Killer questions to ask PR agencies to see if they are AR pretenders or contenders

icon-the-press-110w.jpgThere are many drawbacks to using PR agencies to conduct analyst relations – not the least that most analysts hate dealing with agency staff.  Sometimes, however, communications and IT vendors have no choice but to farm out some analyst-related activities. To minimize the chance of agency staff causing problems with the analysts, vendors need to carefully evaluate whether or not a PR agency is actually competent in analyst relations before hiring them.

A technique SageCircle has developed is asking a series of questions in the form of scenarios about AR situations. The responses to the scenarios can then be graded for compliance with AR best practices and insights as to how the analysts work. As always, it is important to weight the questions because some will be more important than others. In addition, it is critical that a standard evaluation framework be established so that responses from different agencies will be graded consistently.

The killer questions should not just be asked of the agency’s senior executive that is trying to win the business, but also the staff that will actually be doing the work.  Reluctance by the agency to introduce you to the staff should raise red flags about the breadth and depth of AR expertise in the firm.

The first killer question to ask the PR agency rainmaker and staff is

Wait. Stop the presses. I can’t put the killer questions in this blog post because savvy PR agencies would study them and come up with slick answers. Vendors should develop their own scenarios or use the set that SageCircle has developed.

SageCircle Technique:

  • Generate a set of killer questions that reflect the AR activities that you need to outsource
  • Develop a weighting system so you can give some questions more priority than others
  • Generate a scoring system so all firm responses will be consistently rated
  • Create a formal request for information (RFI) or request for proposal (RFP) that will be sent to the agencies that explains the process you will be using but not provide the killer questions

* SageCircle Advisory clients, either Annual or Blocks of Hours, can request a copy of the killer questions and the SageToolTM “Evaluating PR Agencies for AR Activities” for recording the PR agency answers. In addition, clients can set up an inquiry to go through the process and discuss each of the scenarios and how to modify them to reflect the client’s situation.

Bottom Line: Vendors should systematically determine whether or not PR agencies have the true expertise, attitude and approach for conducting AR. Investing effort up front in developing appropriate tools for evaluating PR agencies will prevent poor performance that could take time to correct or could even damage relationships with the analysts.

Question: Vendors – When evaluating whether a PR agency has the right expertise to handle your AR activities do you use a formal process?

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11 Responses

  1. Real question is whether PR firms understand real, deep, and abiding differences between analysts and reporters, and thus AR and PR. Most don’t.

  2. Hi Sagacious Ones,

    I hate to say it, but based on my experience, your statement “most analysts hate dealing with agency staff” is. completely wrong.

    I work for a PR agency that takes analyst relations very seriously – we have a dedicated AR practice, we currently subscribe to seven analyst firms and we have AR professionals on the ground in the US, Europe and APAC.

    Analysts recognise that we can assist them in getting timely information and in speaking to senior executives in the firms they are researching. Moreover, Hill & Knowlton’s AR team is regularly invited to speak at analyst events and has done so for several years.

    My killer questions for a vendor to ask an agency:
    1.Explain the symbiotic relationship between IT vendors and IT industry analysts
    2.What can you do that we can’t do more efficiently in-house?
    3.To which analyst firms do you currently subscribe and how do you make use of these subscriptions?

    Note to agencies: for questions 2 and 3, case studies are a great help.

  3. Your post makes for an interesting discussion, and one close to my heart!

    You wrote that “There are many drawbacks to using PR agencies to conduct analyst relations.” We’ve all heard the horror stories. I’d offer instead that there are drawbacks to having people who are not educated about AR do AR. By all means, it’s important to make sure that whoever is representing your company to the analysts knows their stuff.

    As for the list of killer questions… As you suggest, asking an agency how they’d handle hypothetical scenarios (or better yet – one you are facing) makes sense. Ask about the types of AR programs the agency has run for clients – does “AR” mean a few briefings before a launch to them, or is it deeper than that? Finding out about experience and execution is critical, but think beyond the day-to-day tasks like scheduling and report reviews to how the agency can help you with larger objectives like measuring and improving perception, targeting the right analysts, or supporting your sales force. A smart agency will ask you about AR’s function within your organization and the challenges and goals of your business and be able to talk with you about how the analysts can help support those.

    Following on Jonathan’s point, whether you’re talking about in-house or agency, it all comes down to the folks working with the analysts. Regardless of the practitioner, that person/team needs to fully understand the vendor’s business, how the analysts work, and how to reach and influence their particular audience.

