You know your design firm does great work. Your employees and clients know it, too. But until you start telling your story—and sharing your successes—with wider audiences, you’re likely to remain the proverbial “best-kept secret.”
Enter public relations, or PR for short. PR can help a company reach new audiences, achieve top-of-mind awareness, establish a leadership position and enhance image. In fact, some say the only difference between the no-name shops and the big-name firms is PR.
If you aren’t already doing PR, you should be. And if you aren’t sure where to begin, read on. This article walks you through the step-by-step process of identifying potential resources, selecting the right consultant and building an effective relationship.
The Internet offers numerous listings of PR resources, including O’Dwyer’s online directory . For a design principal, however, online directories probably aren’t the best place to start. “Public relations for the design profession is a specialty that requires knowledge of design, key issues, design publications, zines and portals,” says Len Stein, president of New Rochelle, NY-based Visibility PR. “I can’t recommend rifling through standard PR agency directories or searching Google to pick up the trail.”
Rather, Stein suggests going right to editors of target publications. “They see a wide variety of PR presentations and communications styles and are in an excellent position to point you toward an agency located in your area and with knowledge of your specialty,” he explains. But editors are only one potential source of sound recommendations. Todd Hays, owner of Pasadena, CA-based TODD PR, recommends networking with peers who have had success with PR. Ask those principals who they’re using—and why.
However you end up identifying potential resources, make sure they understand your industry. “It’s true to some extent that a good publicist can promote anything,” Hays says. “But a publicist who is experienced in your specific area will be able to do it better.”
Whether you follow an initial “gut” feeling or engage in a lengthier selection process, chemistry is likely to play a role in your choice of PR consultant. “A PR consultant should become an integral part of your team—someone who you’ll trust, be comfortable with and enjoy working with,” says Judy Kalvin, principal of Kalvin Public Relations Inc. in New York City. To that end, most small design firms are likely to prefer working with a small PR agency or sole practitioner in a principal-to-principal relationship. Large PR agencies—while ideal for huge corporations—are unlikely to deliver the level of service you need.
“If the budget is there, a large agency may be able to provide resources a smaller one cannot,” Hays says. “The trade-off will be the quality and experience you get. Generally, what a design firm is able to afford from a monthly retainer standpoint is going to be a very small client in a very large PR firm. There’s no way the smallest client will get the most senior people.”
Arranging the Terms
As with any service, there are various ways of contracting for PR consulting. Most agencies and consultants recommend that clients pay a monthly retainer. Of course, you also have the option of hiring them on a project basis with an hourly billing structure.
If you choose a consultant with a retainer, expect to pay $2,000–$5,000 per month. Before you sign a contract, be sure to inquire about what services are included in your monthly fee. Kalvin PR, for example, offers a flexible pricing structure that depends on each firm’s needs. The monthly retainer fee is established upfront and is based on exactly what a client requires.
“Clients can choose from a menu of options and tools, from the most basic, such as media relations, press releases and bylined articles, to more advanced services, such as seminar development, press conferences and special events. What they need determines the fee,” Kalvin explains. Each client’s contract is reviewed annually and adjusted as needed.
Whatever pricing structure you choose, it might be wise to begin with a six- to 12-month commitment. TODD PR starts all relationships with a six-month contract; at the end of that period, either party can cancel. “Ultimately, I want a relationship that will last the rest of the life of my firm and my client’s firm,” Hays says. “I don’t want to get stuck working with someone, or have someone get stuck working with me, if we don’t really get along. Until you start the process, you don’t really know.”
Setting PR Goals
Once you begin your relationship with your PR consultant, it’s important to have realistic expectations. For starters, don’t expect overnight success. It will take a bit of time for the consultant to become intimately familiar with your firm and to build or update an arsenal of basic tools, such as your background, fact sheet and bios. And keep in mind that many publications are monthly or bimonthly and have very long lead times. So even if your consultant makes contact quickly, it will likely take three to six months before you see any results from her efforts.
Above all, experts advise against expecting to garner a certain type of coverage in a particular publication. Stein’s agency, Visibility PR, was recently contacted by a hot young design firm whose principal was interested in its services—but only if the agency could open doors at two particular magazines. “Such limited targets severely mitigate against the potential of a PR program and maximize the possibility of failure,” Stein says. “It wasn’t a good way to begin a relationship. We declined.”
Rather than creating such limiting goals, focus on building a workable plan that will guide your activities and provide metrics for measuring your success. “If a plan is put into place that provides a consistent approach and is strategically focused, goals will be met,” Kalvin notes. “The results you get will be equal to the amount of time and effort that’s put into it. A consistent stream of pitches, press releases and meetings with the media will produce the best results.”
Even after the initial excitement wears off, you’ll need to continually re-energize your commitment to your PR program. That will require frequent, consistent communication with your consultant. “PR cannot be conducted successfully in a vacuum,” Kalvin says. “It requires a time commitment from the principal to work with the PR consultant, share what’s going on iwth the firm and actively participate in the process. A PR consultant should become an integral part of the team and be viewed as an investment in the future of the design firm.”
In other words, “Treat your PR effort as you would your most important client,” Hays says. “The more attention you give it, the more satisfied you’ll be with the results.”