By Mie-Yun Lee
Special To Yahoo Small Business
Small businesses often suffer from the I-can-do-it-all syndrome: why pay someone to do something that you can do yourself? Like payroll processing and computer support, public relations may seem like a task that can be easily handled in-house--that is, until it ends up cutting into time that could be better spent growing your business.
Turning to an outside PR firm or contractor can be wise for small businesses, even if it costs more overall. First, since PR work usually comes in spurts, it will free you and your staff from any disruptions from the daily workflow. Also, an outside view is often just what a business needs to get a fresh perspective on the way the company can be positioned.
Whether you want to hire a PR agency for a one-time announcement or on an ongoing basis, it pays to put a little bit of thought into whom you select.
First, there's the type of firm. Hiring a PR firm whose client roster includes businesses similar to yours can be a double-edged sword. While it certainly helps to take advantage of their established industry contacts and knowledge, you don't want to be vying for attention with other clients that may have the same PR needs as yours. But on the flip side, if a firm doesn't have the right kinds of press contacts that will work for your industry, your fees will go to pay for this.
Agency size also comes into play. It's in your best interest to only consider established firms with solid track records and press clippings to prove it. But you equally don't want to be lost in the shuffle as the smallest of a large firm's clients. To gauge the importance your account would have, ask prospective agencies about minimum billing requirements and average billing totals. This will help weed out the contenders that are too big for you.
To select an agency, you can search the Internet or consult groups such as the Public Relations Society of America. Perhaps better, though, is to consider the companies you read about often that are in your industry, or are covered in places where you want to get coverage. Then find out which agencies work with these firms.
Once you're down to two or three worthy contenders, ask for a client list, years of experience, types of projects the firm has handled, and portfolios and any press clippings. Find out whether coverage was generated in industry trade publications or the general press (which is typically more difficult). Make sure press releases are compelling and well-written.
Also, find out exactly who will handle your account--it's rarely the person selling you the service--and interview them directly about their plans for your company.
PR firms usually charge hourly rates of anywhere from $100-$500 depending on experience, plus expenses. When used on an ongoing basis, firms typically work on a monthly retainer. For one-time jobs, a fixed budget is usually agreed upon, but make sure the contract stipulates what happens should the firm expect to go over budget--you don't want to end up out of money with an unfinished campaign.