Marketing

How to Select a PR Agency

by Gary Survis

Ben Franklin put it best: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

When a business is just getting off the ground, PR may not be top of mind for companies. But as these businesses look to scale and reach new audiences, the right PR partner is invaluable to an organization’s growth and can play an important role in achieving your short and long-term goals. The right partner will help establish thought leadership and credibility in your industry, making you the go-to resource as the expert in your field and ultimately differentiating you from similar companies in a way that can catapult you to the next level. But getting to this point can take time and finding “the one” is a task that requires a thoughtful approach.

Gary Survis, Head of Insight Onsite's Marketing Center of Excellence, sat down with Carreen Winters, Chairman of Reputation and Chief Strategy Officer of MWWPR, Insight Venture Partners’ agency partner, to discuss some best practices for finding and working with a PR firm. 

 How Will I Know When I Am Ready for Professional PR?

The first question I always ask is: are you ready to tell your brand’s story and are you prepared to trust someone with telling that story for you?

It’s not easy to entrust to another person or group something that you have worked so hard to shape. It’s especially difficult for the individual who actually built the business from the ground up. That can be a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to expand their voice to key audiences with the right messaging.

It’s also important to recognize that PR isn’t instant gratification – PR is a very different kind of investment.   You can’t turn it on like a light switch. Establishing a profile in the marketplace among earned media channels takes an investment of time and resources. It is a building process and It doesn’t happen overnight.

For entrepreneurial companies, often the first consideration is budget – can we afford to hire an agency? But the most important first question should be about time. Is there someone on our team who can and will make PR a priority– and make the time to work with the agency to identify stories and be available for interviews?  This is often the piece of the equation that clients find most surprising.

Finally, you don’t want to wait for a crisis to happen to engage a PR firm – establish a relationship with an agency early, this way, they know your business and how to rapidly craft a position and response.

How Do I Start the Process?

There are a few different routes companies can go.

Some companies put out what’s called a request for proposal – or RFP. These are often for larger organizations who are seeking an agency of record, but small to mid-size organizations can do so as well. 

Companies can also look to their business partners to find out who they use for their PR needs, especially if they are looking to reach a similar audience. People can also ask within their organizations – you’ll be surprised who came from an agency background or has a former colleague or friend that works for an agency.

For an organization with little or no experience with PR, I’d suggest the friends and family referral route followed by a light RFP.  Meet with a couple of agencies – see if they feel like a cultural fit, ask about their work for similar organizations.  And keep in mind that it isn’t just about industry expertise – your agency needs to be adept at working with entrepreneurial organizations and prepared to evolve and re-prioritize with them. 

And most importantly, leverage your investors! Insight Venture Partners can recommend PR firms that other portfolio companies have worked who are similar in size and capabilities.

What Size Agency is Appropriate?

It really depends on what a company is looking to do and where they want to be. 

Large agencies are full-service (including social/digital capabilities, creative capabilities, and more), but do often come with a larger price tag than boutique agencies who are typically focused on a given topic or area.

There are also mid-size companies – like MWWPR – that have the industry resources and “know-how” to run projects big and small, often for a smaller budget than large agencies. Once they set a budget and start having conversations across agency pools, they’ll be able to narrow down whether a potential agency is the right fit.

How Do I Evaluate an Agency?

First and foremost, a good agency is always honest and they don’t oversell on something they cannot deliver. They’ll also be a true partner, serving as an extension to an organization’s team. When meeting with agencies, it’ll become apparent who knows the organization’s focus area and who does not. Asking for past work or referrals in this area can help establish that as well.

I would also look for client and staff retention. Clients who stick with an agency for several years are a good sign that the agency can flex to meet changing needs, and that they deliver what they promise.  And since an agency is only as good as its people, staff that stay with the agency is also a good sign – and it means you won’t have to keep teaching new people about your business

Next, ask to meet the people who will actually do your work.  Many of the larger agencies have what is known as a “pitch team” – these are very impressive people who come and sell the business, but rarely do the work.

You’ve Found a Firm! What’s Next?

First, always be aligned on strategic priorities and lay them out from the onset. It helps to remind both parties monthly or quarterly how they’re tracking against these priorities, which can be done through KPIs or other measurement metrics that meet the company’s needs. 

If priorities change, make sure they are shared. PR agencies are the best partners to have “in the know” for a business’ needs, as it’s our job to be doing the pulse check on what’s resonating with external audiences. An agency will be able to help craft priorities into the key messages that will align with stakeholder groups.

 Finally, be transparent about budgeting. A good PR agency will require a financial commitment, and companies will want to be completely transparent with what kind of budget can be committed to driving successful outcomes. In the same breath, a good PR partner will be transparent on what resources they need to drive success, too.

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Gary Survis

Venture Partner

Gary Survis joined Insight in 2016 as a Venture Partner. Gary focuses on driving operational strategies and improvements within Insight and its portfolio companies. He leverages his experience to assist organizations in accelerating solutions in strategy, marketing, talent management, and sales…

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