How to Not Get Stuck With a PR Firm That Sucks

by Linnie S. Carter, Ph.D., APR
HAAC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College
Harrisburg, PA

With limited PR and marketing budgets, it’s important that we use those funds responsibly and strategically. That means hiring high-performers, using effective strategies and tactics, and hiring the right PR and marketing firm.

Here is an easy-to-follow process to help ensure you don’t get stuck with a PR firm that sucks:

1.  Post a request for proposal (RFP) that clearly spells out the expectations of the firm. Post the RFP online and email the link to reputable firms throughout the country.

2.  Create a committee that will guide the RFP process. Include members of the PR and marketing team, student affairs team and finance team.

3.  Agree to a process. Develop a checklist that reflects the process, use it and modify it as often as needed.

4.  Develop a matrix to use when evaluating the RFPs. Make sure the matrix aligns with the expectations outlined in the RFP.

5.  Schedule on-site interviews with the top finalists. Use email so there is a paper trail.

6.  Develop questions to ask during the on-site interviews. Ask questions that will help determine if the firms would be a good fit. At least one question should be, “Do you have any questions for us?”

7.  Use a two-part format for the on-site interviews. Pose questions to the firm. Allow them to make a presentation, focusing on information that was not covered during the question-and-answer session.

8.  Debrief with the committee to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the finalists.

9.  Schedule follow-up telephone interviews to narrow the field to two firms. Again, maintaining a paper trail is key. Allow the firms to invite the necessary firm team members to participate in the interviews.

10.  Develop interview questions to address any concerns you have. Use this as an opportunity to drill down.

11.  Check references. Find out how effective the firms were and what goals they achieved for their clients.

12.  Schedule a telephone interview between the college president and finalists. Refrain from sharing your thoughts with the president in advance so that you will not bias him or her.

13.  Debrief with the committee to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the finalists and vote on the top finalist.

14.  Submit the name of the top finalist to the finance team. Make sure you can justify the reasons for this choice and put them in writing.

15.  Seek approval from the appropriate parties to negotiate a contract. In some cases, this may be your board of trustees.

16.  Sign the contract. Make sure the contract includes the expectations outlined in the RFP. Make sure the cost of the contract does not exceed your PR and marketing budget.

17.  Contact the new firm to congratulate them. Communicate early on the college employee who will be the firm’s primary point of contact. Establish a secondary point of contact as well.

18.  Schedule a full-day orientation session with the new firm. Make sure it occurs on site. Develop an agenda. Invite members of the PR and marketing staff and student affairs staff.

19.  Schedule a follow-up meeting with the firm, college president and chief PR officer. Make sure expectations are candidly, openly and honestly discussed. Send a written recap after the meeting. Ask all meeting attendees to sign it.

This process is rigorous but well worth it. Although there are no guarantees that a PR and marketing firm will be excellent, this process will help root out those firms that are average at best.

Linnie S. Carter, Ph.D., APR, is the vice president of college advancement at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, and the executive director of the HACC Foundation. 

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