  4. I’ve been out the PR agency world since Lighthouse bought itself out in 2004, when I was at Brodeur, there was little push-back from analysts against agencies. What analysts hate are gatekeepers, liars and donkeys – and and those found both in-house and agency-side.

  5. Jonathan, Not understanding the differences between analysts and press is one of the most common critiques of PR. Another common critique is that PR has a tendancy to spam analysts with non-relevant content.

    Dom – H&K is obviously very serious about AR and is a contender. In fact, I would think that H&K would welcome this post because you and your colleagues would likely ace the killer questions leading to a competitive advantage in a sales situation.

    Interesting questions.

    Molly — You are right that one of the problems is most PR agencies do have staff that have not received training on AR best practices. So naturally they use what they know, PR best practices.

    Duncan, When I chat with analysts and ask them if they tell the vendors or the PR agencies about their dissatisfaction, they usually say “No.” Why? They figure nothing will change so why rock the boat when they have to work with the PR agencies. So just because you did not get any pushback from the analysts does not mean that they were happy dealing with PR agencies.

  6. Carter

    Part of the reason I believe analysts push back on PR agencies are that an agency adds an additional layer to the communication ‘supply chain’, before getting to the organisation’s spokesperson.

    These days exhaustive email chains are required just to find co-inciding windows between executive and analyst. If there’s an agency involved, most vendor AR’s managers I know then require ‘sign-off’ from the agency before the interaction takes place. That’s not gate-keeping, it’s brand protection and AR relationship good practice.

    The key to greater trust for PR agencies carrying out AR activity is ensuring that they do differentiate between their PR and AR activity. The appetite for AR continues to grow within the vendor community, and yet AR resource is not growing to match that demand. Therefore, PR companies with AR competencies will be increasingly called in to provide support.

    Greater integration of PR agencies into vendor AR activity will lead to sharing of skills and growing maturity/professionalism all round.This is something which both vendors and agencies should aspire to, and encourage.

    Whilst analysts may not like it – this is just one element of the changing AR landscape, in my opinon.

  7. Hi Joe, Thanks for the comment.

    Interesting observation about the “supply chain” nature of AR. It is hard enough for an insider to get access to calendars, etc, so agencies has a disadvantage. There is also the issue that agency staff does not have the insider’s knowledge about go-to domain experts and so on. Neither are insurmountable issues, but will require some work to fix the info-flow process.

    Frankly, analysts likely wouldn’t mind dealing with PR agencies if the problems could be fixed.

  8. It would be interesting to see a poll put forth by SageCircle to analysts as to whether they truly hate dealing with agencies or not. I think sentiment would be overall neutral to slightly negative, but not as generalized negative as I seem to be reading into the post here.

    There are some process hindrances, but great agency PR/AR folk are better than many in-house people, despite being hindered by logistics.

    A best practice that I’ve always followed in agency PR/AR roles is to establish a strong relationship with client exec admins AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. This helps facilitate calendaring and logistical issues. Many agency PR and AR pros underestimate or dismiss the role of client-side executive admins, which is a huge mistake in terms of greasing the skids of exec spokesperson access — particularly on short notice.

    Other points are hammered home here. I’ve seen agency-client AR relationships that really run the gamut in terms of effectiveness, though.

  9. Carter, great post. There are a lot of reasons that vendors choose PR agencies to handle AR. One is that there is a huge opportunity cost to not doing so. Integration of PR/AR is critical, especially today when the availability of social media means that there are ongoing conversations about brands among so many constituencies. I love to see so many analysts blogging or Tweeting; it provides the kind of insight and detail that can so easily be missing from a wave or a quadrant. And it’s key for determining someone’s interests, or whether an approach might be welcome or relevant.

    That said, handling AR is not easy to do well, and requires a lot of oversight. We tend to work with venture-backed startups who are creating new categories or expanding existing ones, so finding the right analyst means research. If I have a client who does SaaS BI, do I go to the SaaS person? The BI guy? The vertical analysts for the real use cases? All? Or is it the VP or research director who seems to have a broader scope?

    I agree: vendors, put your agency through a scenario. You’ll learn a lot about the quality of their thinking, which, along with decent social skills and attention to detail, are the most important criteria, in my opinion.

    Susan Etlinger
    Horn Group

  10. […] agency about AR? Check the Twitter follows. Posted on September 18, 2008 by sagecircle In Killer questions to ask PR agencies to see if they are AR pretenders or contenders, we provided a technique to help determine whether a PR agency that is bidding for a vendor’s […]

  11. […] PR agency for AR activity as well. This is often a major mistake as the typical PR agency is a pretender when it comes to AR expertise, often treating analysts like reporters a tactic which analysts […]

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