public relations firm's account team and proven expertise in their industry sector on a par with price as attributes for selecting a firm.”

Briefing agencies

The next step, according to David Croasdale, Managing Director of Newell PR, is to prepare an identical written brief, send it out to a variety of agencies, then follow it up with a meeting or a telephone call to answer any questions and clarify any fuzzy issues. And what information should be included in the brief? Rick explains: “It depends on the client's objectives. In the case of a one-off project such as a product launch or an event, the brief would be fairly specific. It would need to include a timeframe, a clearly defined target audience, the budget and the expected outcomes.

For an ongoing public relations programme, the focus would perhaps be less on tactical activities and more on higher-level strategic goals and objectives. The brief should also include details of what the client expects in terms of the day-to-day working relationship, for instance the frequency of contact and the reporting relationships. You might also want to include a real or imaginary scenario, and ask the short-listed agencies to define their approach, their proposed activities and the expected outcomes.” Adds Genevieve: “It's also good to specify what criteria you'll use to measure the results.” David offers this further advice: “In the brief, it's very important to specify who's responsible for what, and who's going to be working on the assignment, from both the client side and the consultancy side. Normally, it's best if there's one key person on each side, and all communication is channeled through them. But there also has to be buy-in from someone senior within the client's company, or the project will be seen as just a low-profile activity.”

Once the brief has been issued, it's essential to allow enough time for the agencies to respond, and to be available to answer questions. Genevieve comments: “Some companies hesitate to provide an enquiry number because they fear being seen to favour one candidate over all the others. But they can avoid that by having a joint briefing session at the 'long list' stage, or by ensuring that all the questions and all the responses are circulated to all the agencies. That keeps everything above board.” Many prospective clients of public relations firms are concerned about the issue of confidentiality – they don't want news of their campaign or new product to be leaked. Genevieve offers this reassurance: “The brief should include a confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement between a client and its consultancy. But even if there weren't such a signed agreement, any member firm of the CPRFHK is bound by our code of ethics to maintain confidentiality.”

And what about the budget?

Not surprisingly, the subject of money can cause tension and misunderstandings between a client and its consultancy. “Often,” says David, “we'll ask the client what the budget is and we'll get a vague reply like 'Sufficient to get the job done' or 'We want some really creative ideas'. I think clients are afraid that if we know their budget, we'll automatically spend it all. But we really do need some idea of the amount of money the client is willing to spend, otherwise we might waste lots of time and energy coming up with great ideas that just aren't practical.”? There needs to be a clear road-map covering cost expenditures vs. professional fees, and what markups are applied.

Not every minute of work directly generates deliverables – there's research, planning, general communications, fielding enquiries from outside sources such as the media and other people... All of those are legitimately chargeable areas of an consultancy's work.

One option, suggests Genevieve, is for a client to pay on a progressive basis rather than on a scope-of-work basis. “That way, you can negotiate on the hourly rate, not on a fixed amount of money for a given scope of work. You could try it out for three months on a 'trail retainer' basis, just to get to know each other and see how well you work together. But it's not fair for a client to say: 'OK, show me what results you can get for me in three months,' because the results might not actually show up until six months down the line.” As Rick points out, clients need to understand what the work of an consultancy is.

A chemistry lesson

Once you've appointed a public relations consultancy and started working together, it's important to communicate well. Fortnightly or weekly face-to-face or phone meetings to discuss the status of the project are recommended. “Keep a record of what's been said and what action has been agreed upon,” advises David. PR people need to be more than just creative. Rick points out that agencies have a responsibility to advise their clients about all aspects of their business. “As the client, you need to keep your consultancy informed about everything your company is doing that might affect the campaign.

What other marketing activities are you doing? What new products are you launching in the next six months? We need to know so that we can understand your business and help you handle crises and opportunities better. There has to be trust and open communication, and you need to treat your consultancy as part of your marketing team.” In assessing the work of your consultancy, the number of press clippings they've managed to generate is not the fairest or most accurate measure of success. Genevieve prefers to view the process holistically:? "Look at multiple sources of information, such as your customer feedback, your salespeople, your website hits, and your external research.? Also, the relationship with the consultancy is important:? do you get along; do you trust your consultancy's advice; are they taking reasonable amounts of time to do reasonable tasks; do they come up with good ideas; are they proactive?” Sometimes, unfortunately, the business relationship does not go well.

The most common reason, in Rick's experience, is a misalignment of expectations. Genevieve expands: “Maybe the client is expecting more work for less money, and the consultancy is expecting more money for less work. So resentment can simmer under the surface.” In such cases, the solution could be to redefine the expectations or to appoint a new person to the account, on the client side or the consultancy side. As Rick concludes, “It all comes back to communication and chemistry.”

The Council of Public Relations Firms in Hong Kong serves as a voice and as a forum for the Hong Kong public relations consultancy practice and promotes public confidence in the industry. The Council represents 25 leading consultancies that have combined estimated fees of some HK$360 million, and employ some 450 people. For more information, visit www.cprfhk.org.